Blackpool 4 Blyth Spartans 3
Saturday 16th November 1997
Littlewoods FA Cup 1st Round
Bloomfield Road, Blackpool.
Di Lella 44th
Linesmen: S.J Griffiths & A.N. Smith.
Banks, Lydiate, Dixon, Butler, Linighan, Philpott, Bonner, Clarkson, Bent, Ellis, Preece.
Subs: Omerod for Ellis 76th minute, Longworth for Bent 90th min.
Unused: Brabin, Barnes, Reed.
Burridge, Farrey, Pike, Todd, Gamble, McGarrigle, Renforth, Hislop, Henderson, Fletcher, Di Lella.
Subs: Jon Atkinson for Fletcher 76th min, Jason Ainsley for Di Lella 76th min,
Willie Moat for Henderson 81st min.
Unsused: Cole, Tinkler.
The clubs history means that FA Cup ties always attract a degree of media attention, that degree of attention depends on certain factors such as what round of the cup it is, who the opposition are etc but in October 1997 the media attention went into an absolute frenzy.
Amid a very mediocre beginning to the 1996/97 Unibond Premier season Blyth had reached the 4th Qualifying Round defeating Spennymoor United (1-0 in replay after a 1-1 draw), Garforth Town (1-0), Worksop Town (4-0), Conference side Kidderminster Harriers provided the opposition for what was a difficult hurdle to overcome to reach the promised land of the FA Cup 1st Round.
Blyth’s form could be best described as ‘ropey’ following the opening day 3-1 win at Chorley, only 1 more league victory had been registered, (another away victory at Marine). The home form was worse with only 6 goals scored in 7 league home games and 3 draws had yielded 3 points, the pressure was mounting on the manager.
Having ground out a hard-fought 2-2 draw with Accrington Stanley a week before the Kidderminster tie things seemed on the up, however only 4 days before the tie local rivals Bishop Auckland inflicted a 4-1 home defeat on the Spartans and the fans frustration grew even more at the inconsistency of the vastly experienced players.
The manager however remained totally unfazed by the pressure and even more unflappable in his belief that he was right and things would come good, confidence was one thing that John Burridge had never lacked in his football career.
Having been brought to the club as a player in September 1996 by then manager and now infamous Football Agent Peter Harrison, Budgie had taken over as Player Manager in March 1997 as a the Spartans finisheda respectable 7th place in the Unibond Premier League.
Budgie had made his Spartans playing debut against Hyde United in the Unibond Premier League on 7th September 1996 only 15 months after he became the oldest player to play in the Premier League played for Manchester City v. QPR on 14th May 1995 aged 43 years and 163 days. In those 15 months Budgie had become ‘gloves for hire’, signing for clubs as emergency cover signing for 8 clubs in those 15 months (Notts County, Witton Albion, Darlington, Grimsby Town, Gateshead, Northampton, Queeen of the South & Purfleet).
Hopes had been high for the new campaign and the supremely confidant Burridge who had no previous managerial experience prior being appointed but had spent many years coaching top flight goalkeepers was expected to use his contacts within the game to build on what he had inherited. However things hadn’t quite gone to plan so to get within touching distance of the FA Cup 1st Round was seen by many as having kept Budgie in the job.
The 4th Qualifying Round opponents weren’t in great form themselves, the Harriers had won just 4 of their opening 14 games so hopes were high of an upset and reaching the 1st Round. In keeping with Blyth’s cup traditions the Conference club were sent packing thanks to goals from Damien Henderson & Willie Moat in a 2-1 victory in front of the local news camera’s.
The draw for the 1st Round was straight after the 4th Qualifying Round games so almost all the 643 crowd crammed into the Spartans social club to watch the draw live on TV.
Needless to say the reactions when the draw was made where euphoric, people were up on the seats tables celebrating & already plotting their weekend away in Blackpool.
For Budgie it was all too much and he broke down in tears at the news of a return to the club that set him off on his rather illustrious career, one that would see him play for 29 different clubs clocking up 771 league appearances in England & Scotland in a career that lasted nearly 30 years.
The media soon picked up the relevance of the tie with some mistakenly claiming it was a return to his 1st League club, however that was wrong because he had played for Workington in 3rd Division North from 3 years before signing permanently for the Seasiders after a loan spell at Bloomfield Road.
Blyth’s form picked up approaching the Blackpool game with a 5 game unbeaten run and foundations of a story that stole some of Budgie’s limelight on that brisk November day where cast during that run.
On Tuesday 27th October, Blyth beat local rivals Whitley Bay 1-0 in a dour Northern Premier League Cup 1st Round tie, with the impending cup tie looming Budgie juggled his squad giving 2 Yorkshire based players (striker Damian Henderson & midfielder Mark Todd) the night off and in typical Budgie fashion handed a debut to an unknown striker, it was a rather unspectacular debut to say the least.
Born on 6th October 1973 in Buenos Aires, Gustavo di Lella had arrived at the club after unsuccessful trials at Tranmere Rovers & Darlington, Budgie had put him up in his in Durham city home. With Italian ancestry, he was able to get round Work Permit restrictions and arrived in the UK to try to make his name as a professional footballer. ‘Gus’ had been playing for Club Deportivo Móstoles, a Spanish team from Móstoles, a city in the southern metropolitan area of Madrid so a cold October night in Northumberland was a culture shock for the player who didn’t speak a word of English and unsurprisingly became the clubs 1st ever Argentinean player.
Blyth fans were rather surprised when ‘Gus’ kept his place for the next game 4 days later at the cost of their ‘cult hero’ Willie Moat & young striker Jon Atkinson, thinking Budgie had seen something in him they hadn’t. Unknown to them the team Budgie fielded in the 3-1 win over Colwyn Bay was the same side he planned to put out against the 2nd Division side the following week.
The week before the big game the media frenzy intensified and news broke that the team would be filmed on their weekend in Blackpool for a documentary about Budgie returning to ‘his’ club, the result being a rather strange documentary that also featured the Spartans social clubs barmaids on there weekender in Blackpool !.
The papers were full of stories recounting Budgie’s youth and early days at Blackpool following his £10,000 move into the ‘big time’, such as the tale of his Blackpool debut in April 1971 away at Goodison Park with classic quotes such as:
“I was just a teenager fresh from playing for Workington and I looked a real country hick !.
I was wearing a ridiculous suit-the only one I had-and all the Blackpool players were taking the mick out of me. I couldn’t get off the coach quick enough, raced into raced into Goodison and get my gear off. I felt humiliated. We were a poor family and my dad had died so mam was looking after us. I often wondered when I was a kid going to school why others laughed at me just because I was dressed as a Japanese Admiral !”.
“There I was ranged against all the top stars-Alan Ball was wearing his white boots and shouting in that squeaky voice, I could see the likes of Howard Kendall, Joe Royal & Colin Harvey. Mind you, I was ruddy marvellous. I had a blinder and we drew 0-0!”.
The Evening Chronicle picked up on the goalkeeper theme but from a different angle with an article on Blyth’s midfielder Kona Hislop and his brother Newcastle United’s £1.75 million keeper Shaka.
“The FA Cup is very special the biggest cup tournament in the world where dreams come true” said Shaka.
“I only hope they do for Kona & Blyth. I may be the brother who has played in the big time but I’ve never enjoyed Cup glory. At Reading we always seemed to fall at the first hurdle, even when we were doing well in the league and it hasn’t been much different for me personally at Newcastle.
However on Saturday, Kona can grab my thunder and I wish him well”.
Kona, who had joined Blyth in the summer having made 30 appearances for Hartlepool before being released, born in London he was only 2 months old when the family moved back to the West Indies, Shaka who had been 2 years old laughed:
“He seems to have followed me around. He went to the same American University as me on a soccer scholarship and then came over to reading a few months before my transfer to Newcastle.
When I came to the North East, Kona followed me up and played for Hartlepool last season. I watched him a few times at Victoria Park but I haven’t seen him play for Blyth. It’s his big day on Saturday-we haven’t got a match and he has the spotlight as all little clubs do on the first round day. It could turn out a headline event”.
The Evening Chronicle even sought an opinion on Blyth’s chances of a Cup upset from Blackpool’s most recent opponents Burnley!.
The Seasiders had beaten Burnley 2-1 at Bloomfield Road the week before the Cup tie and the Burnley Player/Manager was none other than Chris Waddle.
“They are capable of beating Blackpool, you can never rule out the chances of a non league club winning, especially in the first round”.
“There have been plenty of shocks at this stage in the past and there could well be at least one on Saturday. However I must warn Blyth that Blackpool looked a powerful unit last Saturday. They played in a 4-4-2 formation against us and they played at a high tempo from star to finish”.
Waddle who had played against Blyth as a 19-year-old in his Tow Law days recalled:
“They were happy days, but its more than a few years since the. I remember Blyth as a competitive team – and that’s just what they will have to be at Bloomfield Road. If they work hard and match that high Blackpool tempo, then I would not be greatly surprised if there was not at least one upset on Saturday”.
Waddle’s warning to be ready wasn’t lost on Burridge, two things Budgie could never be accused of was not being ready or lacking confidence which showed in his appraisal of the opposition:
“I saw nothing to make us afraid. We are a bunch of proud men and we are well aware of our mission. We will play with skill, flair and courage. That is a promise to our fans and the rest of the North East.”
The team, accompanied by a TV crew, travelled down on the Friday morning in preparation for the game, interviewed in the team’s hotel Budgie stated:
“We will go into the game as the best prepared Non League side there has been.
But some of my lads will be close to tears when we leave our hotel because they will know they are not in the starting line-up. Tomorrow is not a day for sentiment. I will go with a team that I think is best for the occasion and if that means breaking a few hearts, then so be it. The important thing is to make sure we break a few when the games is on.”
When pressed by the interviewer on his side he firmly replied:
“The players concerned will be the first to know”.
Both sides had fully fit squads to pick from although Blackpool defender Phil King was cup tied giving Player/Manager Nigel Worthington a straight choice of playing himself or giving youngster Bill Dixon his senior debut.
Blackpool were more than aware of the dangers Non League sides can cause and the potential of an upset, it was the 3rd season in a row they had hosted a Non League side in the cup and they keen to avoid a repeat of the previous season when Conference side Hednesford reached the 3rd Round for the 1st time in their history winning 1-0 at Bloomfield Road.
The team ran out Bloomfield Road acknowledging the 1,000+ travelling Blyth fans housed in the corner of uncovered Spion Kop and a small adjoining section of the East Paddock Stand, little did they know the dramatic 90 minutes that awaited.
Despite having played his starting XI in the previous fixture Blyth’s team selection surprised a few with new boy Di Lella starting and Jon Atkinson & Willie Moat having to settle for a place on the bench, however the naming of former Barrow & Gateshead midfielder John Ainsley as a sub proved the biggest surprise. Blyth had signed the highly rated midfielder following his return to the UK after another spell playing professionally in Singapore, Burridge acted quickly to beat other clubs to his signature having being tipped off about his return by a friend of Jason’s who just happened to be club captain John Gamble!.
Blyth started the game defending the Kop end that housed their boisterous support, and as warned Blackpool started the stronger, Blyth were instantly on the back foot and as early as the 3rd minute the home side had the lead.
Di Lella conceded a free kick on the left hand touchline Lee Philpott curled the free kick into the Blyth penalty area, as the defenders hesitated Andy Preece held of his marker to calmly head past a stranded Burridge, the player manager raged at his defenders who seemingly realised the wasn’t intending on coming for crosses, the spat didn’t help matters as minutes later the home side were also gifted a 2nd. .
Despite Budgie’s pledge of being ready Blyth’s defence was rocking and the omens didn’t look good when 5 minutes later the veteran keeper launched an attempted clearance straight into captain John Gamble’s back, it fell nicely to scorer Preece but fortunately when it seemed easier to score he lifted his attempted chip wide of the post. It was a massive let off for the Non League side and it served as a warning and appeared to have the required effect as Mark Todd & Kona Hislop started to get a grip of the midfield battle and Blyth steadied the ship with some neat midfield ball possession.
Blyth equalised with almost their first effort on goal in the 10th minute, Todd’s clever diagonal pass played in Di Lella he worked space behind debuting Pool left back Dixon to reach the byline, before pulling the ball back towards the penalty spot for the on rushing Damien Henderson to calmly slot underneath the keeper from 8 yards out for a superbly worked goal.
Blackpool were surprised by the goal but came back strongly and the Blyth defence came under pressure, sensing Burridge’s failure to come for crosses earlier they bombardment the penalty area, but captain John Gamble dealt with them with some towering clearing headers and Budgie showed all his experience to make 2 excellent saves.
Junior Bent’s cross-picked out Lee Philpott but the midfielders free header was parried by the keeper then hacked clear by Kona Hislop.
Minutes later he was called into action again when another deep cross picked out the unmarked Tony Butler, but his 6 yard header was superbly blocked by Burridge. Blyth gradually weathered the storm and fought back with winger Glen Renforth testing Banks from 25 yards out. However as speculative as Renforth’s effort was it was nothing compared to what happened in the 44th minute, after a neat passage of play from Pike, Henderson & Farrey, Gustavo di Lella collected the ball on the right hand touch-line.
There appeared little danger as he took a pass from Renforth, di Lella cut inside and glided past 2 defenders with ease then when closed down by a 3rd defender looked up and sized up the distance before launching a stunning 30 yard shot high into the top left hand corner of Steve Banks goal, it was a staggering goal that Blackpool boss Nigel Worthington summed up by saying:
“If Zola had scored that in a World Cup Final, he would be a hero for life”.
The Blyth players mobbed the little Argentine as the ecstatic Blyth fans could barely believe the goal they had just saw from their new hero, the Spartans ended the half better than they started it taken an unexpected 2-1 lead into the break.
The home fans were not at all happy and a chorus of boo’s rained down from the South Stand as the players approached the tunnel to the dressing rooms which was situated within the South Stand.
Despite leading at the break the TV crew which had followed the team all weekend captured a rather tense half time dressing room. Burridge flaty refused to take any responsibilty for failing to deal with crosses into the box that caused problems. When midfielder Mark Todd spoke up against Budgie’s ‘nothing to do with me’ attitude and pointed out that the agreed pre match game plan needed to change the cameras caught a glimse of Burridge’s somewhat bombastic management. Clealry aggrieved that a player dare question him or his tatics he shouted down and belittled Todd in a somewhat bullying way.
The expected second half onslaught from the stunned home side came and Bonner went close curling a shot wide of the post before Tony Ellis forced a good save from Burridge.
The home side were back on level terms in the 59th minute when Hartlepool born Andy Linighan rose unchallenged at the back post to head home a Philpott corner. It was all hands to the pump for Blyth who had to work hard to stem the aerial bombardment as the home side attacked the South Stand which contained the majority of the home support now roaring them on from behind Budgie’s goal.
In the 71st minute Blyth fell behind in controversial circumstances, defender Kevin McGarrigle was clearly fouled by Junior Bent as a cross came in, the forward held McGarrigle back as he attempted to reach the ball. The ref allowed play to continue and Bent retrieved the loose ball to cross for Andy Preece who cushioned a header down for Phil Clarkson to hook a volley across Burridge to make it 3-2, the Blyth players were incensed at the referee allowing play to carry on despite foul and the lack of advantage to Blyth.
The Spartans settled after the disappointment as top scorer Keith Fletcher, who had been well marshaled by defender Linighan for most of the game managed to wriggle free to blast an effort over the bar.
Blyth then made 2 changes as Jon Atkinson replaced Fletcher and Jason Ainsley replaced Di Lella in the 76th minute as Burridge attempted to freshen up the side, but it wasn’t until the 81st minute introduction of Willie Moat that Blyth showed they were still in the game.
With only 6 minutes remaining the beauty & sheer cruelty of the FA Cup was clear for all to see.
Mark Todd chipped a pass for Willie Moat to run on to, he forced his way past the Blackpool right back Dixon to reach the by-line. Right in front of the Blyth fans, Moat managed to hook a cross in the penalty box for on rushing fellow sub Jon Atkinson to crash home a diving header to square the game up at 3-3 in truly dramatic fashion.
The Blyth fans celebrated with a mini pitch invasion as their heroes looked on course for a well-earned replay. A replay loomed as both teams clearly tired from an epic afternoon, however with barely a minute left on the clock there was yet another twist, a long throw from the right was flicked on into the 6 yard box by Linighan. Tony Ellis managed to get a touch as the ball bobbed around in a mass of bodies in the Blyth penalty box, it broke to Phil Clarkson who volleyed home the loose ball giving Burridge no chance whatsoever to send the home side into the Second Round with 15 seconds left to play.
The Blyth players and supporters were left shattered and heartbroken, the home supporters paid respect to the effort they had witnessed giving the team a standing ovation and even applauding the traveling Spartans fans, not surprisingly Burridge was last off the field taken the adulation of the Bloomfield Road crowd.
Burridge and team captain John Gamble were interviewed on the pitch for Match of the Day and the devastation at getting so close to a replay was clearly evident as they paid tribute to the fans who were still in the ground singing there praises.
Gustavo Di Lella’s goal received high praise on that nights Match of the Day FA Cup highlights programme and even made it into the November goal of the month competition!.
Speaking about his goal scoring hero attracting attention from League clubs following his wonder goal Budgie stated:
“We want good money for him. I have had to alter the whole structure of the team to accommodate him. But if Gustavo can score goals like that, then we have to make room for him because he could have won the game for us”.
Typically Budgie was a bullish as ever after the game:
“If I wasn’t managing, I could be playing in the Premiership – no doubt about it”.
Having stated this could be his last game as a player as was struggling to:
“do justice to both keeping goal and managing the team” after the game he started the search for his replacement making only 13 more appearances before handing over the gloves to Steve Jones.
- In a footnote to the publicity storm that surrounded the tie, the man who was once quoted as saying “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” eventually paid the price for publicity.
When his sports business was chargedand found guilty of selling counterfeit goods, Magistrates ordered him to pay £16,000.
He maintained he was an innocent pawn claiming:
“I didn’t know the goods were fake. I bought them from a warehouse in Manchester and had no reason to believe they were not the real deal.
I got them cheaply because they had minor imperfections and sold what I believed to be good quality clothes”.
Part of the evidence used in the prosecution was footage of his players wearing the suspect sportswear on the team coach travelling to the Blackpool FA Cup tie !.
…That weekend in November 1997 still lives on in the memories of many Blyth fans who made the most of what then was probably the best draw possible for an FA Cup 1st Round tie, a great weekend was certainly had by all.
- Credits & Thank you’s:
Kevin Tilmouth, who provided vital information and items of Blyth Spartans memorabilia.