Saturday 18th February 1978
FA Cup Fifth Round
Wrexham v Blyth Spartans
The Racecourse Ground, Wrexham.
After a fortnight of intense build up FA Cup 5th Round day finally arrived. Sixteen teams remained and the superb win at Second Division Stoke City had given the Spartans their rightful place.
The Northern League part-timers were the first Non League club to reach the 5th Round in 29 years, Third Division Wrexham stood in the way of them becoming the first Non League side to reach the Quarter Finals since 1914.
64 years earlier, Southern League Queens Park Rangers lost 1-2 at Liverpool (however in 1914 the FA Cup had been very different with less ‘proper’ rounds making that Quarter Final the equivalent of a fourth round tie).
The clubs had met twice before, both FA Cup 1st Round ties, in November 1936 Spartans lost 0-2 at home then 20 years later lost again going down 1-2 at the Racecourse Ground.
It was the 10th FA Cup game played that season and as with all cup runs there had been some ‘close calls’. A late equaliser away at Crook Town earned a 2nd Qualifying Round replay which Blyth won 3-0. In the 4th Qualifying Round Blyth lead 1-0 at Bishop Auckland when the home side believed they’d scored a last minute equaliser. Claiming the ball had crossed the line the Bishops players angrily chased after the ref who had waved ‘play on’ following Tommy Dixon’s goal line clearance.
Wrexham also had their share of close calls, they had been 2-4 down at Bristol City with only 20 minutes left and came back to draw 4-4, winning the replay 3-0. Then a last minute equaliser by Dixie McNeil in a 2-2 draw at Newcastle United earned a 4th Round replay.
The severe winter had proved as difficult as any opponents, Brian Slane’s side had only played once since the win at Stoke 12 days earlier.
In-form Wrexham had denied Blyth and the North East the 5th Round tie everybody wanted when they comfortably beat Newcastle United 4-1 in their 4th Round replay. Their only defeat in their last 12 games had been to Liverpool in the League Cup Quarter Finals!.
Following the Stoke victory the players had become local celebrities, the national press wanted to know everything about the teacher, painter & decorator, electrician and coal miner. Everyday working men who now stood on the brink of football history.
As well as their employers giving them the time off they needed, many local companies showed their gratitude for putting Blyth ‘on the map’. A furniture company invited them to their premises so each player could pick out £230 worth of furniture and a supermarket invited them all do their weekly shop for free!.
The thought of reaching the Quarter Final was posing a problem for 20 year old electrician Steve Carney, he had set his March 4th wedding date long before the cup run started and naturally they had booked a honeymoon. The Quarter Final was Saturday 11th March when Steve and his bride would be on honeymoon:
“It is going to be a problem for me if we win on Saturday, if we get through to the next round I will try to change the date of the wedding if possible but I don’t think Lizzie will be too pleased”.
Lizzie had other ideas: “I did not realise the dates might clash.
I don’t know what we’ll do but the wedding will go ahead”.
Wrexham boss Arfon Griffiths was well aware of the threat Blyth posed:
“I’m not worried about it, it’s a game to be won and it doesn’t matter who we are playing, a First Division side or non-league team, we go out and play to the best of our ability. I’ve had a chat with Alan A’Court at Stoke and he said if we don’t treat them as league opposition we will be in trouble. I know a little about their strengths and weaknesses but we never divert from our pattern of play.”
Blyth’s management team of Brian Slane & Jackie Marks were undaunted by the task, Slane stating:
“We have a side who believe in themselves, we are not going out in awe of the competition. Wrexham are standing in the way of us making history. That’s incentive enough for the players. The attention and publicity are doing the side the power of good.”
While Marks was his usual upbeat self:
“They’re hating Wrexham because they are the team that can stop us. I think we can surprise them. I don’t like predicting but one thing is for certain, they will know they have been in a game. The lads won’t want to let anyone down. This is the hardest game without a doubt. They might be a Third Division side but on paper they are the best we have met. But we’ll be ready.”
Shane’s plans to watch Wrexham in person were foiled when their Welsh Cup tie at Merthyr Tydfil was postponed. He received help from Southampton’s North East born boss Laurie McMenemy who supplied an in-depth dossier on Wrexham and put him in touch with other Third Division managers who had played Wrexham.
With the team short of match practice Slane had not wanted them to go two weeks without a game. They had been due to play Whitley Bay in the Northumberland Senior Cup the week before but Croft Park was under six inches of snow. Discussions had taken place about the need to play a game so an appeal went out on Radio Newcastle for volunteers to help clear enough snow to get the game on. Hundreds turned up to help and the game was played on a snow-covered pitch were only the lines were visible. The 2-2 draw was watched by the Wrexham Youth team coach Terry Bates who had been sent by Afron Griffiths to get a ‘first hand’ look at the Spartans.
The Blyth party were due to leave for their base in Chester on the Friday, but concerns had grown when word was received that a morning pitch inspection would be needed due to a severe frost in North Wales. Having already made two wasted trips to Stoke for the previous round Jackie Marks feared they could face another:
“I understand the ground is very hard and it could be another case of us having another wasted journey, but you have to prepare as though the game will be played”.
Having travelled as planned he recalled how they adapted their pre match preparations:
“It was so frosty we trained on the hotel car park; Barry Davies the BBC commentator even joined in the five-a-side!.
As usual we sang on the bus on the way to the ground led by Rob Carney and Dave Clarke. Then we sang in the dressing room and it went around the world on ‘Match of the Day’. Then it was a nip of speed oil and out we went.”
Jackie Marks ‘speed oil’ had drawn plenty of attention with people wanting to know what this secret potion was. They were later inundated with bottles of ‘speed oil’ when everyone found out it was indeed whiskey. It was Ron Guthrie who had suggested the idea to Marks, having previously played at Newcastle & Sunderland where they had a bottle in the changing room. In the winter months the players were able to have a sip to warm themselves up before they went out onto the pitch.
That ‘training session’ in the car park stood the players in good stead, Great Yarmouth referee Alf Grey deemed the frozen pitch as ‘playable’ but it was so hard it wouldn’t ‘take a stud’ so most players took to wearing trainers.
Off the field matters were a concern to Chairman Jim Turney as around 7,000 Blyth fans were expected to make the journey down to North Wales. 1,000 seat tickets in the Mold Road Stand had been snapped up while the Tech End allocated to Blyth fans could hold up to 7,000.
Turney was worried by reports that local police planned to hold buses back staggering their arrival into Wrexham to make it easier for them to handle the travelling fans. Despite the Chairman’s worries all the fans made it into the ground before kick off and the players came out to a raucous welcome, unfurling a huge “Super Fans OK” banner to show their appreciation.
The game kicked off with Blyth attacking a sea of green & white in the Tech End, the travelling fans made it a 19,935 crowd.
It was clear straight away the players were struggling on the frozen surface, running and stopping were proving very difficult.
As expected the home side started strongly and swept forward, Clarke pulled off a fantastic diving save to tip a Micky Thomas shot away for a corner, then minutes late he palmed another Thomas drive over the bar.
Blyth settled and finally got a foot hold in the game in the 12th minute with a marvelous opportunist goal by Terry Johnson.
Full back Alan Hill, under pressure from Rob Carney and Alan Shoulder, tried to reach Dai Davies with a back pass but Johnson read his intentions and intercepted. As the keeper rushed out the ball bobbled up before he calmly slotted it through the keepers legs into the net sending the Blyth fans behind that goal wild.
The goal only increased the home sides pressure and Blyth were forced on to the back foot, in the 20th minute Graham Whittle beat five men in a mazy run but Clarke and Guthrie blocked his shot.
Chip shots from Bobby Shinton and Dixie McNeil gave Clarke some anxious moments but both went just over the bar.
The game then became scrappy, after Eddie Alder fired a shot well over John Waterson received a talking to from the ref after a lunging tackle sent Whittle tumbling. From the free kick Whittle got in behind the Blyth wall but with a free shot hammered over. Steve Carney was booked on the stroke of half-time for a late tackle on Micky Thomas.
At the start of the second half Carney was immediately brought down in revenge for his challenge on Thomas. Dave Clarke caused concern by dropping a McNeil cross but he recovered quickly to smother the ball.
McNeil was the second man to be shown a yellow card for a late challenge on Clarke. Steve Carney was on the receiving end again in the 56 minutes when John Roberts was booked for the high tackle. McNeil then missed an open goal when he failed to control a pass and was robbed by Ron Guthrie.
In the 67th minute tempers boiled over and the ref sent off Wrexham sub John Lyons and Steve Carney. Following a Wrexham throw-in near the corner flag Carney, who had been in a running feud with several opponents, caught Lyons with a late challenge on his foot. Lyons retaliated by viciously kicking Carney in the groin, unsurprisingly he was shown a straight red card. At first Carney was thought to be led off for treatment by physio Pat Smith but he too had been given his marching orders. For some reason Lyons strongly protested he even tried to grab hold of the ref’s arm that held up the red card!.
• One point of note from the incident was that after awarding the initial throw in that led to the red cards the ref had gone over to try to stick the corner flag further into the ground having noticed it was falling over!.
Clarke them produced another wonder save leaping to grab a McNeil header bound for the top corner.
With only five minutes left Blyth almost sealed a place in the Quarter Finals when a superb ball from Keith Houghton played in Terry Johnson, but as he bore down on goal two Wrexham defenders closed in to dispossess him.
The home side piled on the pressure, Cartwright fired across the face of Clarke’s goal with McNeil unable to get on the end of it. Then McNeil wasted what looked be their last chance, Dwyer whipped in a cross that Shinton got on the end off and headed goal wards however McNeil tried to make sure but only succeeded in flicking the ball on to the top of bar and away for a goal kick.
Then came that bizarre sequence of events that shattered the dream…
With time almost up Bobby Shinton raced down the left-wing with captain John Waterson, as they approached the bye-line Waterson cleverly played the ball off Shinton and out for a goal kick.
Both players appealed and inexplicably ref Alf Grey give a corner!.
What followed was just as difficult to believe, as Les Cartwright set to take the corner with the corner flag lying on an angle the ref went over and tried to stick it into the frozen ground so it stood upright. Cartwright whipped over the ball which Dave Clarke rose to punch away for another corner.
This time Cartwright pushed the flag over to give himself room to take the corner, again Clarke rose above everyone to superbly collect the ball, however Alf Grey wasn’t happy and ordered it to be retaken because the flag wasn’t in place!.
Once again attempts were made to push the flag into the frozen ground, Cartwright swung the ball over and this time Wrexham defender John Roberts jumped with Clarke.
Both missed the ball and it fell to Dixie McNeil who just about managed to head home a highly controversial 89th minute equaliser off the back of defender Ronnie Scott!.
There was only just time to restart the game but that was the last meaningful action as Alf Grey blew the final whistle.
The Blyth players acknowledged the travelling fans in joyous mood and deservedly took all the plaudits but it was a case of what could have been. They were understandably dejected captain John Waterson stated:
“We were just a minute away from victory, it was hard to take. If they had scored the equaliser earlier it might not have been so bad but a minute from the end…”
When asked if he would have taken a draw before the game Jack Marks refused to be downhearted:
“Of course you would, I told the lads to forget about their goal and instead to think positively on how far we had come. We’re still in there fighting and you can show them next time.”
He lifted the players spirits with his now famous chanting & singing in the dressing room afterwards, as dignified as ever Brian Slane was full of pride:
“This has been the greatest moment of my football life in spite of the disputed end of the game. I am proud that we as a side have maintained a dignity and calmness that has typified Blyth Spartans throughout their run.”
Facing the nation’s press, Slane showed no bitterness when he gave his philosophical view: “It was never a corner – Shinton ran the ball out of play. Clarkie dealt with the first corner, caught the second but then the ref made Wrexham take a third. It’s unfortunate but that’s football, we have just got to live with it. The lads were disappointed. They held them for 89 minutes and then they come back with a goal like that. However, we are still in there and no one is going to dampen our spirits.”
Goalscorer Terry Johnson told how his anticipation set up his famous goal:
”Alan put their full-back under pressure and you could see a mile off that he was going to pass back. The Wrexham lad put me through and I knew I had scored as soon as I touched it. The goalie came rushing out like a mad gorilla but I put the ball through his legs. I could do with a chance like that every week. It was magic scoring in front of all the Blyth fans”.
Speaking of his red card Steve Carney admitted he was overzealous at times but wouldn’t change:
“I deserved the yellow card for my first tackle against Thomas, it was a bit bad, stupid really.
The second yellow against Lyons was a fair tackle though I did catch his foot after playing the ball. As I fell down he booted me in the groin, really hard. I was really sick to be shown red; it was so unfair. Lyons didn’t like the treatment I was giving him and he reacted but I didn’t deserve to be sent off.
In the next match I will play as I always do and I’ll get stuck in – you have to if you’re going to win. You must tackle hard but fair. You have to stop the opposition from playing but I will kerb my enthusiasm a bit so I don’t do anything silly.”
One of the most frustrated players was David Varty who didn’t even get on the pitch: “When Steve Carney was injured after his clash with Lyons, I was raring to go and Brian had given me the nod to get ready. I couldn’t believe it when I realised Steve had also been sent off and I had to sit back in the dugout. I will never be as disappointed again.”
Alf Grey explained his decision to send both players off:
“The Wrexham player was sent off for deliberately kicking an opponent after he was fouled. Carney, who had been booked earlier, went because of a late and dangerous tackle on the Wrexham player,
I suppose it was a rush of blood to the head by him”.
Spartans secretary George Watson had to look up the rules with the FA about a possible suspension for Carney: “League players are automatically suspended for one game after being sent off. Non league players come under FA Rules on disciplinary matters. They are dealt with on each offence. We don’t know when Steve’s case comes up but he could ask for a personal hearing which would make him available for the replay”.
Club legend Eddie Alder reckoned the game should never have been played:
“There was a bit of sun which softened one edge of the pitch but most was in shade and that was rock solid underfoot. There was a discussion about what studs to wear in our boots or should we wear trainers. It is the toughest match I have played in all season. Physically it was very hard and it proved to be a test of character too. Both sides wanted to win so badly. We stuck it out up to the last dying moments and although we knew Wrexham were on their knees, they just wouldn’t lie down. They came up with that late goal so that shows you their resolve. It took until the end of the game for them to score and that tells you something about us as well.”
Wrexham boss Aaron Griffiths firmly believed they were going out and agreed the tie should not have gone ahead:
“I thought we’d lost it. There was no way I could see us equalising after the first 15 minutes of the second half. We were lucky in the end to get the draw. Even the referee couldn’t keep his feet, horses are not expected to race on this type of ground so I don’t see why footballers should be elected to play!.”
Thoughts quickly moved to the replay the players were looking forward to it, a confident Alan Shoulder stated:
“I think we will stuff them in the replay at St James’ Park. It will be a different game, we will come more into it and play better football.”
While Ron Guthrie who had spent 10 years at Newcastle and won the FA Cup 5 years earlier with Sunderland believed playing in front of a big crowd would help: “We have a good chance of winning the replay. Wrexham will have to face thousands of fans shouting for us at St James’ Park. The bigger the crowd the better the motivation for the players.”
One of the reasons that led to Blyth’s national recognition was the BBC’s long-running Match of the Day programme that went out on that Saturday night. The tie became the main focus of the broadcast, with millions watching the main theme was replaced by the club’s pre match dressing room sing-a-long of “Victory Doo-dah’ and Jackie Marks famous chanting of “Give us a B (B, B), Give us an L (L, L)” etc etc.
The highlights clearly showed Shinton deflect the ball out for a goal kick, Jimmy Hill along with his studio pundits, highlighted Mr Grey’s error and extended their sympathy to the non-leaguers.
Bobby Shinton even admitted it came off him:
“It came off me last. I only got the corner because I put my hand up to appeal first, which is a natural reaction.”
The FIFA referee was public enemy No.1 for what happened, as time passed he was vilified for apparently not admitting his mistake or even speaking about the incident when continually asked.
Despite what many thought, he had spoken to the Daily Mirror on Monday after the tie. Having watched the incident from a camera situated behind the goal he stated:
“The cameras showed quite clearly that the ball came off a Wrexham player.
I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Blyth and it was unfortunate that the second corner had to be taken again. It appears that the gods were against them. From my position I gave what I thought was the correct decision – a corner – and I didn’t give it another thought until I was told afterwards that there was doubt over which player touched it last. It was unfortunate from my point of view, but incidents like this happen frequently during the course of every game”.
The draw for the Quarter Finals was made on the Monday with Blyth being the first Non League side in 64 years making it into the draw. The players and officials sat round the radio waiting to hear the draw, the press had crowded into the Blyth Social Club to record their reaction.
There was a hushed silence as the draw took place, then the suspense was broken as the presenter announced …”will play Arsenal.”
It was the game everyone had wanted a home tie with the mighty Arsenal but the Chairman’s perspective differed from the players:
“Arsenal would give the club its biggest ever pay-day. This is the tie we wanted and it has taken until the 6th Round to achieve it.”
John Waterson was delighted: “We couldn’t have picked a better one. This has really brought us up again after the disappointment of last Saturday. We had a huge incentive beating Stoke by either having Wrexham or Newcastle United but you can’t get any better than ‘the Gunners’. It will really lift the players.”
Jack Marks felt the draw would help them ahead of the replay:
“If this doesn’t motivate the players, nothing will. The lads will give blood to win.
This promises to be the game to end all games.”
While Brian Slane sounded a cautionary note:
“There is a little matter of Wrexham to consider. Let’s not get too carried away.”
…the replay meant that the cup fever which had gripped the region continued and intensified following the Quarter Final draw.
That replay would be a legendary night in the history of North East football, again it was filled with drama and controversy.
- Credits, Acknowledgments & Thank you’s:
Andrew Griffins excellent 2006 books about the cup run
‘Two wins from Wembley‘ was another crucial source of information and images.
It is well worth a read with some great insight by those involved such as players, officials and supporters.
The following excellent websites provided important info and images: