Following relegation in 1977, Stoke City were finding life in the Second Division difficult. The 1977/78 season – our first outside the top flight for fifteen years – had started quite well, but by the turn of the year The Potters were on a slippery slope and manager George Eastham had paid the price for a string of poor results. His last game in charge though had been a resounding 4-0 defeat of Isthmian Leaguers Tilbury in a 3rd Round FA Cup tie and that set up a 4th Round date with Blyth Spartans, the last remaining non-league club left in the competition!
Blyth’s FA Cup adventure had started with a First Qualifying Round victory over fellow Northern League club Shildon back in September 1977 and their run also saw Crook Town, Consett, Bishop Auckland and Burscough despatched before they dumped Third Division Chesterfield out at home in the Second Round proper.
Their reward in the Third Round was another home tie, but with the big guns now entering the fray they must have been massively disappointed to have been paired with another non-league side, Enfield. A solitary goal from Alan Shoulder though was enough to send them through to the Fourth Round for the first time in their history and they were handed an away tie at the Victoria Ground!
A big following from the north east was expected for the game, scheduled to be played on 28th January 1978. A huge convoy of coaches set off from Blyth but their supporters were distraught when, upon arriving in the Potteries, they were told to turn back and head home. Torrential rain had put the game in doubt but the Stoke groundstaff had worked hard to clear the pitch of gallons of water. The referee delayed his pitch inspection until 1.00pm on the day of the game, but a further downpour left him with little alternative other than to call the game off. Blyth weren’t happy though, reasoning that a pitch inspection should have been made the day before the game and an announcement made then to save their supporters the trouble of travelling. Their chairman publicly criticised Stoke for the way his club had been treated, vowing that it would spur his players on when the tie was eventually played…
The rain continued to fall unabated and the following Wednesday’s re-match also fell foul of the weather. With the 5th Round matches scheduled for February 18th and the possibility of a replay to consider, the tie had to be hastily rearranged for February 6th, a Monday evening. By then, the 5th round draw had been made and the victors of our tie knew they would travel to either Third Division Wrexham or Newcastle United, struggling badly at the wrong end of the First Division; a dream draw for Blyth, and not a bad one for us either.
The Monday evening match meant that the following from Blyth wasn’t as large as the one for the original match, but nevertheless, a good number of Spartans fans turned up to swell the crowd to a healthy 18,765.
A sign of the calamity to come came when Stoke, inexplicably wearing their change yellow and blue kit, were booed onto the pitch by their own fans who mistook them for the visiting Blyth team! It wouldn’t be the only time that Stoke’s fans jeered their own team that night!
Spartans came into the game in great form with just one defeat in their previous 22 league and cup games and were pretty confident of pulling off an upset. Their confidence proved not to be unfounded when, on ten minutes they took a shock lead. A right wing corner was dropped by the Stoke ‘keeper Roger Jones at the feet of Blyth’s leading scorer Terry Johnson and he gleefully turned the ball home to leave the Boothen End stunned.
Blyth held on relatively comfortably until half time and with their noisy following on the Stoke End terrace right behind them, it was turning into a very uncomfortably evening indeed for us.
Caretaker manager Alan A’Court’s half time team talk seemed to have done the trick though when we came out in the second half and tore into Spartans. Viv Busby equalised and within minutes Garth Crooks’ diving header had turned the tie on its head. Surely we’d done enough? Surely there was no way back for the part-timers?
This is Stoke City we’re talking about though and in true Potters fashion we decided that we’d done enough and would stroll through the last half hour of the match. Unfortunately for us, Blyth Spartans had other ideas and were back on terms with ten minutes to go. Ron Guthrie – a cup winner with Sunderland in 1973 – smashed a free kick which cannoned off our wall and looped up into the air, the Stoke defence went AWOL and several Blyth forwards converged on our goal. Shoulder was first to the loose ball but his effort struck a post and Steve Carney hit the other post before smashing the ball home at the third time of asking. 2-2!
At that stage you’d have been forgiven for thinking that the plucky non-leaguers would have been delighted with a draw and the opportunity to take their Football League opponents back to their Croft Park home for a replay, but how wrong you would have been! Blyth gallantly went in search of a winning goal and two minutes from time the unthinkable happened when another free kick had our defence at sixes and sevens and Johnson pounced to volley home his second goal of the evening and send us crashing out of the cup!
Stoke fans were devastated and while the majority were magnanimous in defeat and applauded the Blyth Spartans players from the pitch, many vented their fury, with scarves and season tickets being tossed from the terraces and onto the cinder track.
We’ve been beaten by non-league teams since that night back in 1978, but this was different. It was in our own back yard, six years after our club had lifted the League Cup at Wembley and just three seasons after we’d almost been crowned League Champions and gone close to knocking Ajax out of the UEFA Cup. Our glory days were well and truly over! Defender Alan Bloor, playing his 388th game for The Potters in this match, wouldn’t pull on the red and white stripes again – a sad end to a distinguished career.
Blyth’s joy at beating Stoke was tempered ever so slightly by the news that their dream meeting with Newcastle wasn’t going to happen after Wrexham stuffed The Magpies 4-1 in their 4th Round replay on the same night. However when they drew 1-1 in their 5th Round tie at the Racecourse Ground, Spartans fans got the opportunity to see their team at St James’s Park when the replay was held there. The game attracted an astonishing crowd of 42,167 with estimates of between ten and fifteen thousand spectators locked out! There was to be no repeat of their heroics at the Victoria Ground though and, despite another Terry Johnson goal, Blyth Spartans’ magnificent run came to end as the Welshmen ran out 2-1 winners.
Stoke City: Jones, Marsh, Lindsay, Kendall, Dodd, Bloor, Waddington, Scott, Busby, Conroy, Crooks. Sub: Scott
Blyth Spartans: Clarke, Waterson, Guthrie, Alder, Scott, Dixon, Carney, Houghton, Carney, Shoulder, Johnson. Sub: Varty
This article originally appeared in Issue 434 of The Oatcake