On a mild Northumbrian evening, a bumper crowd of 4040 filled Croft Park expecting another cup upset. Having been at Croft Park to witness the taming of the Shrews in the previous round, I was well aware of Blyth's ability to raise their game against more illustrious opposition. As the match kicked off in front of the Setanta cameras, it soon became apparent that Blyth would not dominate in the same way they did against Shrewsbury. Despite losing Shaun Cooper after only 9 minutes (dislocated elbow), AFCB were commanding in defence and coped well with Blyth's physical approach. AFCB battled well in midfield and started to control the game. AFCB were comfortable in possession and passed the ball well at times. The 71 hardy souls who made the long trek to Blyth (aka 'Just a small town in Scotland') were in fine voice throughout the first half. So much so that, as we stood in the seated Port of Blyth Stand, it is claimed that Nonny broke his 'Red Army' record (30 times, apparently). Despite our dominance, chances were few and far between with AFCB rarely threatening the Spartans goal. A rather tame shot by Bradbury which trickled past the post, a Molesley effort which was deflected for a corner and a Bartley shot straight into the hands of the keeper was all that we managed to muster before McQuoid ran at goal then blasted well over shortly before the interval. All of this proved to be too much for one Cherries fan who was ejected by the police for drunk and disorderly behaviour whilst in possession of a northern accent. Blyth's only chance of the half came in added time when Reay took advantage of a wayward header from Hollands and a defensive lapse from Cummings to shoot high over the Carlsberg Stand.
All square at half-time but Harry Dunn's team talk resulted in a more purposeful and adventurous Blyth coming out for the second half. Blyth looked dangerous from set-pieces although Jalal was rarely tested. It wasn't long after the restart that the Cherries subs were told to warm up. Vociferous chants of 'Alan, Alan Connell' made it clear to the bench who the fans wanted to see on the pitch. A bit of a gamble given Connell's long absence due to injury but nobody else looks capable of scoring. Jimmy Quinn sensed the need to bring on a striker but replaced McQuoid with Pitman instead of Connell. To make matters worse, Pitman repaid the manger's trust in him by getting sent off after being on the pitch for just 3 minutes. A reckless lunge from behind with studs showing meant that the Cherries were down to 10 men with half an hour remaining. 'Can't believe you put Pitman on' was the chant from a section of Cherries fans (hindsight is a wonderful thing). As Pitman sought refuge in the lonely confines of the dressing room, Blyth pressed forward with Dale shooting narrowly wide. A tap-in from close range would have put Blyth ahead. After 72 minutes, with extra time and penalties looking increasingly inevitable, Connell, looking resplendent in white boots, came on in place of Molesley. Within two minutes, Connell and Bradbury linked well on the right to put Bartley in just outside the box but not for the first time his touch let him down. Shortly afterwards, Blyth appealed for a penalty claiming that Pearce had handled in the area. Unsurprisingly, the Cherries fans took a different view and, for the next couple of minutes, made ironic claims of 'handball' every time the ball was kicked, headed or chested.
As the match reached its final stages, Connell had Cherries' best chance of the match after 82 minutes. The blond striker expertly spun around Leeson before bursting into the box. Unfortunately he drilled his shot just wide of the post. Two minutes later, Reay shot powerfully from distance with Jalal doing well to save (luckily it was straight at him). Blyth pressed forward a couple of times before disaster struck. In the 89th minute, substitute Andrew Wright made an excellent run down the left wing and crossed into the centre. Robbie Dale failed to connect at the near post but Ged Dalton, a 19-year-old sports science student from Scarborough, nipped in front of Cummings to stab home from close range to send the Northumbrians wild. The Spartans players celebrated by bundling on top of each other and managing to kill some precious time in the process. Interestingly, Dalton had earlier been booked for diving when trying to win a penalty. Who says cheats never prosper?
In the midst of all this drama and excitement, one of the floodlights went out making one corner of the ground quite dark. Even with 4 minutes of added time, getting the match abandoned due to floodlight failure seemed to offer our only glimmer of hope as it was unlikely that AFCB would equalise given our lack of goalscoring prowess, although AFCB managed to force a corner in the dying seconds. Jalal rushed forward to unsettle the Spartans defence but all to no avail as the resulting header went straight to Bell. The final whistle was blown shortly afterwards.
The Cherries fans quickly left the scene of their furthest ever away defeat reflecting on yet another ineffective display. Sadly AFCB's pre-match pampering was in vain. Time to concentrate on the bread and butter of the league (although I'm not sure which league in future). Our sorry plight was compounded in a Whitley Bay hostelry after the match. A pub quizmaster with a microphone spotted our red and black scarves and made our presence known to all and sundry. Suddenly we were the centre of attention and a mixture of curious and bemused glances ensued. 'Were you unlucky?' asked one group of blokes. 'No, just crap' we replied. Being Newcastle fans they could immediately identify with our feelings of disappointment and failure.
AFCB: Jalal, Cummings, Guyett, Cooper, Pearce, Ward, Bartley, Hollands, McQuoid, Molesley, Bredbury
Subs: Pryce, Garry, Igoe, Preston, Partington (for Cooper, 8 mins), Pitman (for McQuoid, 56 mins), Connell (for Molesley, 72 mins)
Jon Blake, South Shields