Blyth Spartans away. 1954. A whole year before I was born. I've always been fascinated by this fixture. Torquay United's first properly "northern" trip since Stockport County in January 1948. Not only that but a trip with a vengeance; Blyth is a dozen miles beyond Newcastle; 300 miles north of London.
In fact isn't it the furthest north that Torquay United have ever travelled? Followed in order - I think - by Newcastle United, Gateshead's present ground, Gateshead's former ground and Carlisle United. The north east was brand new territory; you wonder if the club had the slightest inkling that, as we've seen, it would be visiting Darlington, Gateshead and Hartlepool within just a few years.
There would have been a few gasps and a fair amount of uncertainty when the draw was announced. I'm not even sure how supporters would have found out; the "stop press" column of the Herald Express maybe? South Devon people, more than likely, knew little of this Northumberland town which shipped coal, mined coal and built ships. Nor much, you would imagine, of Spartans. North Eastern League; semi-professional; not one of those north east teams you read about in the FA Amateur Cup.
3-1 to Torquay; an audience of nearly 9,000. It's possible that a twelve-year-old Tommy Spratt (a Torquay United player of the 1960s) - a boy from along the coast - may have been in the Croft Park crowd that day. United's reward was fitting. Leeds and then Huddersfield. One of our more dramatic cup runs. For the locals, perhaps, a three-course luncheon at the Clock Cafe, the match and a few evening pints at the Cowpen Coronation social. The real stuff, of course, would begin in the New Year with Newcastle United seeking to win the FA Cup for the third time in five seasons.
Another great programme. The crowd of 9,300 for the Cup game would have been close to the ground record of just over 10,000. A great ground to visit if you get the chance. It is a trim ground and was improved in the early 2000's. It has cover on four sides and you always get a friendly welcome. I have not been to Croft Park - a pleasant drive south for me! - for a couple of years but my favourite football-watching jacket still has a souvenir of green streaks up one sleeve where I leant on a recently painted and still drying section of the green picket fence that surrounds the pitch. It was sad to see them get relegated out of Conference North followed closely afterwards by Workington meaning Gateshead are the only truly northern club in the Conference set-up. I hope that their FA Cup success will provide them with the impetus to move up the Northern Premier League. Up until fairly recently they used to play an annual friendly against Spartans FC from Edinburgh.
It was sad to see them (Blyth Spartans) get relegated out of Conference North followed closely afterwards by Workington meaning Gateshead are the only truly northern club in the Conference set-up.
"Truly northern". That seems to fit the definition of "The North" that's often encountered in the north east. I gather the midlands start at Darlington.
I looked in vain for pictures of the Torquay United game when I visited Croft Park. I wouldn't mind another chance. But my suspicion is that Torquay United will never play a competitive game further north of Blyth. If we were ever to play beyond Newcastle, the chances are it would be Blyth again. It would be a real longshot of fate to ever end up at Bedlington, Ashington or Morpeth.
Actually, chaps, the border between the North and the Midlands is about three miles north of Chesterfield which means that I was born in the North but only just. I had the privilege of visiting Croft Park for a second round tie in 1977, as part of the Spartans' most famous Cup run of all, and I was terrified out of my wits as the local fans beat a fair proportion of the Chesterfield support to a bloody pulp. It must be said that the majority of the boot boys were wearing Newcastle's black and white and there were even one or two Sunderland scarves in evidence as well, surprisingly. The old dear sitting behind me in the stand was a true Spartan though and gave me a cup of coffee from her flask at half time.
The game kicked off early because Chesterfield had refused to play under the floodlights at Croft Park but it was still getting dark by full time. Blyth's number 7 nipped in when defender Kenny Burton dropped a clanger in his own penalty area and since I was supporting Chesterfield that day a terrifying experience became a humiliating one and resulted in a 1-0 defeat. The Third Round draw was made live as we travelled home on the bus and Spartans drew Enfield at home. Not everyone was interested though since some of the passengers were suffering from various degrees of concussion. All teams' hooligans sang "You're Gonna Get Your Effing Head Kicked In" in those days but up there it was no idle threat; they really meant it.
Next time I came across the Spartans was a match at Alfreton. I can't remember which League it was in but Alfreton then were not as they are nowadays and Blyth won 3-1. They were well-followed for a midweek evening match too. It could be a long, hard trip for Birmingham City in this year's Third Round and I can't say I envy them the trip.