It’s almost three years ago now that Jarrett Rivers received the ball in the 90th minute of an FA Cup second round game against Hartlepool United, embarking on a run that would help change the course of his career. Televised live on BBC One on a cold Friday night in December, with the tie heading towards full time and a replay, the Blyth Spartans winger had other ideas.
Overawed early on, the visitors went behind only to equalise through Stephen Turnbull’s expertly placed free-kick. In the second half Hartlepool should have retaken the lead as Marlon Harewood’s scuffed shot was clawed away from seemingly just over the goal line. Then, as the clock ticked down, Rivers took over, securing his place in FA Cup folklore.
“The FA Cup is massive. Having the game on telly meant everyone saw it so it puts you in view of people,” says Rivers. “For the fans it’s obviously massive. They still talk about it now. Even before the FA Cup run they were talking about the last one in 1977-78 when Blyth got to the fifth round, so it just shows how much it means to the fans. It was great playing against professional sides.”
Then a skinny 21-year-old, Rivers picked up a pass thirty yards from goal and drove forward, sending former Premier League defender Matthew Bates backpedalling. Rivers worked an angle with a step-over and his deflected shot skipped past the goalkeeper and into the back of the net. The away end erupted and Blyth were through to the third round.
“It was a bit of a blur. It didn’t really sink in until a while after to be honest. Everything just happened so quickly. It was obviously a great feeling and it makes you want more moments like that. You don’t realise until quite a while after, when the fans are still talking about it, how much it actually means to them. It was brilliant.”
It was a shock at the time for Rivers, who gave a breathless interview to the BBC’s Dan Walker after the final whistle. More media requests followed and his phone wouldn’t stop ringing from journalists eager to speak to the man of the moment. Rivers was a shy semi-professional footballer who spent much of the week helping out at his mum’s newsagent’s. His story captured the public’s imagination.
“It was a bit crazy. There were a lot of people ringing me up and wanting to come to my mum’s shop and do interviews, which I wasn’t really used to. I’m not really one to try to get the limelight. It was a bit different to what I was used to but it was all good. You want experiences like that during your career.”
The goal provided a welcome boost to Rivers’ prospects, setting in motion a move to rejoin the professional ranks. After starting out at Middlesbrough’s academy as a 13 year-old, where he played alongside Ben Gibson who captained the club in the Premier League last season, Rivers was released at 19 when his scholarship came to an end.
“I kind of expected it. I saw it coming to be honest. You just get a vibe. I was in the reserves and I wasn’t playing that often. I don’t know if the reserve manager just didn’t rate me or what the reasons were but you could just see it coming. In a way it’s helped me. It builds your character and you learn from it. I’d like to think it’s made me a better player and given me a kick up the backside. Obviously you don’t want to get released by a club but it teaches you a lesson.
“The staff, the facilities, everything’s brilliant there. They’ve got a reputation for bringing youngsters through as well. Obviously it didn’t work out for me but I still loved every minute there. As a kid, especially when that’s all you know from such a young age, you don’t really realise how good you’ve got it. So I think when you get let go and go into non-League it makes you see how much you want to be a professional footballer.”
Close to dropping out of the game altogether, Rivers joined Whitley Bay and set about rebuilding his career. He briefly worked in a factory, which served as a stark reminder of the sort of life he’d left behind at Middlesbrough, but hated the experience. He soon quit, choosing to help out in his mum’s shop and focus on football instead.
After a season at Whitley, which toughened him up, Rivers moved on to Blyth Spartans. The club is a non-League stalwart and one of the English game’s most northerly outposts. It was a positive step, a higher standard and the chance to get noticed. After a brief spell on the sidelines when he first signed, Rivers started to rack up the games.
The FA Cup run came during his first season as Blyth saw off Darlington, Skelmersdale United, Mickleover Sports and Leek Town to reach the first round. They then beat Conference side Altrincham 4-1 at Croft Park to set up that fateful meeting with Hartlepool. Despite the 40 miles, three divisions, and 65 league places separating the two sides, it was something of a North East derby and all the press and cameras in attendance added to the sense of occasion.
“There was a bit of nerves and excitement. I was a bit more nervous than normal, I’ve got to admit,” remembers Rivers. “It was one of those games where, as a player, you just want to get out there as quick as you can. The fans and all the media people love the build-up but as players you just want to get out on that pitch.”
More than 1,000 Blyth supporters made the journey and several ran on the pitch at the end to celebrate with the match-winner and his teammates.
Rivers’ goal set up a home tie with Birmingham City, and after a positive start they looked well set to progress further. In difficult conditions, on a bobbly pitch, Rivers’ run and cross set up Robbie Dale to score the opener. He got his brace shortly after.
“The third round was probably my favourite game because we were playing against Birmingham, who were a Championship side, a few levels up from Hartlepool. We were 2-0 up at half time and playing well but we knew they’d get a spell at some point where they’d dominate. They managed to get three in that ten minute spell, which was devastating, but even after that we still had chances to score. We put in a good showing and made ourselves proud.
“It’s one of them where it’s always hard for the bigger team to motivate themselves when they’re playing away at somewhere like Blyth. Our pitch wasn’t the best at the time and it’s obviously a smaller ground than they’re used to. It’s about getting your mentality right when you’re the bigger team. They might have underestimated us, I don’t know, but they obviously showed their class in the second half.”
Regardless of the final result, Blyth and Rivers had seen their reputations grow from the FA Cup run. Rivers was named the league’s young player of the season. Keen to return to the full-time game, several clubs got in contact and his agent arranged trials with Port Vale, Oldham Athletic and Blackpool. The Seasiders, who had just been relegated from the Championship, were the first club to come back with a firm offer, which Rivers gratefully accepted.
That summer he joined on a one-year deal and got to live out his dream of being a professional footballer. There were 13 appearances in all competitions, many as a substitute, and one goal against Port Vale in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Rivers noticed the jump in standard but felt more than able to hold his own. Unfortunately, he was largely unused in the second half of the season.
“Everyone says the full-time game is fitter and sharper, which it is, and there are some top players in that league, but I felt I was good enough for that level. I just didn’t get enough opportunities. The manager must not have rated me highly enough but it’s just one of those things. You’ve got to get on with it, and keep working hard to get another chance.
“It’s something you’ve got to learn from and try to make yourself a better player. I’ve just got a stronger character now. When you’re training and working hard, but it’s not happening, you just get a bit of a stronger character and mentality. It gives you more drive to work for that next opportunity.”
Rivers was released at the end of his contract in 2016 but hasn’t been deterred. Nursing an injury, he returned to Blyth for treatment, started training with the club to get his fitness back up and signed until the end of the season. He played his part as they won the Evo Stik Northern Premier League title with 101 points.
The club are now competing towards the top of the National League North and Rivers is still keen to progress. Along with teammates Ryan Hutchinson and Dan Maguire he was recently invited to an England C training camp, pitting himself against the best young players the non-League game has to offer. He is keen to push on again and isn’t content to settle for being a one-hit wonder.
“I still want to be a professional. Definitely, 100%. But we had a good season last year and got promoted. There are some good teams in this league and I’m enjoying it. You’ve just got to take each game as it comes in football and keep working hard. If anything comes of it then who knows.”