FA Cup: Inside Blyth Spartans’ giant-killing heroics

This was the moment Jarrett Rivers’ life had been building towards.

A moment of anticipation and a caress of the ball to bring it under his spell with the composure honed at Middlesbrough’s famous academy.

In front of Rivers was space. Space to attack with the confidence replenished by avoiding defenders in the Northern League after his professional dreams were shattered only two years earlier.

With a tiring defender in front of him, the winger unleashed one stepover. Another stepover. Creating space. Just as he’d done throughout the season as he moved up the non-league pyramid with Blyth Spartans.

This is the moment where it all came together, this was Rivers’ time.

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At the age of 21, Rivers had already experienced polarised emotions in his fledgling career.

From the initial promise within the prolific academy at Middlesbrough, to slowly rebuilding his career at Whitley Bay, the fleet-footed winger was now combining a day job in a newsagent with a semi-professional contract at Blyth Spartans.

The Northumberland outfit are well-known for their FA Cup heroics and Rivers played a key role in one of the most dramatic runs in their history back in 2014.

Darlington, Skelmersdale United, Mickleover Sports and Leek Town were all flying high in their respective leagues – but their FA Cup dreams came to an end at the hands of Tom Wade’s side.

Altrincham visited Croft Park in the first round proper and arrived with understandable confidence given they plied their trade two levels higher than the Northumberland outfit.

However, in front of more than 1,800 supporters, two goals apiece from enigmatic winger Robbie Dale and livewire striker Dan Maguire gave Spartans a 4-1 win and sent them into a north-east derby at Hartlepool United in the second round.

The run had thrown up so much emotion and drama already as Wade’s side played an attacking brand of football, which bordered on naivety of the highest level at times.

“We played with a lot of freedom, that was key for us,” explains Rivers, looking back at that giant-killing run. “We believed in the way we were playing and we didn’t change it for anyone to be honest.

“We always looked to attack, myself and Robbie [Dale] played on the wingers and we stayed high and wide, and we tried to get Nipa [Maguire] on the ball as much as possible.

“I never saw us as underdogs because of our style of play. It gave us confidence, it gave us self-belief and I don’t think I was the only one that thought that way. It’s just man against man, it’s just a game of football.”

Although Hartlepool were struggling at the wrong end of the League Two table, Spartans were still sat more thab 50 places below their hosts in the football pyramid.

But this was the FA Cup, this was Blyth Spartans and an upset is always possible when those two elements are thrown into the mix.

Certainly, the BBC thought it was possible, as they selected the game for live broadcast. But any thoughts of satisfying the hunger for an upset looked distant as Pools took the game to their non-league opponents.

Spartans held out under heavy pressure until just after the half-hour mark when Jonathan Franks headed home from close range by getting on the end of a Neil Austin cross.

The one-goal lead remained in place until half time but Spartans could consider themselves fortunate that the lead had been so slim.

Inspiration was needed.

“They came out flying and we rode our luck a bit,” admits Rivers. “They should have been three or four up at half time, but we knew we had character and, as I’ve said, we believed in the way we played.

“We knew we’d create something after half time because we always created chances, no matter which side we were playing.”

A chance, of sorts, presented itself with the hour-mark approaching as a foul on Maguire saw Spartans awarded a free-kick around 22 yards from goal.

A moment of FA Cup magic was to follow as former Pools midfielder Stephen Turnbull curled a sumptuous free-kick over the wall and beyond the desperate dive of goalkeeper Scott Flinders.

Belief and confidence surged through those in green and white.

“It was a wonder goal from Twinny and it must have been great for a neutral to watch,” says Rivers.

“We were back in the game, we started creating more and more chances, but they were still dangerous. But we kept trying to attack them whenever we could, and I think we knew the game was there for the taking.

“We kept doing what we did in games against teams in our league throughout the season.”

The mist rolled in over Victoria Park as the final minutes of the game arrived and the possibility of a replay drew ever closer. But this was Rivers’ big moment.

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Turnbull seized on a loose ball in midfield and tried to find the winger in his customary position on the right-hand side of the front three.

His pass was misjudged by Dan Jones and suddenly Rivers was one-on-one with the experienced Matthew Bates as he approached the Pools area.

A double stepover sent the defender off balance and gave Rivers a chance to get a shot at goal from just inside the area.

“You do the things you’re good at, no matter who the defender is in front of you,” he remembers. “You keep going, you keep going, and hope it goes your way.

“You have to make the defender make a decision. It was all a bit of a blur and I had space to get a shot away. I shifted the ball; it went through the defender’s legs and it went in.”

Pandemonium ensued. Rivers found himself at the bottom of a mound of team-mates and supporters alike.

Play was eventually restarted and Spartans held on to claim a famous win, despite Bates rattling the crossbar with a volley in the last minute of stoppage-time.

“We had luck, but you create your own luck,” adds Rivers. “We earned our luck by being brave that night, we earned it by staying true to the style of play we had been using throughout that season.”

Their run would come to an end in the third round as Spartans exited the competition with an all-action display in a dramatic 3-2 home defeat against Championship club Birmingham City.

They had stayed true to their attacking principles right to the very end.

FA Cup: Inside Blyth Spartans’ giant-killing heroics
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