TOM Wade stood on the St James’ Park terraces alongside 42,166 others in February 1978 to watch his beloved Blyth Spartans sunk by Wrexham in a famous FA Cup fifth-round replay.
Thirty-seven years later, Wade finds himself the reluctant architect of the club’s latest FA Cup exploits as Blyth prepare to take on Gary Rowett’s Birmingham in round three at Croft Park today.
Few men come steeped in Blyth’s knock-out tradition quite as much as Wade, who grew up in the town and had performed countless backroom roles before being asked to take over as manager of the ailing club in March last year.
Spartans had been recently relegated for the first time in their history and in Wade’s first month in charge they would suffer a humiliating 7-0 home defeat by Whitby Town – but this season’s lucrative FA Cup run has vindicated chairman Tony Platten’s request.
Wade said: “I was there on the terraces in 1978 and I grew up with the club, and that’s why it was so sad to see what was happening in the last couple of years with us going through so much difficulty.
“I’d been offered the job two or three times and I just never bothered. But I live next door to the chairman and eventually he persuaded me to come and help out for a couple of weeks – and two years later here I still am.”
Wade’s side earned the fourth FA Cup third-round tie in their storied history with a dramatic 2-1 win at north-east neighbours Hartlepool in round two and sit comfortably mid-table in the Evo-Stik Premier Division despite a 1-0 defeat at Whitby last week.
While 56-year-old Wade draws clear parallels with the excitement which gripped the town in 1978, for long-serving club captain Robbie Dale the inevitable romantic implications of the occasion are underscored by a clear-minded practicality which could give Rowett’s visitors cause for concern.
Dale, who juggles his role as Spartans’ longest serving player with a part-time job as a barman, also played in his side’s third-round tie against Blackburn in 2009 and is unlikely to get carried away by the latest big occasion.
“This probably ranks third behind Blackburn and the Hartlepool away game,” said Dale. “Winning at a league ground means a lot more because nobody expects you to do it away from home.
“It will mean a lot to lead the team out on Saturday. This club was in a mess two years ago and when Tom first came in as manager we didn’t have much of a team at all. Tom has worked wonders with the team and brought some good players in. Because of his personal attachment to the club this cup run probably means more to him than anyone but there is a really great feeling around the whole club.”
The latest chapter in the Northumberland club’s seemingly never-ending FA Cup odyssey will be played out in front of a rare 4,400-capacity crowd at Croft Park as well as the Football Focus cameras. And while their captain might not have much time for the romantic aspect of the day, it is there on a team-sheet which in the finest knock-out traditions will pit scaffolders, newsagents and plumbers against Birmingham’s 6ft 8ins, £6 million striker Nikola Zigic.
“We are the underdogs and nobody is expecting anything more from us,” added Wade. “They thumped Nottingham Forest last Saturday while we were struggling to get anything on a heavy pitch at Whitby.
“But that is the beauty of being as far down as we are. There is the same sort of vibe in the town as we had in 1978 and the supporters are going to be there en masse.
“Whatever happens we will make sure it is a great celebration.”
Birmingham are 14th in the Sky Bet Championship, but manager Rowett is under no illusions about the task which awaits and said: “We will respect Blyth and we will go there as if we are playing Derby or Nottingham Forest.”
However, Rowett has warned Birmingham they must be mentally prepared in order to reach the fourth round. The St Andrew’s chief has already shocked QPR when he was Burton boss in the League Cup this season but knows the in-form Blues are favourites this time.
They have won six of their ten games since Rowett’s appointment in November but he has underlined the danger Blyth pose.
He said: “I spent six years at Burton where we played against some huge teams in cup competitions and I know that if a team from a higher division is not mentally prepared and not expecting the hostility they come unstuck in a game like this.
“The one thing our players won’t do is turn up at Blyth and think ‘it’s not as big a ground as we’re used to’. That’s ridiculous. We’re all in the same profession, we’ll turn up and make sure we’re 100 per cent committed.”