As they secured their first pre-season win on Tuesday night there seemed to be a calmness about Blyth Spartans preparations for the new National League North season.
The Northumberland side secured an exciting 3-2 win over Sunderland Under-23s, with midfielder David McTiernan’s six minute hat-trick helping them secure a victory against the Black Cats youngsters.
The win came hot on the heels of draws with Ebac Northern League clubs Shildon and West Auckland Town, and a defeat against League Two side Carlisle United.
The testing pre-season campaign continues on Saturday when Middlesbrough Under-23s head to Croft Park, with Spartans looking to prepare themselves for a tough campaign in non-league’s second tier.
This season’s National League North looks to be one of the most challenging second-tier divisions in a long time.
The addition of the likes of York City and Southport has strengthened an already competitive division. The likes of Salford City, Kidderminster Harriers and Darlington are all being tipped for promotion challenges.
Spartans will bring their own strengths to the division, with boss Alun Armstrong building on the work done by former manager Tom Wade.
Twelve months after suffering play-off heartache, the Croft Park club romped to the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League title last season, bringing up the century in goals scored and points won.
Only two new signings have been added to the title-winning squad.
Former Spartans left back Ian Watson returned to Croft Park after leaving Spennymoor Town and Whitby Town’s goalscoring midfielder Dale Hopson moved from North Yorkshire to South East Northumberland.
Now as they look to step up to the National League North, assistant manager Darren Holloway (pictured right) believes that their calm, composed approach to pre-season will help them ease into life against a higher calibre of opposition.
The former Sunderland star said “The dressing room is very happy at the moment and obviously we are happier now we have had a win under our belts.
“Pre-season can be tough because you can go through pre-season without a win and then start the season really well.
“We think it’s performances we are looking for, rather than results, but it’s still nice to pick up a win to take into the season.
“I think in reality we would like to add one or two more to the squad but we know we have to find the right personalities to fit into our dressing room.
“Any new players have to fit into our philosophy and how we like to play so we are relaxed about bringing new players in.
“We won’t rush into anything and we won’t be signing anyone for the sake of it. I think we have shown that we have a plan during last season and this pre-season and we are calm about all aspects of the club going into the new season”
One of the key decisions that Armstrong and Holloway face ahead of the new season is who will start the campaign in goal for the club.
Newcastle United Under-23 keeper Paul Woolston (pictured left) spent last season on loan at Croft Park and played a key role in helping them to the Evo-Stik League title and the Northumberland Senior Cup.
The youngster has now returned to St James Park and has since signed his first professional contract with the Magpies.
Spartans have fielded three trialists in goal during pre-season, with a fourth playing during the second half of their win over Sunderland on Tuesday night.
Holloway is now expecting some decisions to be made “over the next few days”.
“We have decisions to make in regards to our goalkeeping department” revealed Holloway.
“We had Paul (Woolston) on loan from Newcastle last season and we have a decision to make on the three keepers we have had on trial in pre-season.
“We will get our heads together tonight, we will have a discussion about all of the goalkeepers we have seen during pre-season and see where we go with that over the next few days”
Attention now turns to Saturday’s friendly against Middlesbrough Under-23s at Croft Park.
The fixture was arranged as part of the deal that took former Spartans striker Luke Armstrong to the Championship club earlier in the summer.
Armstrong helped Spartans to promotion last season, scoring twenty three goals in all competitions.
However, an injury means that the striker will miss out on a reunion with his former club.
Holloway is disappointed that his side won’t face their former striker but is looking forward to seeing his side face Boro’s youngsters, a game he believes will help Spartans kick on ahead of the new season.
“Luke is injured at the moment so is going to miss the game, which is shame because it would be good to see him and for him to play here again.
“I think the game will be another good test for the lads and it will probably be similar to what we faced against Sunderland.
“It will be similar ability and how they play against us, so we will expect another tough test but it will be good for us and will help us kick on ahead of the season”
Spartans kick off the National League North season with a trip to Alfreton Town on Saturday 5th March, three days before welcoming Buildbase FA Trophy winners York City to Croft Park.
Article: Mark Carruthers (@marknldaily)
Images: Bill Broadley (Blyth Spartans AFC)