Blyth Spartans captain Robert Dale lifted the Evo-Stik Premier League title for the second time in 11 years but he admitted that it meant a lot to finally sort out the “mess” the club had found itself in following relegation.
After being demoted from the then-Conference North in 2012, Spartans went on a journey of rebuilding which began with Tom Wade in 2013 and was completed by Alun Armstrong when Spartans won the league earlier this month, with a 3-0 win over Halesowen Town on April 8, gaining them promotion back into the Vanarama National League North.
Following Saturday’s 5-1 league curtain closer victory over Grantham Town, the Spartans skipper was presented with the league trophy by Evo-Stik Premier League officer Laura Drew. Dale – who was part of the treble-winning side that achieved promotion back in 2005/06 – couldn’t contain his delight at getting his hands on the trophy once again and finally righting the wrongs of relegation five years ago.
Following Spartans 5-1 win over Grantham Town Dale revealed: “It’s been a long time coming. I think we’ve deserved it and – ever since we got the points we needed to win the league in the win over Halesowen – we’ve all been counting down the days until we received the trophy.
“It’s been 11 years since I last won and five years since that mess that we had to fix. It’s taken five years to put that right and anyone that was here at that time knows how much it means to everybody associated with the club.
“It meant a lot to lift that trophy and cap a great season for the club.
“[When we went down] the team wasn’t very good, we were in a mess and there was hardly any fans here – as a lot had lost interest. It was a long hard slog, but you could see the team coming back together and – every year – it was getting stronger.
“I think we were close last year, but you have to tip you hat to Darlo for what they did and the run they went on in the second half of the season. I fancied it big time this year though – as, whether it was through the playoffs or as champions, it was our turn to go up.”
A number of Dale’s teammates from that successful Harry Dunn side from over a decade ago were in the stands for Saturday’s game, with Peter Snowdon, Chris McCabe, Andrew Leeson and Craig Price – as well as legendary kitman Tony Kennedy – watching from the sponsors’ lounge. According to the talismanic winger, having a number of former Spartans cheering on the current generation just shows how special the club is.
Dale explained: “I think it’s great that the old guard showed up – as I think, if you play for the club, you know what the club means. The lads that were here for on Saturday were 100 percent like that.
“The team that won the league last time were a bunch of grafters, it was the changing room that won us the league that year. We weren’t the best quality wise, but we did have a couple of very good players.
“We worked hard for each other though and it shows how together we were that they showed up for the game.That’s just the type of lads they are and it was really nice to see them.”
Not content with raising the trophy above his head after the final whistle, the 32-year-old capped a special day with a spectacular goal that saw him ghost past a number of Grantham defenders, play a one-two with Daniel Maguire – who returned the ball to him with an outrageous back-heel – and then curl one inside the far post around a defender and goalkeeper Kieran Preston.
Discussing his goal against the Gingerbreads, Dale replied: “I probably couldn’t have scripted to score a better goal than that, but I think you know what you’re getting with ‘Nipa’ [Maguire] and you’ve got to love playing with somebody who’s that good. He’s come on during his time at the club and he’s really grown into the team.
“I think it’s getting to the stage where it’s probably his team. Just look at his last goal and he’s nearly taken the net off, for yet another hat-trick this season.
“I don’t know how many hat-tricks that is for him now this season, but he’s absolutely ripped them to shreds. That’s no disrespect to Grantham either mind – as he’s done that to about 20 teams this season and he’s just a joy to play with.”
Promotion back up into the Vanarama National League North will provide Alun Armstrong’s side with a stern test next season and, even though he’s been there and done it before, ‘Robbiedinho’ is expecting it to be a lot trickier for the club this time around.
Dale added: “There’s a lot of big teams up there now and I don’t think it’s the same league as when we went up last time. When we went up, there were a few teams like Redditch and Vauxhall Motors, but there are none of those in there now.
“They’re full-time teams and I think we’ve got to know that – especially at home – it’s going to be like cup finals every week. We need to pick up as many points as we can at home and hope we can pull off a few shocks, but – hopefully – we have some irons in the fire and we can get some more players in over the summer that will strengthen the squad and come in and graft.
“We’ve got to replace Luke [Armstrong] first of all. I don’t know what Alun is thinking in that way, but I think he already has a few players ready so we’ll see how it goes.”
The Croft Park crowd far surpassed the 1000 barrier for the second time this season for Saturday’s victory and Dale hopes that the town of Blyth can continue to get behind the club when Spartans make the step back up into the second tier of English Non-League football in August.
He revealed: “It’s always better when more people turn up to watch us. It’s a better atmosphere, you can see more people around and it really gets you up for a game.
“The more you look around, the more you think ‘wow, look at how many people have turned up today’. They’re all there for us and, the more they can stick with us next season – which is not going to see us win every game – I think we’ll need the town to be right behind us.
“Any help we can get, we will take it.”
Article: Glen Maxwell (@glenmaxwell)
Image: Bill Broadley