The Spartan Army Marches On | Blyth Spartans AFC | 2021/22 | Part 4

Even though finishing an overly respectable fourth – been billed as fucking ‘relegation candidates’ by the stupid press (what the fuck do they know?) – it still felt as though Blyth Spartans’ first ever season in the Vanarama National League was a bit of a dumb squib.

2020/21 Season Summary – A Damp Squib

Let’s be honest with ourselves here; a promising start, due mainly to a rip roaring August and September, took The Spartans to the top of the league, their all action football blowing away teams in nine of their first 12 games. And for a hot minute, it seemed as though the team started to believe their own hype.

As the press were falling over themselves to throw superlatives at us, everyone bar Donawama and Quitongo slowly forgot how to play as the season wore on.

A shift in personal and their positions bought some reprieve, but not much. But what was obvious was the need for depth, and some serious depth at that. Beyond a first eleven which could go toe-to-toe with almost anyone in the division, the loss of a player to either injury, fatigue (fucking useless pricks) or form (again, useless pricks) meant that there wasn’t anyone of comparative quality to step up.

After leading the table only a couple of months into the new season, Blyth started a slow and agonizing slide down the table, before briefly doing their best impression of a yo-yo that couldn’t decide which way it wanted to move vertically, finally resting in the lower echelons of the play-off places.

A promising 4-3 win at home to AFC Fylde – which, if anything, flattered AFC Fylde – was followed by an exhilarating game with eventual promotioners (is that even a word?) Stevenage in the play off semi-final; a 5-3 victory to Stevenage fails to portray the toe-to-toe nature of the game, with both teams going in 3-3 at half time. 

Still, who gives a fuck if you didn’t win? If you’re not first you’re last, right? And, if you’re last AND you have two shite cup runs then no one really gives a baboons pink ass.

An F.A. Cup first round knock out ‘away’ to Coventry and an F.A. Trophy second round knockout to local rivals Gateshead – who still play in the division below – meant that a promising start failed to deliver.

And the worst thing is? Regardless of what the board expect this season, I’ll personally regards anything less than at least the same again will be absolute failure, especially as we have our sights set on getting out this god forsaken division. Because how the fuck can you go backwards?  

Aims & Objectives

When starting projects with lower league teams and attempting to take them all the way to European Champions, or whatever is it you want to do with them, the biggest challenge might you face might not be the most obvious one.

In England, even though the Championship is seen as incredibly competitive, you still have three ‘shots’ at promotion, albeit the third one being the crap shoot of the play-offs.

But in the lower leagues it’s different; and in non-league it’s very different.

To get promoted to the Vanarama National League, you either have to win as Champions of the North or South Division or you have to win a play off final. To get promoted from the VNL and into League Two, you either have to win as Champions or you have play off final.

If you’re unlucky, you could be one of four teams relegated in either the VNL, and the VNL North/South Divisions. Both divisions are such difficult leagues to get out of, that even League Two looks easier to get escape from, which it technically is, because only two teams are relegated and their are four chances of gaining promotion to League One, which is a kind of semi-extension of the Championship.

So our aim this season is simple; get the fuck promoted out of this god forsaken division, if not only so we can keep our objective alive of being the most well-supported club in North East England, but also so we don’t lose our best players and go through countless squad rebuilding over the coming seasons.

A screenshot of the boards aims, satisfied way ahead of target.

Tactics – Is a change on the horizon…?

For the first time since the game started, I’m seriously thinking about changing the tactics to something more stable.

But what will it be? A 4–4-2 with wingers and two Defensive Midfielders? What about the already FM20 classic 4-2-3-1, a formation which I am actually yet to try, simply because it looks like it could be the games not-so secret cheat code?

In previous FM saves where I’ve been a little more sensible, I’ve usually formulated a tactic and organized transfers around the idea of how the squad plays.

Now, with my incoherent transfer aims and financial ill-discipline, who knows what the fuck can happen.

After realizing that we were somehow blowing away teams or losing really stupid games by crappy a scoreline, I thought it be more sensible to shore things up at the back, and bring a bit more cohesion and solidity to the team.

Out goes the 3-4-3 Diamond, a formation that sometimes shifted to two Box-to-Box midfielders, although the idea of giving up a tactic which technically had four strikers charging towards the goal – which seemed exhilaratingly chaotic yet also highly effective at times – is a tough sandwich to munch on.

English manager Mackay-Phillips messed around with a couple of formations in the first couple of games, the first being a 4-1-2-1-2 Diamond, with a Shadow Striker sitting behind the two forwards.

This meant we still didn’t really have a midfield, even if our defense was a little sturdier, which didn’t matter that much as we were still losing games in an unacceptable manner (I am committed, however, to brining back an attacking formation that involves three forwards).

Step forward the slightly less adventurous 4-1-3-2, a formation that is most definitely the most boring set-up we’ve employed, but one that gave us more consistency over the course of the season.

Still not really bothering about possession and being more interested in sticking it in the fucking mixer, we altered the playing style and tactics a little, making sure that we played with a decent tempo, fairly direct, and pressed an incredible amount, to the point where I personally saw a couple of goals scored just because the forwards charged at the opposition keeper like a fucking animal when the ball was passed back to him.

Transfers

After biding my time and leaving the squad as is/was during the January transfer window of the previous season, in the hope of keeping the finances intact so I can launch an all out irresponsible fiscal assault on random players in the summer, it was, in the words of Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, time to turn it all the way up to 11.

Technically, our transfer dealings started as soon as last season had ended; by the end of May, Blyth were tracking the inevitable expired contracts of obscure Sheffield Wednesday reserves defender Jack Lee, the underrated wonder kid that is TJ Eyoma of Tottenham and Swedish striker Joel Mumbongo of Burnley. However, all the scout reports come back and insist none of them would give two shits about Blyth’s potential interest, insisting they’d all want several thousand pounds each week beyond our payroll structure to consider joining.

However, the biggest news in the earlier months of there window was that chairman and owner Tony Platten was going to retire from his role, opening the door to a takeover from another local investor.

Will I keep my job? Will the new owners want me? And what the fuck is Tony Platten going to get up to? All pertinent questions set against the backdrop of a transfer embargo, which isn’t ideal as we attempt to move quickly to secure players for the next season.

To my surprise, the takeover is a positive move for the club. Taking less than three weeks to complete, new owner Simon Drury does the classic FM new chairman move, ‘injecting some £65,000 cash into the coffers’ and making a decently sized £54,739 available to club for the upcoming window,

The incredibly named Finley Shrimpton, whose name sounds like a cross between someone who has really posh parents and a fictional seaside town, joined from Scunthorpe on a free transfer, and a player that looks like he might be half decent in the future.

However, after Donawa’s and Quitongo’s impressive debut campaign, with the latter becoming the most famous Angolan/Scottish player of all time (even more famous than his dad, which wasn’t a particularly hard feat to achieve), both players are wanted by Bradford City – with Mansfield registering additional interest in Quitongo – who finished 2nd and 3rd respectively in the division above me.

I talk Quitongo into extending his contract by a year after promising an appearance fee (£200), goal bonus fee (£150), as well as a loyalty bonus (£3,500) and bunging his agent a little something something (£2,500). My board don’t let me increase my actual wages, so I see this as a win-win situation.

As for Donawa, he’s wanting a huge raise on his £700 a week situation, and the temptation to cash in on him is getting stronger as the transfer window edges closer.

Currently valued at £135,000, there could be some good money earned this window, especially if I decide to get rid of a few of the other fringe players, in a transfer period that could see the shape of the squad change quite dramatically.

Experienced winger Marvin Jonhson joins on a two weeks trial and has surprisingly approachable wage requests, even more so than before he came on trial with us (a classic FM situation that works 60% of the time), and joins on a free transfer, adding some quality down the left.

The club also bring in a bunch of decent defenders in anticipation of playing with a back four, whilst I place Romario Vieira on the transfer list, simply because his wages are too high and I need to free up some space for the inevitable hoarding of wonderkids that will commence in the coming months and years

He decides he doesn’t want to go anywhere, although in the end he goes out on loan to Basingstoke , a big slap in the face and a far cry from the successful career his better-named brother Ronaldo Vieira is having at Sampdoria.

By the time January rolls around however, it’s clear that not only does the squad needs a couple of bodies in, both as an upgrade but also to deal with the almost 60-game season the boys are having to endure.

Despite the boards dissatisfaction at club favorite Tommy Caffrey joining Bohemians for £10,000 – a great player although one that definitely needed to be upgraded – the club announce the signing of 18 year-old striker Scott Fitzpatrick from Morton, a hot property piece of high-potential goal scoring ass who was being tracked by some of the biggest clubs in Scotland (OK, so Patrick Thistle aren’t that big, but they’re definitely ‘bigger’ than Blyth Spartans).

Signed for an absurd fee of £190,000 – which, despite spreading more than half the fee over 12 months is almost half of the clubs current cash flow, and must surely be a record for a non-league club – Fitzpatrick looks like the player who can push us through the fixture congestion in the second half of the season, and provide some goals to a team has struggled in the past around the Christmas/January time.

Charlton come in for youth product Joe Todd, who, despite being an obscure 17 year-old with a slightly emo haircut that I had no idea had joined the club, suddenly becomes incredibly valuable for me, simply for the fact that a some poncey London club higher up the pyramid are after him.

His chances of getting into the first team are minimal, but after telling Charlton to stick it up their Belgian-owned arsehole, their interest shirks me into action and I tie him down to three year contract, with the possibility of another three years, just so make sure he can either come good or provide some much needed finances by being sold further down the line. 

Oh, and in the end, Justin Donawa does leave the club; I shunt him out the fucking door after being sent off in a game to our title rivals in January. More on that below.

Squad Summary

After a then-record breaking transfer for Irish striker Paul Smith last year, I’m hoping he can move up a gear this year and rely on his main strengths of his work rate and finishing to do something half decent for the club, which shouldn’t difficult when you have a work ethic like him and play in the lower dredges of English non-league football.

Keeping Jai Quitongo for another season at least also feels like a new signing, whilst the new back line looks solid enough to see us through the next couple of years and hopefully a rise up the division(s).

Some of the old fan favorites from the first season have been moved on, but the squad looks sturdy and balanced, if not slightly lightweight, a problem which ends up being rectified in the January transfer window with a couple of loans that act as back up for the players who inevitably end up struggling towards the end of the season.

Big things are expected from this bunch, and, if they’re any good, most of them will probably keep their place in the team in the hope that they can either make the step up the following season or bring home some silverware (if not both).

Results & End of Season Summary

Jesus Christ where the fuck should we start? With the Vanarama National League Win with 101 points? The random entry into the Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Challenge Cup that proved futile? What about the F.A. Trophy final? Or what about the fact that the club were twice taken over within the space of a less than 12 months?

In a season that felt like it’s been going on for over six years, Blythe played a whopping 56 games, ending the season the season with over a hundred points in the league and breaking their own goal scoring record from the previous year.

Having wrapped up the league by April after a 0-0 draw at home to Stockport – their third draw on the spin, which essentially delayed the inevitability of being crowned champions – Blyth also secured an F.A. Trophy Final appearance against AFC Fylde, a side we failed to beat this season, who exacted revenge from last years Play Off First Round defeat by beating The Spartans 3-2.

Courtesy of a classic FM situation in which Fylde scored three minutes into injury time – after Blyth had equalized with 85 minutes gone – The Spartans finished runners up, despite an impressive two-legged victory over holders Notts County.

Still, unless you save scum your way to success, you can’t win them all, right?

Within three seasons, Blyth Spartans had won more leagues titles than Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Sunderland in the last ten years. How’s that for progress!? Stick it up your ass you northern fuck heads!

However, it wasn’t all roses and other nice things usually associated with roses. It took a 6-1 demolition over semi-rivals Hartlepool before The Spartan’s season really kicked into action.

Despite lying 5th after ten games, Blyth initially suffered a jittery start, seemingly forgetting that last season had ended and a new season started, so intent they were on carrying on the crap and inconsistent form that dogged them for most of last season. 

Whilst Jai Quitongo’s goal scoring prowess had waned somewhat (mainly because he got shunted out to the right wing, on the sole basis that I needed to accommodate two new strikers, on top of the the fact that he can actually play there), his striker partner Allen has already scored more goals in the first nine league games than he had in the whole of last season. 

Suffering some disappointing results in difficult games at home to promotional hopefuls Southend and Morecomb, The Spartans also suffered a morale-sapping 2-1 defeat away to Scottish Championship side Dundee in the humorously but also deliciously named Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Challenge Cup, losing to a last minute goal in which Blyth had held their own for pretty much most of the game.

Why on earth we had been picked as one of the lower league teams from England to attend is beyond me; either way, the adventure was pretty much over before it started. The rewards for a third round defeat? A paltry £6,000, which is a pretty useless some of money, considering the club were taken over only several weeks earlier. 

Nevertheless, after a nervous start to the season and at least three changes to the original formation – which settled with Ben Khemis sitting in a supporting Deep Lying Playmaker role in the midfield in front of new signing George Wilson playing as an Anchor Man – things clicked for The Spartans, who started to grind opponents down in a much more methodical and surgical way.

Blythe reached the 100 point mark in their penultimate game of the season, beating Ebbsfleet away who, as the The Non-League Football Paper were keen to point out, a full 19lbs heavier than The Spartans, who triumphed in a 3-1 away win.

By the time Blyth beat third placed Harrogate 3-1 halfway through the season courtesy of a Paul Allen brace – their most significant result of the campaign to date – the crowd were chanting his name, and the Green and White’s solidified their positions at the top of table on their way to a victorious title triumph.

A 4-2 home defeat to third placed AFC Fylde – the only defeat in their last 20 games – a result of which was inextricably linked to Donawa’s sending off, was the only blip in an otherwise family impressive run.

Victories over second placed Solihull Moors in early December, coupled with a steamroller of a January in which The Spartans destroyed all before them (scoring 20 and conceding three) meant they were ten points clear of their nearest rivals ‘The Moors’ come February. 

The Spartans league form was closely linked to their shrewd January transfer dealings; the signing of Fitzpatrick and former Blackburn ‘Carrilero’ Joe Grayson, in tandem with the ruthless banishing of previous club legends Tommy Caffrey, Louis Rowe and Lewis Archer – all of whom had a role to play in Blyth’s original promotion from the VNN – also included an executive decision of talented Donawa being unceremoniously shunted out of the club to Oldham for less than £2,000. 

Sure it’s a fucking shitty return on a player that was once worth 40 times that; however, after refusing to lower his absolutely absurd wage demands for a contract renewal, had suffered more twisted knees than an old as fuck twisted sister cover band who are made up of old men with arthritic knees – coupled with his sending off in the loss to AFC Fylde – it was time for him to fuck off to pastures new.

All in all it was a good season for The Spartans. We built a pretty strong squad that will hopefully stand is in good stead for at least the next season or two. Which I’m happy about, especially as it meant that we to got the fuck out of the VNL

Blyth Spartans went full time with immediate effect, which is great, but also gives me a slight headache in the fact that a lot of contracts need to be renewed and rectified so that we can finally start training full-time.

The club brought in a couple of decent young players, mainly newgens, who will hopefully be with the club for a long time. And if they ain’t, hopefully they’ll be responsible for some good times at the club, before being sold for a fuck ton of money.

Oh and our stadium is being enlarged, as per league requirements, although hopefully it won’t be long until we a get a new stadium that will be bigger and better than all three of the other major north east teams.

Next season will see us play in League Two for the first time; but what’s in store for The Spartans? Relegation? Promotion? Are we going to shithouse and foul our way to the Premier League? Stay tuned to this blog to find out, as The Spartans go marching on.

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