NE24 vs NE1: the sharp end of the game at Croft Park versus fantasy football at St James’ Park

Written by on 31st March 2023

An investigation into how the world’s most famous non-league team are living a hand-to-mouth existence . . . just 13.5 miles away from the richest club on the planet.

Just a 28-minute car journey separates Croft Park from St James’ Park. But in every other respect – on and off the pitch – Blyth Spartans and Newcastle United are worlds apart.

The clubs sit at different ends of the spectrum of the football pyramid with Blyth battling for survival in the national football pyramid; one level above regional football, while the fairytale at St James’ Park is looking towards major trophies and continental football in the very near future.

Croft Park starting to fill up on Non-League Day against Chester FC. Credit – Ben Lightfoot

With just a few weeks left in their National League North league battle against relegation, everything is to play for at Blyth and everyone in and around the club knows it will not be an easy challenge.

But the person who knows better than anyone is Spartans manager Graham Fenton.

He said: “We’ve got nine games and you want to win four at least, five probably – that’s how we approach it. I just said to the lads ‘look we’ve shown at times this season we’re more than good enough to beat any team in this league. But if we turn up like we did in this first half {a 4-1 defeat by Boston} we’ll beat no one in this league, it’s that simple.’ ”

But there is no escaping the constraints that Fenton – who famously denied Newcastle the 1996 Premier League title by scoring two goals against his boyhood club for Blackburn – is working within, compared to the billions of backing potentially enjoyed at SJO.

Being a semi-pro club like Blyth restricts a club to offer players part-time deals. And that can mean a part-time coherence between the team.

Training every day like Newcastle? At Blyth, playing Saturdays and Tuesdays each week means any training at all can become a rarity.

“When you got to two game weeks, not that much because a lot of it’s just recovery time,” Fenton says of the opportunity – or lack of it – he has to work with his players between matches.

“But obviously, you still get time to work on things like set pieces, and you get time with the players to work on the psychology, obviously fitness side of things.

Graham Fenton applauds the fans after a 2-0 win against Gloucester City, August 20, 2023. Credit – Stephen Beecroft Photography.

But it’s the lack of training compared with full-time clubs in their own division which hurts the Spartans most.

“When you get the weeks where you’re playing Saturday to Saturday – which we’ve got coming up – they {other teams} will get four sessions, while we only get two sessions.

“That’s where you get a lot of your work done, so obviously, the fitness side of it is huge as well.”

At Blyth, all roads lead back to the club’s tight budget.

Lack of resources were a key reason the Spartans struggled to maintain their promotion push in 2019, and then came the Covid-19 pandemic and even harder times.

“We are financially restricted compared to other teams in the league,” admitted Fenton. “So generally, if other clubs offer players more money- and again we’re competing with the likes of Darlington, Spennymoor, and South Shields – we can’t compete with them financially.

“Everybody knows that. So we are picking up players who we will either get in on loan or who are players that hopefully have missed out at a higher level who are good enough.

“But it’s a tough business.”

A few miles down the A189, and Newcastle United is no longer counting the pennies.

Their fans have been in dreamland since October 2021, and the takeover by Saudi Public Investment Fund, which is valued at £500 billion-plus.

A Newcastle United flag is waved outside St James Park following the takeover of the club Scenes at St. James’s Park, Newcastle as news of a takeover emerges on Thursday 7th October 2021. (Credit: Michael Driver | MI News) Credit: MI News & Sport /Alamy Live News

Chris Waugh, The Athletic’s Newcastle United correspondent, paints a very different picture to that at Croft Park.

“They {Newcastle} were able to have money from PIF injected into the club which has allowed them to significantly improve the first team squad, it’s also allowed them to improve the infrastructure off the field there, upgrading the current training ground, and looking for a new one.

“They’re also looking to make improvements to St James Park and also bringing in a heck of a lot of staff. They’ve got an executive structure now and under Dan Ashworth, the sporting director, and Darren Eales the CEO they’re looking to expand in a lot of departments with a lot of scouts and a lot of expertise in different areas.

“So that’s where the finances have really have aided them, as well as with the women’s team as well.”

And Newcastle are not content with just being the biggest club in the North East.

Waugh added: “When it comes to the upcoming pre-season tour of America, Newcastle have a significant following out there – a historical following – particularly on both coasts.

“But I do think that going out there for this Premier League tournament will only increase that further. They have Darren Eales as CEO who was president of Atlanta and because of that, that means he knows the market really well and will look to expand and grow there in what is a huge financial market for them.”

Blyth? They insist they don’t fear looking down, never mind up.

BlythLive radio commentator Phil Castiaux believes that the club can actually benefit from relegation this season.

“It’s hard to say, but when you’re relegated if you do well in the lower league it doesn’t really matter that you’re in the lower league, because if you do well you get the crowds in – more so  than when you’re fighting against relegation.”

So while one club considers taking a step back to take two steps forward, a near neighbour is determined to conquer the world.

What a difference 13.5 miles make.

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