They decided not to parade their FA Cup heroes of 1978 on the pitch at the home of Blyth Spartans last night. Thirty-one years having past since the Spartans of yore came within a disputed last minute corner kick of a quarter-final place, the feeling at the Northumberland club was that the stage should be clear for their new millennium giantkillers to make a little history of their own.
The team from the nether regions of the Blue Square North had disposed of Shrewsbury and Bournemouth in the previous two rounds but they could not quite manage to add Blackburn Rovers to their list of victims.
On a chilly night on England's north-east coast, it was Chile's reigning player of the year who decided the third round tie. A curling 59th minute free-kick from Carlos Villanueva, on loan to Blackburn from the Santiago club Audax Italiano, overcame a spirited Spartans side in a corner of the country where Chileans happen to be part of FA Cup folklore, George Robledo having scored the goal that won the 1952 final, with his brother Ted also in the Newcastle team that beat Arsenal 1-0. It might well have been different, though, for what was effectively a Rovers reserve side.
Five minutes from time Blyth strung together the move of the match down the left-hand side. It left substitute Andrew Wright with a sitter of a chance at the far post. With the goal at his mercy, the former Leeds player blazed his shot wide. "He only had to side foot it in," Sam Allardyce, Blackburn's manager, reflected afterwards with obvious relief. "It was a little harder to miss than score. That was their chance, come and gone."
Indeed it was, but Blyth's collection of roofers, joiners, electricians and chartered surveyors acquitted themselves admirably against a Blackburn side featuring 11 changes to the XI that started against Manchester City eight days previously. Nonetheless, after the non-leaguers briefly rattled Rovers with an up-and-at-em opening burst, the pedigree of the Premier League fringe players started to show as the first half progressed.
Irish winger Keith Treacy flashed a warning shot across the Blyth bows in the sixth minute and then the lively Villanueva chanced his left foot with a couple of long range efforts. Both missed the target, but in the 12th minute the South American flashed a cross-shot that forced a save from Mark Bell, who had to act smartly to re-gather possession with Matt Derbyshire looking to pounce.
Bell, a roofer by trade, also did well to push wide a drive from the left edge of the box from Treacy. Thus the midway point in the first-half passed with the home goal still intact, but with Blyth yet to fashion any kind of opportunity at the other end. That was, until the 26th minute, when - with Mark Bunn off his goal-line – a botched clearance fell to Ged Dalton just outside the right edge of the Rovers penalty area. The 18-year-old student scored the goal that beat Bournemouth in the last round but this time he snatched at his chance, blasting his shot high, wide and not very handsome.
There were a couple of scares for Blyth thereafter – Derbyshire hooking the ball into the home net but being deemed offside and Richard Pell blocking a Vince Grella shot on the line. When the half-time whistle sounded, though, the battling Northumbrians were still on level terms.
They were soon on the back-foot in the second-half. Six minutes after the interval Villanueva wriggled free and curled a low shot a foot wide of the left-hand post from a range of 25 yards. Not that it was all one way traffic. Indeed, Blyth enjoyed their first sustained spell of attacking pressure – but without creating a clear opening.
Blackburn's response came from a free kick some seven yards outside the home box, left of centre. Villanueva stepped up and curled the ball into the far corner of the net – with Jason Roberts standing on the touchline waiting to replace him. It could have been worse for Blyth just after the hour mark when Treacy smacked a left-footed volley that deflected off Kenny Boyle and on to the bar.
It might well have been a whole lot better for the underdogs, though. Mounting a thrilling grandstand finish, they twice went close to an equaliser in the last five minutes, Wright fluffing his glorious chance and midfielder Alex Gildea also flashed a header wide.
It was not quite to be for the brave Spartans. At the final whistle, they received a standing ovation, while Allardyce counted his blessings, with the prize of a fourth round trip to Sunderland. "It was a thoroughly professional job, but we should have made it more comfortable for ourselves," the former Newcastle manager reflected.
Blyth Spartans (4-5-1): Bell; Boyle, Pell, Leeson, White (Todd, 64); Raey, McCabe, Williams, Gidea, Dale; Dalton (Wright, 71). Substitutes not used: Farman (gk), G Brown, Poole, Hume, Watson.
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Bunn; Simpson, Mokoena, Khizanishvili, Olsson ; Judge, Vogel, Grella (Andrews, 59), Treacy; Villanueva (Roberts, 59), Derbyshire ( Hodge, 83). Substitutes not used: J Brown (gk), Gunning, Doran, Haworth.
Referee: A Mariner (West Midlands).