Seventh-tier Blyth get the chance to face one of the Premier League's big guns in the FA Cup. Beaten Hartlepool manager Paul Murray got the sack.
Blyth’s Stephen Turnbull, left, and fans celebrate after the FA Cup match against Hartlepool United ended 2-1 in Blyth’s favour. Stu Forster / Getty Images
Blyth’s Stephen Turnbull, left, and fans celebrate after the FA Cup match against Hartlepool United ended 2-1 in Blyth’s favour. Stu Forster / Getty Images

Blyth Spartans manager Tom Wade celebrated with his players and 1,300 travelling supporters following Friday’s dramatic English FA Cup giant killing at Hartlepool United, a team based 41 miles to the north and 65 places above Blyth in England’s football pyramid.

Wade shed a tear with his wife and daughter and remembered absent friends. Then he met journalists, insisting that he shook the hands of each one, even those he didn’t know.

The words “magnificent” and “emotional” punctured his talk as he described the greatest moment of his football life.

“It’s hugely special for me,” said the man who was in the stands when Blyth reached the FA Cup’s fifth round in 1978. “The lads made history. They’re great characters. They love the club.”

It was Blyth’s night and the minnows would be headline news, with all the quirks of their success laid out for a national audience who had watched the second-round cup game on live television.

The club chairman lives two doors down from the club secretary and the same again from his manager. Blyth are as close knit as they come, and attention will be on them in tomorrow’s third-round draw, when their players hope to play Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea or, in the case of their goalkeeper Peter Jeffries, Arsenal: “Because I’ve never been to London before”.

The words from the former Hartlepool season ticket holder sounded quaint and provincial, but they were spoken by a nervous man facing media for the first time in his life.

He meant he had never been to the capital to play football.

Hartlepool manager Paul Murray used to live in London.

A professional footballer, he was at Queen’s Park Rangers as a Premier League player when Aston Villa made a £3 million bid for his services.

A combative midfielder, he was rated as the best player outside England’s top flight and admits himself that he “got a bit carried away with the hype and attention until my wife put me in my place”.

Then he shattered his leg and his confidence. The move to Villa didn’t go through and he stayed at Loftus Road in a relegated team, becoming the first player to play in all four of England’s top divisions in a single year. Injury- prone and with a surgeon’s scars around his left knee, he has long known about football’s highs and lows.

On an English north-east night so cold that the heat rising from the perspiring players was visible, Friday night was a low. He thought his professional team would have enough quality to beat a side he had studied. After taking the lead, they lost on a 90th-minute winner.

Murray appeared for his post-game media session while members of the jubilant Blyth party were still being interviewed.

“Diabolical,” he said. “Not enough desire to get on the ball, passion or commitment. We seemed to wilt in the second half. Confidence drained. You need men and proper characters.

“We didn’t have that.”

Murray, 37, had planned for time to celebrate had Hartlepool overcome their non-league opponents to reach the third round for the first time since 2008. It wouldn’t be needed. Instead, he prepared to drive five hours south to watch forthcoming league opponents Oxford United.

He knew the Hartlepool job would be a tough one when he accepted it in October, becoming Hartlepool’s sixth manager since 2011, on a rolling contract. He left a position as Oldham Athletic’s assistant manager to return to the working-class port town, where the orange hue from the emissions of the vast industrial plants on the River Tees to the south of the town light the night sky, where trains carrying coal rattle through the town’s one-platform Victorian train station.

Murray was popular in his three years as a player. He had the drive. “I was so determined and focused as a young lad at Carlisle that I barely spoke to my teammates,” he says. “I also told the first team manager that I would be in his side by the end of the year. I was 17. He laughed, but I was proved right.”

He was good enough to play for England’s Under 21s and in Portugal’s top flight for Beira-Mar.

“In one game at Benfica away, I wasn’t aware that they flew a giant eagle around before the game,” he says. “I saw this big eagle coming for my head before the match and ducked. It was the most surreal moment of my career.”

The pedigree is there, but it counts for nothing when things aren’t going well. The manager was five minutes into his first game when he was distracted by an angry shout in the crowd behind the dugout at the Victoria Ground.

“We’re rubbish, Murray! Useless!”

Murray, who chose football over rugby at 13, knew that he would be under pressure, but expected more than five minutes would elapse before he would be judged in his new job as the manager of the Football League’s bottom team.

“The fans were just frustrated, worn down, they’ve had enough and I don’t blame them,” Murray says as he sips a cup of tea overlooking the North Sea in the hotel he calls home two nights a week.

“But I’m here to change that and I will. I gave up a good job half an hour from my family home to come here.”

Murray’s wife, two children and a child the couple are foster parenting live in Preston, a two-hour drive from Hartlepool across the bleak Pennine hills.

“We felt we had space at home and the right stable environment to bring another child into the house,” he says. “She was four when she came and could be a handful. She didn’t understand empathy. She does now. My wife and children welcomed her and she became part of the family.”

Their 12-year-old daughter is swimming at a national level and their nine-year-old son is a national BMX champion.

Dad somehow finds time for all.

He wakes up at 5am most days to drive to the century-old Victoria Park, an 8,000-seat football ground with terracing on two sides and floodlight pylons that have fast disappeared from the skylines of British towns and cities.

“I joined in winter, so the drive is always in the dark,” he says. “I might get to see a sunrise in the spring. I get a lot of time to think – maybe too much time.”

Some who sniffed an upset on Friday called it right. The striker Jarrett Rivers, a news agent known as “the paper boy”, scored the winning goal, and the former Hartlepool player Stephen Turnbull scored the equaliser.

They beat a side of professional footballers who earn between £400 and £2,000 (Dh2,890-Dh11,450) per week. Blyth players receive between £90 and £200.

Hartlepool are not a cash-strapped club who have plummeted because they cut costs or lost a benefactor. They have dropped to the bottom of the fourth tier because they wasted money on players who couldn’t cut it at that level, even though several of them are earning more than players in the league above.

Murray is convinced that he has what he takes to change their fortunes before they are relegated from the Football League for the first time in their history.

He has an experienced assistant in Willie Donachie, who played over 300 games for Manchester City and in two World Cups with Scotland.

“I’m fortunate to have this chance, one of just 72 managers in the Football League,” he said three hours before the Blyth game. “I’ll take it.”

He won’t have that privilege.

Murray was sacked after the match.

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Published: December 6, 2014 04:00 AM


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