Comment: Robbie Dale deserves his place amongst North East non-league legends following Blyth Spartans retirement
To paraphrase Sinatra – “Now, the end is here.”
After 212 goals in 680 appearances and god knows how many twisted limbs for opposing defenders, Robbie Dale has brought down the curtain on an outstanding career at Blyth Spartans.
Although he has spent short spells with other clubs, the Spartans stalwart has become synonymous with the famous green and white stripes.
Dale has done it all at Croft Park in a career that started by introducing himself as a promising youngster with a hat-trick on his debut against Wakefield and Emley in 2005 to coming off the bench to make his 680th and final competitive appearance for the club at Brackley Town in March.
During that time, he has made the outstanding seem bog-standard, the complicated seem routine, solved impossible situations with magical solutions, tormented international defenders and left others chasing shadows.
Goals from the halfway line, scintillating hat-tricks, injury-time winners to complete remarkable comebacks and even scored the winning goal and saved a penalty in the same game.
He has claimed league titles, cup wins, promotions and a whole host of individual honours including only being kept off the number one spot in the Northern Premier League greatest player poll by some bloke called Vardy.
Naturally, being Blyth Spartans, Dale has played his part in helping the club add to their long list of FA Cup memories.
He was in the squad that sent Shrewsbury Town and Bournemouth out of the competition in 2009 before succumbing to a Blackburn Rovers side managed by Sam Allardyce.
And five years later he produced the moment that saw the rest of the country realise what non-league supporters in the North East and beyond had known for years.
After helping Spartans past the likes of Darlington, Altrincham and Hartlepool United, Dale stunned Championship giants Birmingham City when his close-range finish put his side ahead in an third round tie on a chilly January afternoon at Croft Park.
Not content with one moment in the sun, Dale produced a second goal that neatly summed up his undoubted talent and unpredictable nature.
After taking a short free-kick from Stephen Turnbull, the winger jinked not once, not twice, but thrice past defenders before calmly stroking a low shot into the far corner of the net.
As Croft Park rejoiced, Dale barely reacted when his team-mates embraced him in front of the shell-shocked travelling supporters from the Midlands.
Of course, his hopes of progressing into the fourth round for the first time were ended as the Blues’ class told – but it was the exploits of “the greatest non-league player to never turn professional” made the headlines when the Sunday morning papers thudded onto doormats around the country.
There was still time for another league and cup double, there was still time to surpass 70’s FA Cup legend Eddie Alder as the club’s all-time record appearance holder and still time to move into second place in Spartans all-time record goalscorer list behind another legend in Brian Slane.
It is easy to belittle at the achievements of the recent and yearn for the nostalgia of the days gone by – but Dale deserves to take his place in any conversation about the great and the good of North East non-league history.
But now, with the announcement of his retirement still fresh, there is a realisation that there will be no more twisting and turning full-backs inside-out and no more opposing managers tearing their hair out in frustration.
There will be no more last-minute heroics, no more striding down the wing with opposition trailing in his wake, no more chop after chop after chop leaving defenders bewildered, bemused and befuddled.
No more magical moments supplied by one of the most iconic North East non-league players of his generation, if not of all-time.
Looking at it positively, his decision does offer new manager Michael Nelson a chance to make a fresh start with his own side – but talk of that can be put aside for at least 48 hours as news of Dale’s retirement sinks in.
Online discussions have already turned towards talk of renaming Croft Park stands after Dale or erecting a statue in his honour in Blyth.
But the greatest honour to bestow upon Dale is building on the legacy of lifelong memories he has given to a generation of hearty folks that stand on the terraces at Croft Park through wind, rain, hail and snow.
The honour has been theirs.
But now, the end is here - Robbie Dale can hang up his boots and know that it was done his way.