Irony, catharsis and a little bit of pickle

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pete Green

6 August 2003

Cod Almighty's Tony Butcher has won a few enemies but a lot of friends all over the internet for his witty and well-balanced reporting on Town matches home and away. After a number of readers contacted us to ask just how, not to mention why, he does it, we decided on your behalf to subject Tony to an intensive interrogation session and discover the man behind the esoteric cultural references. So as he flexes his typing fingers ready for another season of sensible despatches from Blundell Park and all points west, here are the answers. Whether you're a long-standing fan of Tony's reports or you've just wondered who that strange man is at the back of the Pontoon who always shouts "foul throw", read on.

How did you first get into watching Town? What are your enduring memories of that era?

Becoming a regular Town watcher was a bit like a Livingstone sprint, a very ponderous and torturous process that started somewhere in the latter part of the 20th century. I hardly attended games until my later teenage years and only when I went to polytechnic did I catch the itch (none of this modern university cobblers. You went to poly because you were thick or bone idle, sometimes both). I think it was leaving the area which heightened my local pride. I would recommend that to my fellow Grimbarians; you acquire positive pride not negative irrational hatreds and self-loathing when you leave the area. My grandfather would take me occasionally, so my enduring memories of those years are going with him, standing in the open corners watching Joe Waters control the Earth and surrounding planets. And Nigel Batch's beard.

How do you manage to remember everything in such detail for your match reports? Do you have a particular technique?

Sorry, no techniques. It's a cathartic experience, pouring out all those bad and occasionally average memories in a stream of consciousness. What you see is what comes out of my head and onto the computer screen, so as I recount the events I have to lighten by metaphor and sugar by simile, which sounds like a cheap perfume. Some people drown their sorrows on a Saturday night; I drown the team in layers of irony and amused (and sometimes bemused) detachment.

But have the Mariners ever driven you to drink, moderate (some say almost non-existent) though you are in your imbibing habits?

No. Why let the actions of a bunch of brickies and van drivers affect your life? They are there for our enjoyment; we can laugh at pratfalls, whoever does them.

Can you explain the concept of half-time toilet talk? How did it begin, and why is it Stu's?

Are you Lt Columbo? Being a benign Dave Lee Travis lookalike, I do requests (though not birthdays, anniversaries or bar/bat mitzvahs). France-based Town fan Stu(art) Morton, whilst leaning on a bar (not a lamppost) in Gillingham, asked if I'd report what the fans thought. It was he, yes, him, that is Stu himself, who came up with the concept that what the fans say in the toilet is an accurate reflection of their hopes and dreams that afternoon. It's also a rich source of non-sequiturs, for there is nothing more comic than a comment taken in isolation.

I'll be honest and admit that not everything comes from the the vicinity of the lavatories, but everything is derived from Town fans. It is certainly what I hear in my head.

So it is what it says on the tin - Stuart Morton asked if I'd report what the fans said at half time in the toilet (expletives deleted and quality threshold permitting).

You were asked to write for the GTFC 'matchday magazine' last season. How did that come about, and what went wrong?

The club emailed me, as the assistant commercial manager was aware of the match reporting. I provided two perfectly constructed diatribes for them, one of which complimented the 'Wimbledon' directors in possibly the loosest definition of 'compliment' never to set foot in a dictionary. I took the line that I wouldn't change what I write, especially as I'd been asked to write something "as controversial as you like." As Danny La Rue once sang, I am what I am. So it didn't exactly go wrong, more that I gave them an immediate full-throttle version and they were looking for a nice Sunday drive to Appleby's. I value my independence too much, I suppose.

One of the pieces Town rejected ended up in When Saturday Comes. Are you hoping to write more for wider audiences in national football magazines and stuff?

Well, not really. I have no ambitions to be a media tartlet. If asked I write, but I won't flash myself around like a desperate chicken, as I already have a well-remunerated full-time job with plenty of flexibility. Did I hear you say let the mountain come to Mohammed? And, to be honest, it's all Town-centric, as I increasingly get bored by the Premiership, the league with a space cadet glow.

So you'd not be renewing your season ticket if Town ever made it there?

I'd watch it like I watched last season. Car crashes have a strange fascination. I'd also be laughing on the inside at the opposition, their players, directors and fans, having to come to Grimsby, hold their noses, and treat us as equals.

Do you have any pre-match rituals?

Like Fred Pontin, I prefer to book early. I'm there for the football, so I must be inside the ground with plenty of time to see mascots fall over and hear local teenagers sing badly. It is one of the great Scooby Doo-like mysteries - how other people can watch football without a steady supply of meat-filled sandwiches (with a little bit of pickle). I did have the ritual of parking outside number 195 Brereton Avenue, facing towards Cleethorpes, but last season rather blew away that good luck charm.

What are your favourite and least favourite away journeys? (Not grounds - journeys.)

What do you mean? Scenery, the evocation, the desire, the expectation? Nothing can beat the rolling Wolds as we wend our way towards and past Louth, but that's the home match journey. I can't stand the treks to Portsmouth and Ipswich, the concrete and clay beneath my tyres begin to crumble, those journeys are not as sweet as candy. Dull all the way. Crystal Palace was always tempered by the pre-match pizzas and bizarre pop reminiscing by Paul Ketchley, yes Little Richard and his gold lame ladders et al. But, you know, it's sarf London, just rotten, with that overpriced lump of nonsense at the end of the line. Sorry, I promised I wouldn't mention Livvo ever again.

You want nice? Well Watford was exceedingly handy when I lived in Watford, despite everything. I always loved going to Oxford when they played next to a bowling green, and Bristol Rovers when they played at the beautiful sparkling spa waters of Bath, in Avon. It was the view you see, with a pleasant drive through countryside.

Planners don't seem to take these things into account when they build new grounds, do they? I mean Oxford are next to a sewage farm now. Does the new generation of spangly new stadiums have anything at all to recommend it?

Yes, it forces many clubs into insolvency. New stadiums mean that we, the opposition viewer, have a much more pleasant experience. Cleaner toilets, wider aisles, sometimes better views. It blands the experience down and that affects the dynamics on the pitch. There are times, sat in these new concretadoms, when you can drift away, disassociating yourself from the action 'over there'. It stops being a football match and feels like a day out. In short, it stops feeling like football. Some would say that is a positive thing: it can take out the emotion, which sometimes leads to overly aggressive behaviour. I think football is all about emotion.

I'm all for every other club in England spending money on grounds they can't fill, making my away days clean and unthreatening. That means when opponents go to rotting old Blundell Park they are psychologically intimidated.

So you don't think Town's new ground, if it ever happens, would help pull the crowds back in? Is there anything the club can do?

Nothing. If they build it the crowds won't come. A new stadium would attract the curious for a couple of games but, whatever Town do, the attitude of the majority of the locals will be negative. The crowds will return if they win regularly and get to the holy land of the Premiership - then they'd fill Blundell Park, sometimes. There is an inferiority complex about and there's not much the football club can do really; it's in the people themselves to make that conscious decision. A new messiah? Yeah, the star from afar to galvanise the locals and lead them on a pilgrimage to the Premiership? Someone else to do it for them, to lead. That's a sign of a collective psychological weakness.

How has this weird Grimsby mindset arisen? Why is that same psychological weakness not found in, say, Norwich or Burnley or Gillingham?

Are you asking for some appropriately cod psychology? One could say all the other places are either linked to or are near large metropolitan areas, with Norwich being a county town and therefore centre of a small universe. Grimsby is a low-wage area, with historically poor links to the outside world. Like all serial killers the town keeps itself to itself. It is at the end of the line, literally. You go there to go there, you don't pass through. Perhaps Grimbarians feel like outsiders looking from afar, not being connected in any sense of the word, Mr Forster (EM, not Nicky).

Funny you should choose Burnley, which is a bonkers town, set in a valley, cut off from the world, but a world which surrounds them, their world outlook is much more aggressive, like a siege mentality. Ultimately I can't answer the question, only reflect or guess. It's deep deep within the local psyche I think, so it must be historical, and perhaps genetic. Yes, let's blame the Vikings. It's someone else's fault. Now that is a Grimsby answer.

What can the club do about racism in the stands?

Employ stewards who recognise it? Actively seek it out and publicly do something. Which means the stewards should throw someone out of the ground and trumpet the success in the GET and on television. It would also help if the stewards would act on complaints during games.

Silly hypothesis question. If you were given Paul Groves' job tomorrow, what would be your first three decisions?

Resign and let him have it back.

If I had the job I'd be under the same financial strictures, so kidnapping Peter Handyside, sending 'the boys' round to George Santos' hotel and brainwashing John Oster in an Ipcress File flurry of pop-psychedelia in a disused factory would be the only options available.

You're a bit sceptical about folk heroes like Ivano Bonetti, aren't you? Why's that?

All that glisters is not gold. There is a terrible Grimsby affliction for seeking saviours from afar, clinging desperately to any old flotsam, often without any foundation. Too many solid, reliable and loyal players have been ignored (at best) in favour of the here-today, gone-tomorrow flashers who are only in it for the buck. You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. Apart from Gallimore, of course.

What sort of players do you prefer then?

I get irritated by those players with plentiful skill but little application. One Reesian flick doesn't make a summer of goals Mr Ashcroft. And conmen like Widdrington. I prefer world beaters with a smile on their face and a song in their heart but Town don't get many of them. So, honesty above all else. Then the ability to control the ball over a distance shorter than a furlong.

Who have been the most underrated and overrated players and managers in your time?

Ooh, now there's a scope for a trawl down memory lane. Jim Dobbin was underrated, being a perfect foil for the young Groves. McDermott is underrated too; despite everyone claiming to respect him, he is taken for granted. Excellence is expected and never audibly appreciated. Coyne in the last two years has been vastly overrated, as was Davison before. Sometimes people mistake adequacy for brilliance. And don't get me started on Jack Lester, the non-scoring folk hero.

Who's the best Town keeper you've seen then? And Dave Beasant doesn't count.

He never would. Crichton in his first couple of years was the nearest to consistently very good Town have had. People seem to have forgotten his early excellence (Forest own goal excepted) before he went all la-di-da and porky. I can't forgive his performance against Watford (the 6-3 defeat). He could have stopped all of the goals and actually threw one in. Coyne two years ago was quite awesome in his shot-stopping, though he subsequently receded into adequacy. So on balance, Coyne, really, though I don't hold him in reverence. He was only ever Wales' Wales' number 4 for a good reason.

What are the worst decisions you've ever seen a manager make, during a match or behind the scenes?

For Buckley it must be buying Ashcroft and giving his son a contract. That was the beginning of the end, giving his enemies and critics an easy hit. Everything Laws ever did. Ever. Mike Lyons' perplexing decision to replace the local talent with players with the same bubble perm, though perhaps not literally the same bubble perm. There are so many to choose from.

But we all know this question is simply a set-up to murder Lennie the Loser. The worst decision ever was the heinous crime of ignoring Peter Handyside for the flim-flam of eastern promise. Lawrence was the emperor with no clothes. He caused more long-term damage than Laws and Lyons combined.

Was there not even one action of Lawrence's as Town manager that you thought was OK? And if he was so dreadful, how is that he's recently become one of the elite group who have managed 1,000 games in English football?

Because football clubs are run by fools? You don't become a successful con artist by not convincing people that apples are pears, sheep are goats, and the future of football is Kevin Donovan in the hole, rather than a hole. Whenever a managerial vacancy arises there is a list of usual suspects, that Lawrence is always on with a vague media recollection that he was "good at Charlton". His public persona was quite genial, apparently open, and he could always quote a list of contacts. For a board of directors he has the profile to shut the fans up - he's been heard of, managed at the top level and has a benign public image. It doesn't stop him being rubbish.

As for his top Town moments - finding David Nielsen was positive, though that was extremely short-term. Getting in a goalkeeping coach for Coyne was sensible, for Coyne visibly improved. So I'd have to plump for that.

Are referees getting worse, or what? Is there any kind of bias?

Not a conscious bias, more a warped kind of institutionalised racism, as it were. The unthinking condition that they expect the worst from the monochrome manglers. Their ignorance of Grimsby means they expect Town to be a bunch of moaning cloggers, so interpret every fall, stumble and collision with suspicion. It's easier to deny Town a penalty than a team with 20,000 baying fans like, ooooh, Wolves.

You were quite sanguine about Town's relegation. Can we bounce back to the first division, or are you just not that arsed what level we play at?

It was clear that Town's squad was simply inadequate last season and, if we were to be totally honest, Town should have gone down the previous two seasons. It was the sins of the past catching up in a big way. If the board will insist on keeping the company alive, then Town will always struggle, for the playing field ain't level. A touch of realism always smooths and soothes the pain. As long as the players give their best then you shouldn't complain too much. I wouldn't moan at Gallimore for being a bit slow, but I do like my left-backs to be in the same solar system as the opposition's right winger.

A new division, a new set of players, so predictions are even more of a wild guess than normal. I wouldn't expect Town to be relegated, and a relatively injury-free year should see Town in the upper half. It's nice to be in the first division, but Town are a flyweight grappling with middleweights - sooner or later the big punch arrives.

In the end if you support a team you support a team, why stop? It's not consumer capitalism; it's football - which for a supporter of a small-town team is about identity.

Some people might say there is no place for prog rock references in fanzine football reporting. What is your message to them?

Go away and watch your Sky-infested Premiership poncebox. There is less place for tired old clich├ęs, hackneyed churning and mealy-mouthed excusings.

Are prog rock musicians allowed bad hair and footballers not?

One is a prerequisite, the other a comic delight. You, the reader, can decide which is which and who is who.

Did you never fancy trying out a Foxtrot-era Peter Gabriel hairstyle with long sides and shaved down the middle? I'm sure it'd catch on in the Pontoon.

I see Genesis as the Zhang Enhua of progressive rock. Disdain and a very loud pfft towards the very arch angular Gabriel. Sensible hair for sensible people. No, is the short answer. And my brow has furrowed at the very thought.

You, Mr Questionmastergeneral, have an obsession with hair and prog-rock, don't you. I also comment freely upon poor choice of knitwear, the strutting gait of club employees, and make frequent references to other musical genres, including musicals, together with dips into television, cinema and, occasionally, English literature. But oh no, you focus on one little area. The staple referential diet isn't prog-rock, a generally detestable and laughable noise, but one particular ex-band.

And anyway, at least one nylon clad inhabitant of the Pontoon already has foxtrot alpha hair.

Football. It's just gone daft, hasn't it? What's happening to the game, and how will our beloved Mariners cope with it all?

So, what you're saying is: "I don't understand what's going off out there? It wasn't like this in my time. I fought the war for the likes of you." Town will continue, for there is a basic interest that will allow them to bumble along in a lower league. Town haven't been in the top division for nearly 60 years, so why worry too much about being excluded from a social gathering we left when trilbies were fashionable.

Knowing Tony, he would like nothing better than for lots of people to contradict him using the feedback form. Let's have a heated debate!