The hollow men

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Tony Butcher

8 February 2004

Oldham Athletic 6 Grimsby Town 0 (nil)

A bright, semi-breezy wintery afternoon in Partyland, with a full house, people begging for "spares", latecomers walking around the pitch to empty seats, men in kilts, balloons, and mascots waggling their backsides in the faces of bald men. What more could one ask for on a February afternoon? It's what makes Britain great.

Most of the Town seats were taken, so perhaps around 1,300 were gathered together in the Slumberland Dunlopillo stand. How nice of them to make us feel at home by naming it in honour of Simon Ford. Ominously the Town support brought along a small ball to bounce around the stand. We always lose when they bring that. Ominously the team turned up. We always lose when the club bring that.

Town warmed up in the now usual half-hearted, "I'd rather be under the sea in an octopus's garden" way, while Oldham purposefully clipped, chipped, jogged and did team-like things enthusiastically. Out there, on the pitch, the party continued, with a parade of stars, singing, dancing, jokes old and new (Iffy and Thorpe) and as the teams ran out the Town fans tore up their tickets and gave a splendid, roaring ticker tape welcome. Or perhaps they were taunting those lazy Oldhamites who had arrived too late, the "spares" fluttering out of the stand, over the turnstiles and past their noses. Oh, and the teams ran out down a corridor of kilted men blowing bagpipes. Fortunately the wind didn't pick up and lift up their skirts.

The black and whites lined up in a 4-4-2 formation as follows: Davison, Crowe, Edwards, Crane, Barnard, Campbell, Daws, Groves, Jevons, Boulding and Thorpe. The substitutes were Hamilton, Anderson, Ford, Rowan and the man with more flair in his pen than feet, Percy Bysshe Onuora. Crowe was at right-back and everyone else where you'd expect them to be.

The Oldham players huddled together in a great big group hug while the Town players stood around staring at the sky. It may look a bit daft, but the hugging did symbolise their togetherness, to be contrasted with the Town players. Eleven men connected by a common coloured polyester, hardly talking to each other, or looking at each other. Like strangers passing in the street, only by chance two separate glances meet. Hello, you must be Mr Campbell.

First half
Town kicked off away from the massed Mariners and didn't welly it out of play. Barnard carefully curled a chipped pass up the inside left channel, the ball dropping on Thorpe's boot and being delicately laid off, first time, to Boulding, just outside the penalty area. He fell over when a defender whispered "Hello Dolly" in his right ear. Well, wouldn't you?

Not a bad start: a bit of movement, some passing and a nice little touch by Thorpe. Thirty seconds later the wobbles started. Crowe tackled Groves, passing the ball back down the touchline towards the Town goal straight to an Oldham player and something happened: can't remember exactly what, but it involved a lot off flapping of arms and jumping about.

The right side of Town's defence was conspicuous by its absence, with farmer Jethro Campbell determinedly ploughing a single strip of land ten yards either side of the halfway line, and Crowe loving the attacking possibilities of being a wing-back, but without the back bit. Pity he was supposed to be a full back then. Three times in the first ten minutes Crowe zoomed down the right wing, dribbling past one, two, three O'Leary defenders. Exciting for a few microseconds, but when possession was lost there was nothing behind, and no sense of urgency in filling that void.

But let's leave that for a few moments. You want to hear about Town attacking, right? There was some, for the opening ten minutes were relatively even, by Town standards. A Crowe surge and some passing saw Campbell (I think it was Campbell; I may have imagined his presence on the pitch) asing, but clipping the ball to Thorpe inside the penalty area. He turned delicately, precisely, fooling the defenders into thinking the ball cannoned off his knee. In space, a dozen yards out, unmarked, the goal a-gaping, the ball a-blazing out towards Rochdale. It'd be cruel to contrast with Vernon. Go on, do so.

Oldham blazed away wildly too, all sorts of little scufflers letting rip from outside the area. Eyre sent a long-range dipper onto the roof of the net; Davison parried another low skimmer around the post. Oldham tapped a free kick about 25 yards out near the right corner of the penalty area. The referee, in between striker and goal, fell over, the shot zoomed over the falling fool, with Crowe glancing the ball towards the top right hand corner. Davison hopped across and tapped the ball away from underneath the crossbar. Good save, but what difference does it make? It makes none.

More Oldham raids, with Crowe outstanding in repelling the blanket of blue enveloping the area. Offside, indulgent passing and wild, wild shooting saved further humiliation. For the moment. Oops, hang on, here it comes. Pass, tap, flick, a player free inside the Town area on the right. Crossed, Murray unmarked seven yards out beyond the far post, half volleying over the stand. Are they embarrassed too?

With about 25 minutes left the Pouton Posse walked out to their waiting cavalcade with police outriders, following a steady drip, drip, drip of Town fans out of the stand, out of the ground, out of their minds with rage. Like an egg timer, the grains inexorably emptied, time running out, in the game, in the season, for the leader.

Leadership? None apparent, the players silent (save for Crane's regular rant at the referee), no-one visibly in charge, the bench was not animated. Characterless, rudderless, soulless, a bland shape without form, shade without colour, a paralysed force.

Ooh, a Town shot; oh, the ironic cheers. "You're supposed to be at home." Barnard got all his wobbling mass behind a low shot from 25 yards out, which Pogliacomi scurried aside from the left post using his chest and biceps. Barnard curled the corner toward goal, the Pogmeister general clutching the ball on the line, under the bar at the near post. No Town player challenged. More Oldham raids, lost in music.

At some point Oldham took off Sheridan and Vernon, bringing on Eyres and Calvin Zola. About five minutes from the end they got a corner on their right. The ball swung into the middle of the six-yard box and Davison punched clear. From the centre-left edge of the box Boshell (probably) headed the ball back into the middle of the penalty area. Zola controlled the ball with his back to goal, spun and swung his tripods around, the ball zipping into the bottom right corner. Crane behind, Crane not defending.

The remaining Town support demanded a seventh. It was like Walsall away in the dog days of Lawrence, the team unwilling to save him, the crowd demanding a quick death. Short-term pain for long-term gain. Or should that be a different kind of pain delayed?

The last few minutes were as interesting as the previous 40. Town had another couple of attacks, with Thorpe chasing down a defender, robbing him of the ball and curling a cross straight into the goalkeeper's arms as Daws and Boulding shrugged their shoulders.

And finally the moment that summed Town up. Barnard crossed, Daws sneaked around the back, heading across the face of goal. Boulding, six yards out, unmarked, an open goal, allowed the ball to flick off his shins and away for a goal kick. Town can't even muster the will to give us some fleeting moment of false hope.

Barnard and Murray had a kicking and scratching fest as they competed for a loose ball. Barney in a barney, eh? How mature, and just what Town need, their only left-back sent off for violent conduct. The referee gave both yellow cards. Weak.

The end, game over, perhaps something else over. An era ended?