Crawling over the line

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell & Paul Thundercliffe

22 March 2013

It began as a carefree gallop. It ended with a painful crawl across the finishing line.

Alan Buckley's Grimsby had been a work in progress when it reignited interest in the club with its 1989 FA Cup run. But when its 100 per cent record in March 1990 turned the Mariners from play-off hopefuls to promotion certainties, it had looked close to the finished article. There was just one transfer in the close season afterwards. Neil Woods arrived from Bradford, struck up an instant partnership with Tony Rees and scored eight goals in the first 12 matches of the season.

Town's season was set up on the plastic pitch at Preston, their passing and movement created on such a surface during the week. The one-touch play was mesmerising as Town demolished teams with incisive football, played into feet and finished with aplomb. The obvious example is Cockerill's masterpiece against Huddersfield, but there were numerous examples of tricks and flicks to create goals; Childs against Wigan, Woods against Leyton Orient. As fans we were spoilt but didn't really know why.

By 15 December, when we travelled to league leaders Southend, Grimsby were nine points clear of third-placed Stoke City. Southend was abuzz: "The local radio reporter had only a slight doubt about the where the match fitted into Southend United's history. 'This is arguably the club's biggest game ever'," the Guardian began its report.

Until then, Town had lost just twice in the league, but they had been knocked out at the first stage of all three cups. The last cup defeat had been four days before the trip to Southend, when Rees and Tommy Watson were sent off for arguing with each other. Far from the cups being a distraction, Town's exits contributed to a loss of momentum in the league. The summit meeting fell flat. Falling behind to an early goal, Town lost 2-0, the match passing Rees and Woods by.

It was the beginning of a seven-game sequence in which Town would lose five times without scoring. Strangely, we netted eight times in the other two games, winning both. Rees and Woods, and Gary Childs, were very much flair players. When they were on form, they would have graced the top flight, but there were also days when you wondered how on Earth they had got professional contracts. Heavy December pitches did not help Town's pass-and-move style: a 1-0 defeat at Cambridge was played out on a pitch that was two parts mud, two parts sand and most parts puddles.

Finally, the sale of Andy Tillson to QPR coincided with injuries to his obvious replacements Ian Knight, Garry Birtles and Paul Agnew. That a shortage of goals coincided with a defensive injury crisis might seem paradoxical, yet with John Cockerill and Shaun Cunnington notable more for their hard running and tackling than their passing, the Town style relied on distribution from a ball-playing defender.

That set the stage for a second notable signing. Paul Futcher had played football at the highest level, even commanding Manchester City's record transfer fee at the time he signed in 1978. A classy, almost languid defender, Futcher had played with Steve Buckley at Luton so it was with some surprise that brother Alan picked up a circular from the Football League informing him that Halifax no longer required the 34-year-old centre-half.

Initially signing on loan, it became clear almost immediately what Futch gave the side. Poise, intelligence and the ability to read the game four moves ahead of his opponents (and sometimes his team-mates) enveloped the team and they started to believe again. Futcher brought out the best in Mark Lever alongside him as he calmed the defence but also added a passing element to the whole team.

Being in the top three all season was proving a bit of a burden and fans were sharing in the fraught atmosphere by losing a few nails

If our early-season form had been based on attacking fluidity, our late winter recovery was built on solid defence. From mid-January, Grimsby conceded just five goals in 13 matches, losing only once. By the end of March, we were back on top of the league, a point above Southend and with a five-point advantage in the promotion race.

April is the nervous month. Our unbeaten run ended at Dean Court, Bournemouth coming from behind after a long-range Watson strike had put Town ahead. Our next two matches were against promotion rivals, Cambridge in seventh but with four games in hand, Bury in fifth.

The home game against Cambridge was tense. The free-flowing one-touch goals of the autumn had disappeared as the finishing line got closer. Being in the top three all season was proving a bit of a burden and fans were sharing in the fraught atmosphere by losing a few nails. By this time Mark Smith, another Buckley old boy from his Kettering days, had signed but failed to add potency. In the end a scrappy match was settled from the penalty spot by Dave Gilbert after a needless handball. The win gave Grimsby an eight-point cushion in the promotion race.

We needed it. A 3-2 defeat at Bury was followed by a 0-0 draw at Craven Cottage. Injury to Lever forced us to field the cast of Last of the Summer Wine – Steve Sherwood, Birtles and Futcher – in the heart of defence, but although local London radio was adamant Fulham should have been several goals to the good at half time, the national press suggested we kept chances to a minimum. We might, should, have won it in the second half. Smith, more remarkable for his speed than his skill, ran on to a one-on-one with the Fulham keeper but chipped the ball wide. With five games remaining, we needed ten points to be sure of promotion. With two home ties against unfancied teams next up, we were almost there. Surely?

The matches were torturous. Against mid-table Birmingham, Town were frustrated and frustrating as chances came and went. It wasn't that the belief had gone as such, just that with five games to go Grimsby were incredibly close to a second promotion. It meant so much. The game finished goalless after Smith's header against the bar and Martin Thomas's heroics in goal.

A chance for redemption came three days later as Crewe, in the relegation places, came to Town. This game was so one-sided it was like Crewe's half of the pitch was magnetised, but the ball would not go in. Chances in either half, Town keeping to their footballing principles with efforts off the line and shots from the likes of Kevin Jobling tipped over. Finally, a young Craig Hignett broke away to score the goal and consign Grimsby to a fourth home defeat of the season – a Blundell Park campaign, incidentally, where the lowest attendance was over 5,000.

Saturday 27 April, the last match in a month that had brought the Mariners just five points from six games. Town featured on ITV's Saint and Greavsie. We were treated to close-ups of a diminishing fishing port and a waning football team. Buckley lamented final balls and missed opportunities, the stress and pain etched on his face. Grimsby were now second on goal difference ahead of Bolton, but with Cambridge just three points behind with three games in hand. To secure one of the three promotion places, we needed to match Bolton's results over the last three games. A win at Leyton Orient had become a necessity.

Pat recalls the day:

"Welcome to the Third Division: scarcely a pleasure dome on this and other recent evidence," the Observer began its report. At the time I was offended, but if the jibe did scant justice to our autumn form, for this match it was all too accurate. I'd gone to the match with a Grimsby man, not a football fan but now caught up in the excitement of the season. Leaving the ground, we met another colleague, this time an Orient supporter. His realism about the quality of the football underscored that our glee was purely for the result, for the occasion.

The opening goal was the antithesis of pass-and-run. After 40 tepid minutes, Sherwood booted a clearance to the edge of the Orient penalty area. The slow parabola of the flight of the ball was met by the slow turn of Birtles and the slow swing of his foot. The ball bobbled, still in slow motion, beyond the Orient keeper into the bottom corner of the net. Kick-and-stand. It was as though the two veterans had cast a spell, freezing everything except the ball as with just two touches it made its way up the field into the far goal.

For ten minutes at the start of the second half, Town suddenly shook off the tension and recovered the freedom of movement that had been missing earlier in the month. The heart of the revival was John Cockerill. Time and again he picked up the ball in the Town half and ran at the Orient midfield, sucking players to him, creating space. For years I had a vivid memory of the Mariners' second goal, the ball running loose to Gilbert after a challenge had half-ended one of Cockerill's charges, his prod into the penalty area being met by Watson, who turned and scored. Vivid but wrong, Roly and John's DVD of the season proved years later.

The DVD also proves that the stunning save I clearly recall Sherwood making against Exeter, diving low to get a touch on a shot from the penalty spot was in fact fairly routine, from a long-range shot. Print the legend. My memories are faithful to the emotions if not the facts of our promotion-clinching wins. Watching from the Imperial Corner as the ball deflected off Sherwood's hand, having to wait an extra half-second until it bounced off the hoardings to know that our lead, in the match, in the race for the last promotion place, had been preserved. A stunning enough sensation. And in both games, I see Cockerill, a grin on his face even – especially – when in the thick of the action, driving us to victory.

At Brisbane Road, the match subsided again after Watson's goal. Orient pressed but rarely threatened, although had they not sent a penalty not just over the bar but almost out of the ground, the story of the match, of the season, might still have been different.

Following the 2-0 win at Orient, we travelled to Stoke. Paul was there:

Earlier in the season when Town were simply too good for any team, they demolished Stoke 2-0 at Blundell Park. There were over 10,000 there, plenty of Stoke fans and a cracking atmosphere and a mental Pontoon greeted two well-crafted second-half goals. The return at the Victoria Ground was a chance for revenge and not just from the players. As we travelled on a Vern's Away Days bus in a convoy of about 18 coaches the Stoke fans greeted us with swearing fingers, the odd rock and a lot of bile.

The Mariners needed to win their last match of the season, at home to Exeter, to guarantee promotion

It was an intense game. You felt it could kick off on the pitch or in the stands at any time but Town were cool. Determined to keep a clean sheet that would keep the final day in their own hands, Garry Birtles almost made it a perfect afternoon, but headed wide when it seemed easier for the European Cup winner to send us into raptures. The goalless draw was an excellent result. It kept the season alive and brought 2,000 Stoke fans onto the pitch in confrontation. To be fair the police dealt with it well and we didn't mind having to stay another half-hour to digest the fact that the season was ours to grasp.

Southend and Cambridge had taken advantage of games in hand to pull ahead in first and second, but, despite our erratic April, losing a home banker, dropping points in 'must-win' games only to recover them elsewhere, we remained in the last automatic promotion place, ahead of Bolton on goal difference. The Mariners needed to win their last match of the season, at home to Exeter, to guarantee promotion.

Paul remembers:

The Exeter game was the biggest day of my fifteen and a half years. Thinking back now, I don't think I felt particularly nervous that May morning. We did what we always did before a match: get on the train at Grimsby and travel (hopefully for free) to Cleethorpes. After a couple of quid on the slots and some chips we walked along the North Wall, over the railway bridge and towards the Pontoon.

I was with the usual crowd: Mick Martin, Youngy, Ash and others. We made our way earlier than usual, to be hit by an unexpected wall of noise as we neared the ground. It was jovial inside, packed solid full of expectation. There was not the slightest doubt around us that Town were going to win and the first half proved us right.

We had already had a goal disallowed for a marginal offside decision when Cockerill put us ahead, Exeter having awarded him the freedom of their penalty area when they tried to push out from a free kick. His second followed neat work by Childs and Woods on the right of the penalty area and a low cross, Cockerill going through the back of a defender's ankle to force the ball home.

The second half seemed set for a victory parade, but within minutes of the restart, a shot from outside the penalty area beat Sherwood. Interviewed about the match two years later, Gilbert was to recall how the whole ground fell silent then, bringing home to the players just what the day meant. The old footballing cliché about the dangers of a two-goal lead came vividly to life as Town defended deeper and deeper, Sherwood called into heroic action.

I spent the first 45 at the top of the Pontoon and enjoyed starting off a song or two but didn't like the crush. We had enjoyed big crowds that season but it was uncomfortable, so I moved down to the gate near the corner flag at half time. There could have been ten goals in the second half but we wouldn't have been any wiser. It was loud, the crowd was edging closer to the pitch by the minute, and we just wanted the final whistle.

When Exeter hit the post I strained to see the woodwork rattled and knew we were up. I didn't encroach like most around me but as soon as the whistle went I was on the pitch and ran towards the dugouts. I managed to get on top of what was then the home dugout and could not believe the sight of the sea of black and white happiness in front of me.

I was young, certainly naive, but at that moment in time I thought supporting Grimsby Town was always be going to be like this.

What are your memories of '91? What do you think of Pat and Paul's article? Let us know using the legendary Cod Almighty feedback form.