Cod Almighty | Diary
Her sons from the waters return once again
19 October 2016
I'm going to surprise you now: I used to quite like Bolton when Sam Allardyce managed them. They were a bit like a low-rent Wimbledon for the 2000s – ideas above their station, sticking it to the aristocracy. They weren't quite the Crazy Gang, but they were a half-decent tribute act. A sort of Mildly Eccentric Gang, perhaps.
And they had Jay-Jay Okocha playing for them. Jay-Jay Okocha was the sort of player who you fell in love with because he had cool braids and played for Nigeria and he was a lot of fun on Sensible World of Soccer. The club seemed regularly to pick up players like this – who shouldn't, by rights, have had any business going there (that Spanish bloke with the big hair, I can't remember his name now, he was quite cool as well) but found in Bolton exactly the sort of second chance or football rehab that they needed at a difficult stage in their careers.
And best of all, they used to really annoy Arsenal.
My feelings for Bolton cooled when their then chairman, the late Phil Gartside, started to lobby regularly for relegation from the Premier League to be abolished. We are lucky that, on this occasion, the football authorities rejected an outrageous proposal to tamper with the integrity of our competitions. There's an argument that vast increases to parachute payments have been a way if not to abolish relegation then to render it a short-term inconvenience. But it turned out that Okocha and his teammates may have been drawn to Lancashire not by a humble urge to make good their waywardness but by money that Bolton would never have.
So a club got into debt: what's new? But this was no ordinary debt. This was so much that no parachute payment could break the fall. When Wanderers' turn came to drop out of the Premier League, the amount printed in red at the bottom of the final demand was one hundred and seventy-two million pounds.
The fall-out has been so severe that, rather than bounce back up, another relegation brings with it the indignity of entering the FA Cup at the first round rather than the third, and the need to get past a club just out of non-League. Bolton's arrival this season in the lower divisions of the Football League is the culmination of a long year-on-year decline. Only once in the past ten seasons have they finished higher in the leagues than in the year before.
And in among all that there was the terrible business of their Bowl of Shoes stadium being located literally miles away from Bolton, in a town down the road called Horwich, where presumably there was a bit more space to build or the land was cheaper or something. I know we sometimes talk about Peaks Parkway or Great Coates being out of the way, but it's nothing on the Bowl of Shoes. This is more like GTFC relocating to Immingham or Goole, or Guernsey.
This got me thinking about Town's proposed new stadium all over again. I wonder whether, as fans and as a club, we would still think it necessary had we not had our turn in the sun, back in the 1980s and 90s, competing on level terms with (the likes of) Bolton Wanderers.
We don't support Grimsby because we think we'll win things. We support them because that's who we are
We know from our time in the Conference how GTFC fans retain a strong sense that the space/time continuum will be skewed and the balance of the universe dangerously out of kilter until the Mariners are at least back in the top half of the third division – and comfortably above Scunthorpe United, if possible. Indeed, many Grimbarians see no reason why we should not go further, pushing on into the Premier League and challenging for honours – just like Bolton did for a bit.
Perhaps that was the thinking at Bolton when they moved to the Bowl of Shoes and spent all that pretend money. They'd already passed a decade and a half mostly in the lower divisions, from around the time your original/regular Diary started to watch Grimsby Town. And they weren't used to it. We're not Wimbledon, they might have said. We're a famous old club who used to win things. We deserve to win things again.
Now I don't expect many folk will agree, but I see it a bit differently. We're never going to win anything. We're Grimsby Town, for crying out loud. That's not what we're for. We don't support Grimsby because we think we'll win things. We support them because that's who we are.
And bound up with the issue of who we are is the question of where we are. Where we are is a diminished outpost on the North Sea coast, overlooking a steely grey estuary where the tide goes out for miles. Just occasionally the pearly sea shimmers and dances in a low, opalescent dusk and the lavish Lincolnshire sky seems about to burst with burnish and dazzle, and your heart almost stops with the beauty of it all. But mostly there's the empty expanse of the tide-forsaken sandflats, an Arctic wind that bruises bone, and distant electric lights calling through the late afternoon darkness that envelops the water.
That's actually not a bad place. There are plenty of worse ones. Often it isn't a pretty place. But it's a place that informs who we are. The views and the cold around Blundell Park are a striking and unique sensory experience. More than that, though, they tell Grimsby's story: the past hard graft of our grandfathers, the present neglect of our governors. They are integral to Town's very distinctive identity. And that identity amounts to something greater than supporters at many of the more 'successful' clubs we see around us will ever know.
If all you're bothered about is winning, none of this will matter. There are plenty of Town fans who say I don't care where the new stadium is or what it looks like, as long as they just get the thing built. And, you know, that's a point of view. It assumes that getting the thing built means the club getting more money, and then that the club getting more money means winning things. You might question those assumptions. But it's a point of view.
Perhaps this is unfair, but I wonder whether that's a point of view you'll take if you're the sort of person who enjoys 'banter' and 'bragging rights' and other things that the people who make the adverts for Sky TV and Betfair tell us we should enjoy. You might take winning a bit more seriously in that case. You might think Town could reach the Premier League, and be like Stoke City, or someone like that.
I really like winning. It's great. But even more than that, I like having a club that feels like mine. That embodies who I am. That's why, when I look at some of those clubs who win things, I don't think I'd swap what we have for what they have. Second-flight football for 30 quid and a ground that could be anyone's? I'll leave that with Reading. In order to win, you've lost who you were.
And every time someone wins, someone loses. And your turn will always come. And if you lost your identity in becoming a winner, then when your turn comes to lose, you've got nothing left. Not even who you were.
I wish Bolton fans all the best in trying to get it back.