A Blundell Park birthday

Cod Almighty | Article

by Andy Freeman

5 December 2016

With Portsmouth our next visitors, Andy remembers the birthday treat their fans, and their goalkeeper, gave him in 2001

Andy Freeman's family outside Blundell Park

It was my 50th birthday and this was my party. I had invited a dozen male family members to a seat in the Main Stand to join my son and me in our regular 'Blundell Park Experience'. They came from all over the country – Manchester, Hull, Sheffield, London, Oxford – and at every family gathering since that December day in Cleethorpes the whole experience is remembered and discussed nostalgically: the metal trough in the gents' urinal blocked with tab ends; the wooden Dickensian planking behind the Main Stand; the wind howling straight from Siberia; the distant views of the Hull to Zeebrugge ferry passing Spurn Point. Some of the family have never recovered; the ones with more imagination loved every minute of it.

The pitch was officially 'firm', the weather 'bitterly cold' as 5,217 of us walked towards Blundell Park on Saturday 29 December 2001. My son and I went through the usual 'lucky' routine: park the car outside Haith's bird seed factory; a bag of chips from Dave's chippy; count the number of rabbit hutches outside the pet shop; watch the players warm up. But this match against Portsmouth was to prove so memorable and is up there with going to see Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis in The Vikings in 1958 as my two best birthday treats ever.

It was Paul Groves's first game as manager. The board had finally decided that just one win in the last 20 league games was enough and that the multi-excused, self-professed tactically astute, would-be high-spending manager that was Lennie Lawrence should pick up his P45.

The 2001-02 campaign had started so well after us dramatically avoiding relegation on the last day of the previous season. We were top of Division One – the league just below the Premiership – on 1 September, just as England were thrashing Germany 5-1 in Munich. But the next 20 pre-Christmas games gave a truer picture of a mediocre team. Willems? Beharall? Chapman? Rowan? It lacked the glamour of a David Neilson or the exotic potential of the £13,000-a-week Zhang Enhua.

The Pompey fans were there hours before the game started, bare-chested, bell-ringing with tattoos in designs going back to the days of Nelson

The Pompey fans were the best set of fans I've ever seen at Blundell Park. They must have set off at dawn for the 285-mile trek to Cleethorpes. They were there hours before the game started, bare-chested, bell-ringing – I'll never forget 'The Pompey Chimes' – with real naval tattoos with designs going back to the days of Nelson.

Led by the good-natured, charismatic John Anthony Portsmouth Football Club Westwood (his real name!), they were determined to enjoy every minute of the day despite the sub-zero temperatures.

Graham Rix, ex-Arsenal, was the manager of a Portsmouth team studded with stars: a young Peter Crouch, Nigel Quashie, Linvoy Primus, and Croatian footballing legend Robert Prosinecki, whose playmaking skills had destroyed the Mariners in their encounters of the previous season. But the star of the show was recent £1.8million signing Japanese international goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi. The footballing gods smiled on GTFC when his name appeared on the team sheet that day.

Before the match the talk was of regime change. Had Lawrence (3-5-2, foreign loan players, brimming with self-confidence) been hard done by? Paul Groves, hard-working and an experienced player but no management experience? Where was John Cockerill? Tony Gallimore as captain? Menno Willems on the bench? Total agreement at least on that. And the atmosphere at the start of the match was uneasy and tense, the crowd still muttering about Furneaux and the board. It all felt a little unreal with family members especially being surprised at the code of silence that prevails in the Main Stand for at least the first 15 minutes of every game.

Town, defending the Pontoon, 'soaked up the pressure' and were kept in the game by a string of fine saves from Danny Coyne. Prosinecki starred for the first 20 minutes but as the pitch "firmed up" (i.e. froze) he drifted gingerly out of the game. And of course the inevitable happened. After 32 minutes Jamie Vincent's cross was met by the head of Peter Crouch, the ball squirmed under the body of keeper Coyne and into the corner of the net. The Pompey chimes could be heard in Hull. The Osmond stand was a mass of cheering, waving, increasingly shirtless euphoria. Portsmouth were spoiling my party. One or two family members looked at their watches and stamped their feet.

But then within the space of five minutes just before half time the whole match changed.

On 40 minutes a corner from Danny Butterfield. Kawaguchi drops the ball onto Jevons's toe a yard from the goal-line. 1-1! Four minutes later, in a carbon copy of the first goal, the Japanese keeper flaps at the ball from a corner and Simon Ford heads home. 2-1 to Town!

I think we were all too stunned to cheer.

Half time was scalding tea and birthday cake for those hypothermic family members who had ignored my warnings about the cold. And I'm sure I heard the sound of a samurai sword being sharpened and a death poem being composed in preparation for a post-match hara-kiri ritual disembowelment to be performed in front of the Pompey fans.

The Pompey fans discarded more clothes and made more noise the lower the temperature

The second half passed in a dream. Town's midfield three of Butterfield, Burnett and Coldicott fighting for every ball. Ben Chapman (5'6") outjumping Peter Crouch (6'10"), to the amusement of the whole crowd. Graham Rodger's shouted instructions from the bench getting louder and louder. The Pompey fans discarding more and more clothes and making more noise the lower the temperature. Kawaguchi looking smaller and more forlorn with every passing second in front of a less than sympathetic Pontoon.

But then with ten minutes to go Chapman skipped past the sulking Prosinecki in the box and the Croatian pulled him down. Could Kawaguchi redeem himself? No! Jevons stepped up to send the keeper the wrong way. 3-1.

The Portsmouth fans endeared themselves to us all at the end of the game. They gave Kawaguchi a special round of applause, put their shirts back on and started their epic journey back home after giving a final rendition of the Pompey chimes to a quickly emptying Blundell Park.

A new era of Grimsby Town history had started. I was so pleased to be able to share a personal milestone in my life with my family and the wider family of the Mariners. I'll be 70 in December 2021. Of course I'll be inviting my family to share the day with me at Blundell Park.

I do hope we play Portsmouth.

Andy says Pompey fans are the best to have visited Blundell Park. Do you have any other favourite visitors

This article was first published in The Mariner, the Grimsby Town matchday programme.