Good night, sweet Hurst

Cod Almighty | Article

by Ron Counte

6 June 2017

A red card for the Bristol Rovers goalkeeper and Paul Hurst might have been installed in the pantheon of great Grimsby managers.

You know what it's like when you've been dumped. Friends rally round and tell you that it's a good thing really, that you were far too good for your ex-partner, and that there are plenty more fish in the sea. A range of emotions – anger, despair, jealousy and resentment – flood through you like rain through a drainpipe. You look at your ex's new partner and wonder what they see in them. You can never really put things into perspective until a reasonable period of time has elapsed. So it is with football managers.

Paul Hurst left the club for the meadows new of Shrewsbury Town in October. Since then, we've had our fling with the sweet-talking Marcus Bignot and another messy break-up. I'm now at the point when I can thank Hurst for sticking to the task and getting us back into the Football League. I think he will have a successful career as a manager and I wish him well. But where will he stand in the pantheon of Grimsby managers?

You have to place his tenure in the context of our circumstances when he took over. Until 2003 Grimsby had been punching well above their weight occupying the second tier for the greater part of the previous two decades or so. From then onwards – with a brief interlude in 2006, when we somehow managed to grab failure from the jaws of promotion – the club started tumbling like a drunken acrobat.

The club went through a series of well-worn managerial strategies in their efforts to halt the slide. The 'former glories' third coming of Alan Buckley got a mediocre squad to Wembley but was ended by a 13-game winless streak. The 'big name' appointment of Mike Newell was good news for local publicans and furniture manufacturers but on and off the pitch it was all pretty shocking. The 'promote from within' option took us out of the Football League and into the doldrums of mid-table Conference before the penny finally dropped that Woods needed felling.

Next up in the club directors' managerial appointment handbook was 'Let's go for an up-and-coming manager from the leagues below' and the arrival of Hurst, initially in harness with Rob Scott, from Boston United in 2011. Following some Punch and Judy antics, Hurst took sole control in 2013.

The record shows that he achieved a play-off place four years running. That has to be a pretty decent achievement. Grimsby had a reasonable budget, but by no means the biggest in the Conference. It is a notoriously tough league to escape from, as many formerly well-established League clubs have found. Town appeared in two FA Trophy finals, and two play-off finals, culminating in victory over Forest Green and our return to the Football League. There was also a notable FA Cup victory over bitter rivals Scunthorpe United. That Hurst had a good eye for a player is exemplified by his recruitment of Pádraig Amond and Omar Bogle.

With a record like that you would think Hurst would be regarded as something of a hero at Grimsby. But he isn't. Why on Earth not?

So with a record like that you would think he would be regarded as something of a hero at Grimsby. But he isn't. Why on Earth not?

They say that football is a results business, but I would qualify that. Football is a results business, but those results have to be tempered against the expectation levels of the club and the fans. In view of their recent history Grimsby Town supporters could not comprehend why we should ever be playing the likes of Braintree and Eastleigh in the Conference. For them, getting to the play-offs was not an achievement: it was the minimum, barely acceptable level of attainment.

Paul Hurst undoubtedly put out well-organised teams and managed to accumulate sufficient points each year to get the club into the top five. But as far as the fans were concerned the club had no business being this far down the pyramid and nothing short of promotion was ever going to satisfy them. Hurst did get the club promoted, but to many fans he took rather too long to achieve it.

The first two play-off campaigns were pretty dreadful. The club had an excellent opportunity at the third attempt, however. One-nil up against Bristol Rovers, with the keeper committing an obvious red card offence, it looked for all the world as if we were on our way. However, the prize went elsewhere.

In many ways, in terms of the fans' perception of Paul Hurst, the extra year it took for the club to escape from the Conference was the straw that broke the camel's back. Though we eventually triumphed, that last season witnessed such inexplicable inconsistency and so many poor performances that the fans' frustration became more and more voluble.

You have to have a pretty thick hide when you're a football manager, and you have to take the stick in your stride when things are not going well. After all, it's not that the fans bemoan you for the sake of it; they do so out of genuine frustration at what they see on the pitch. Hurst allowed the expressions of disappointment emanating from the stands to get under his skin.

Even at his moment of triumph at Wembley, his first action was to turn to sections of the Grimsby supporters with a hand cupped to his ear as if to say "you're not moaning now". It was pretty clear that the relationship was broken and that the negativity between Hurst and the fans was mutual. So it came as no surprise to me that Hurst decided to leave (though I was surprised at his choice of new employer; with his track record I thought he could have gone to a bigger club).

There is no question in my mind that Paul Hurst is a decent manager. In six months at Shrewsbury, he has taken them from the bottom of the third division to safety. He has already taken Aristote Nsiala to the New Meadow and it will be interesting to watch his close-season activity.

Unfortunately, though, despite the achievement of the ultimate goal of promotion, the last few months of Hurst's reign left something of a bitter taste in the mouth. For this reason, the judgement of posterity will be one of grudging respect from the fans, but no affection, no 'we can still be friends' parting. Who knows, but for one hugely controversial refereeing decision in the 2015 play-off final it could all have been different. Unfair possibly, but when has life ever been fair?

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