Cod Almighty | Article
by Pat Bell
10 June 2009
Part 2: When is a Frenchman not a Frenchman?
After Lennie Lawrence's questionable use of Scandinavian and Chinese 'talent', it was left to Paul Groves to try and repair the damage. The first part of Groves's managerial career was an exercise in damage limitation. At a time when no-one expected too much, his authority as a player was enough to wield the side into a reasonably effective unit, with the addition of a few high-profile loan and short-term signings. In his first half-season, the Swede Martin Pringle had an impact well beyond his one and a half appearances before Dave Challinor ended his career - with Andy Todd he provided the impetus to avert relegation.
In Groves's first full season, he at least managed an orderly retreat, aided by the Cape Verde international Georges Santos. Like Chima, Santos announced himself with defiance in a losing cause. Coming off the bench with Town 3-0 down, he immediately launched a murderous assault, a two-footed lunge, on a Reading player but was shown only a yellow card. We left with a certain glow in our hearts, and Santos, at six foot three and over fourteen stone, made good on his promise to provide some much needed physical presence in a lightweight Town squad. Converted to central defence, he didn't always know quite what he was doing, but he got away with it.
For Santos, Blundell Park provided rehabilitation, having come to be regarded as a walking red card at Tranmere and having been one of the players sent off in the Battle of Bramall Lane - the infamous game abandoned after dismissals and injury reduced Sheffield United to seven players. His and our aspirations met perfectly when he inspired Town to a 2-0 win over the Owls, his delight at opening the scoring with a strong header manifest as lay down before the dug outs to receive the adoration of team-mates and fans; if we couldn't avoid relegation, we could at least take Sheffield Wednesday down with us. Our player of that season, Santos rejected the chance to stay with Grimsby in the third flight, instead enjoying decent spells with Ipswich and QPR.
Groves had done enough to remain in charge, but now the expectations were different - he had the responsibility of building a squad to challenge for an immediate return to the second division. The new signings were promising. Inevitably dubbed "the flying Dutchman", winger Marcel Cas would later describe his early season form as "awesome": providing the cross that secured Town's first win of the season at Luton, featuring heavily in a 4-0 victory over Chesterfield, and forcing the first-half tactical substitution of the Sheffield Wednesday left-back, Jon Beswetherick, before getting clobbered by the Owls' goalkeeper and substituted himself.
It was not long, though, before Cas was conforming to another Netherlands footballing stereotype: getting into a very public row with the manager. As Cas lost his place to Jason Crowe, his Telegraph column evidenced increasing signs of homesickness, reporting that only Tony Crane's massive personality was keeping him sane.
Under the financial strains imposed by the collapse of ITV Digital, the nature of life at Blundell Park was changing. From being a club where players tended to stay, or leave on good terms, there were now an increasing number of players, ex-players and would-be players - another Dutchman, Laurens Ten Heuvel, had his contract cancelled to allow him to sign for Grimsby, only for Groves to pull out of the deal - who felt they had grounds for dissatisfaction. Groves became an increasingly remote figure, his position finally unsustainable after a series of heavy defeats had Town fighting against a second successive relegation.
The man the board chose to avert the threat was an iconoclast. Any last semblance of a reputation Grimsby had as a stable, decent club was assailed as Nicky Law brought to the club journeymen athletes, surplus to requirements elsewhere for reasons that quickly became all too apparent. The most notorious was the Parisian Mickael Antoine-Curier. Rob Briggs and Dave Wherry, in Mariner Men, tell it like it was:
"Mickael became the first peacetime player to appear for six different football league clubs in one season... Sadly his spell as a Mariner was disappointing - not only did he not look like scoring, Mickael rarely won an aerial duel, while his positional play was questionable."
Town were relegated, losing a match they had to win at Tranmere with a lack of fight that bore all the hallmarks of a side with no commitment to the cause.
The manner of Grimsby's disintegration left the new manager, Russell Slade, with a blank slate and an atmosphere of coruscating negativity. He talked of the need to earn the right to play, and amid the giant physical specimens, he also recruited the slight, very gallic Thomas Pinault, who drove a battered Renault and spoke of "the beautiful game".
Once again, the early signs were promising, and Pinault featured heavily - a steely tackle that belied his frame complementing a touch that allowed him to avert danger and then turn it into attack with an accurate pass. He capped a man of the match display with two goals in a 5-1 defeat of Bury, and was central as Town outplayed second division Wigan in the League Cup. The results did not often match the performances, however, and there was little scope for patience. Pinault's influence diminished as the Mariners became more direct, culminating in the bizarre decision to bring him on as a holding midfielder, with predictable results - Grimsby let slip a two-goal lead, and Slade launched a tirade: "The Frenchman was an absolute disgrace. People like that make me sick." Pinault left at the end of the season.
He was replaced by the more combative Jean-Paul Kamudimba Kalala, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. His game more suited to the realities of fourth division football, as perceived by Russell Slade, his belief that he was destined for better things manifested in a taste for shots from distance. Usually they tested the roof of the stands or dribbled into the keeper's arms, but just once, with two minutes to play in a cup tie against Tottenham, he latched on to a half clearance and somehow found the corner of the net through a crowded penalty area for the only goal of the game. Cue gloating - it felt a very long time since we had had anything to gloat about. Better times were surely coming, and Russell Slade could afford to remind us of his outburst against Pinault with a teasing reference to JPKK as "The Frenchman".
Surely better times were coming. Slade had built a squad full of talent, allied to defensive organisation. The football no longer pretended to be pretty, but that would flow from confidence, and confidence would flow from results, we were told, and Kalala offered the possibility of winning the ball and playing it up the pitch at pace. Except finally it seemed safer to wham the ball upfield for Michael Reddy to chase and Ciaran Toner and Paul Bolland proved better at doing the kicking and chasing. Kalala left for the African Cup of Nations and returned to find himself still further on the margins, with the arrival of Curtis Woodhouse and Marc Goodfellow. Town faltered, with Reddy injured and no evidence of a plan B, the midfield now unsettled.
On the last day of the season, to go up Grimsby needed to beat Northampton and hope Orient failed to beat Oxford. Kalala came on as a substitute and scored a penalty to put the Mariners ahead. In injury time, Northampton equalised and Orient took the lead. Grimsby were outplayed in the play-off final, Slade having refused to sign a new contract. As with Buckley, make of the events what you will: either Kalala as a symbol of Slade's failure to make best use of the players he was so adept at attracting, or the symbol of the right approach foiled at the final hour. It was certainly nothing personal - JPKK followed Slade to Yeovil.
It is, at best, a chequered picture, full of broken bones, wrecked careers, foiled dreams, and a draw at Meadow Lane. Some came for the love of the game, some imagined the lucre rush of the Premiership might have left some brass on the mucky banks of the Humber. Some imagined making a home here, but for many, however we felt, it was just another temporary halt. They all left disappointed, and so did their managers. We did not.
Not one player from outside Britain and Ireland, so far, has brought lasting success to Grimsby Town, but still there have been moments we will never forget; no lasting success, but enduring happiness at the thought of Bonetti against the Baggies, the Nielsen scissor kick, Santos dragging down Wednesday, Kalala piloting home past the England goalkeeper... Somehow, the first moment stands for the the best in them all - a Nigerian, having learnt the game in India, now trying his luck in England, runs at the opposition in the dying stages of the early rounds of a cup game already lost, on a midweek night before a sparse support. He hopes and hits and scores. We still lose, but we celebrate as though we have won the very cup we have just been knocked out of. It did not lead to better things, but the moment is perfect in itself. Enjoy it, and enjoy the memory of it.
There are even more debts to acknowledge than usual. The title, and the idea of writing about non-British and Irish players, came from Mark Shephard. I've quoted a few printed sources, but so far unacknowledged are match reports by Geoff Ford and Tony Butcher, and reminiscences from Al Wilkinson, Andy Holt, Keith Collins, Mike Worden, Miles Moss, and Pete Green. The "Total football... total garbage" line is lifted from a phrase Bill Brewster used in another context - it is too right for Menno Willems to ignore.
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