Cod Almighty | Article
by Pete Green
7 May 2009
Town are staying up and there's plenty to talk about. But since Kirk Hudson etched his name into Mariners folklore with that glorious double strike for Aldershot against Chester the other week, several dangerous myths have arisen about the 200809 season and the way forward for Mike Newell's side. And where better than the pages of Cod Almighty to debunk myths? Well, lots of places, probably, like Newsnight. But that security guard at Broadcasting House is bigger than all of the CA team put together. Cod Almighty it is, then.
Myth number 1: Town only stayed up because of Luton's points deduction
Clubs who build a competitive advantage by signing players they can't afford, and then enter administration to get 90 per cent of the debt written off, should clearly be punished. It's right that the penalty should place them at some sort of competitive disadvantage: if they can't balance their books, they can at least balance their karma. But the huge points deductions slapped out to Luton, Bournemouth and Rotherham for the start of the 2008-09 season didn't just hinder those clubs. They had a terrible impact on Grimsby Town, and arguably Chester, as well.
OK, maybe not Chester. They were rubbish anyway. But definitely Grimsby.
Town's players kicked off last August knowing they didn't comprise a squad that was good enough to challenge for promotion. They were also mindful that two competing clubs were starting the season on minus 17 points and one on minus 30, and so they believed there was very little chance of going down. Like the players who had just freewheeled through the final weeks of the previous season, they thought they had nothing to play for. And like the 2007-08 team in those sleepy post-Wembley weeks, they went on and on and on without a win - until Rotherham went past them, and then Bournemouth looked set to catch up, and only then did they actually start playing.
In hindsight no-one would argue that Alan Buckley had assembled potentially a top ten squad. But over the 2008-09 season Town's playing resources were no weaker than those of Barnet, Notts County, Port Vale, or any of the half-dozen mediocre sides that finished safely just above us. And if all 24 clubs had started the season on zero points, Town's players would never have begun so complacently. Instead, Luton's and Bournemouth's big deductions exerted a dark gravitational pull that sucked us down with them.
Two more wins would have had us finishing 19th instead of 2Second; three more, 16th. It's in this region of the table, rather than the bottom two, that Town would have ended up had those punishments to other clubs not fundamentally distorted the competitiveness of the fourth division.
Myth number 2: Newell should get rid of Matt Heywood
It doesn't matter how bad a player is: booing when their name is read out before the match, or when they come on as a sub, is the act of a traitor, not a supporter. "Uhhh, I've paid 16 quid to watch this garbage, I've got a right to boo if I want to." Yes, you have. Nobody's saying you haven't got a right to. But if you do, it makes you much worse a supporter than Matt Heywood is a footballer.
Is Heywood even a bad player? Or is he, in fact, a decent player who has mostly happened to play badly for his current club? It happens all the time. Let's not forget that he led the defence to two clean sheets in his first two games for the Mariners - against Rochdale and Tranmere. And let's not forget the way circumstances very quickly turned against him. After this bright start, Town took a pounding from eventual champions Brentford, and then injuries to Hope and Stockdale saw Heywood trying to hold the line with Bennett pushed out to right-back, Hegarty at left-back, and rugged centre-half Tom Newey alongside him. There was nowhere to go but down.
But circumstances are always forgotten. The boo-boys decided quickly, and that was that. "God knows how Brentford fans voted him their player of the season," offered one messageboard contributor recently. Oooh, let me see now - maybe they formed a balanced opinion based on watching him play for a whole season rather than making up their minds on the basis of a handful of poor games in an underperforming side - something crazy like that. Ryan Bennett was another defender struggling for form last autumn, even when he got to play in the middle, but we all love Ryan Bennett, so that seems a very long time ago now. Heywood was made the emblem of Buckley's painfully ponderous squad building, so all his mistakes seem like they happened yesterday. Mob rule and scapegoating. As if we've never seen it before.
Other fans have sensibly pointed out that Rob Jones, too, looked short of pace and out of sorts in his first season at Blundell Park. If Russell Slade had followed the advice now being offered to Newell by some Town fans, we would never have witnessed Jones' glorious performances in his second year as a Mariner en route to the play-off final at the Millennium Stadium.
Of course Heywood is slow. Paul Futcher was slow; so were any number of good centre-halves. Heywood ain't no Futcher, obviously - maybe he's more of a Mark Lever - but alongside one of Town's more youthful and sprightly centre-halves his lack of pace need not be a problem if a manager deploys him intelligently (and granted, this will need extra thought given Newell's preference for a high defensive line). If Heywood is happy to stick around as back-up for Bennett and Atkinson, and not rock the boat, then Newell should at least let him see out the final year of his contract. And the angry mob should give him a chance to become a new Jones or Lever, rather than making him the new Paul Raven. If he doesn't, he doesn't - but let him have the chance.
Myth number 3: Town deserved to stay up because of our fantastic support
Wasn't it great at Notts County? Outsinging and as good as outnumbering the home fans. Two thousand of us, roaring Town through that torrid first half and on to a decisive victory in the second. Powerful image. Makes you proud.
Just as the fate of a team in May is decided by 46 results rather than just the one, however, so we ought to look at a team's support across the season as a whole. No, the fantastic support at Notts County didn't deserve relegation. But before the cheap tickets, Town's average home attendance for the season was comfortably below 4,000. Without that late surge our support this season would have been as weak, statistically, as at any time since the Second World War.
So what about the thousands who deserted their club through the winter, when their club needed them most? What about the ones who'll criticise the players for giving less than 100 per cent and then abandon Blundell Park with the scores level, or nearly level, and ten minutes still to be played? What about the people booing and jeering Wayne Henderson on his home debut because the gale force wind was blowing his goal kicks into touch? And those singing "We're shit and we know we are" at the end of the game? What about those who, even now, say they won't renew their season tickets if Jamie Clarke gets a new contract?
Teams sometimes do well partly because of their support. Luckily for us, a team can also do alright despite its support. Just look at Scunthorpe.
But if Town are ever going to get out of the lower divisions again, our support needs to break out of this cycle of neglect followed by rallying cries and firefighting. We need a lot more committed and unconditional support. Support that keeps supporting even when the team is shit, instead of finding x, y and z reasons not to go. Support that doesn't wait around at home for a crisis and coupons in the Grimsby Telegraph.
Myth number 4: Lower ticket prices would mean bigger crowds
Speaking of coupons in the Grimsby Telegraph, the recent promotional campaign has given rise to a myth that Town would draw crowds of six or seven thousand to every home game if you could get in for five or ten quid instead of 16. No they wouldn't. People have flocked to recent matches because there was a very obvious and easily understood short-term cause to rally round - keep the Mariners in the Football League! - instead of the more prosaic but ultimately far more important cause of just supporting your club week in, week out. Run the same offer when Morecambe or whoever come to BP on a Tuesday night this November and there'll just be the usual 3,662 turning out.
John Fenty has often been urged to follow the example of Bradford and offer season tickets for less than half the fourth division's going rate. He is far from alone among chairmen in declining to do so, and for a very good reason. After two years of selling their ultra-cheap season tickets - and being cited by fans throughout the league as an example of imaginative and forward-thinking pricing policy - the Bantams are utterly buggered financially and desperate to offload players.
Yes, it is always worth thinking about ways to attract more support. Yes, football is expensive, and yes, we're in a recession. But the boom years never saw a boom in attendances at Blundell Park. If getting Grimbarians to support their football club were a simple matter of pricing, even the murky-eyed fumblers who run Town's commercial department would have stumbled across the right formula by now. Sadly for those who like to make believe that only a few easy answers stand between us and Utopia, the reasons for the Mariners' lack of support are far more complicated, deep-rooted and intangible than mere pounds and pence.
Myth number 5: Martin Butler was an awful signing and Newell was right to get rid
Only joking. He was really. You can have that one.
Myth number 5: Success next season depends on keeping the loanees
I'd like to shake Wayne Henderson warmly by the hand. If Joe Widdowson is ever at a loose end and he chances to be in my neighbourhood, I would be more than glad to stand him a pint or two. Peter Sweeney, should he happen to miss his last bus home from somewhere close to my front door, would be more than welcome to crash on my sofa, and I'd be honoured to chuck breakfast in as well. So profoundly, in fact, have Mike Newell's recent signings restored my faith in the loan system that I would probably forgive Barry Conlon were he to puke up on my cat.
These temporary Mariners have played an enormous part in preserving the club's status in the Football League - even as repeated mistakes by experienced, longer-term Town players such as Phil Barnes and Tom Newey continued to jeopardise it. Henderson has already gone back to Preston and we stand no chance of signing him permanently, but Widdowson sounds dead keen to get a release from West Ham and throw in his lot with us.
This would be brilliant. And I hope we can also keep hold of Sweeney and Conlon (despite, or perhaps because of, his baggage). But if we don't, it doesn't mean we're in for another relegation fight next year - for the simple reason that Newell and Brian Stein have proved more adept in the transfer market than any GTFC management team in living memory.
Not a soul doubts the quality of Proudlock and Atkinson, but even the relatively bit-part players such as Adrian Forbes have made significant contributions. It was a big point that Forbes' spectacular goal secured at Barnet, and when Stuart Elliott ran out of steam he'd already chipped in vitally at Underhill and played a key role in the attack for several important games. Mickaël Buscher? No harm done. Newell's only real misjudgement, in fact, among the many decisions he had to make about transfers, was not to move sooner: by his own later admission, he gave too much of a chance to Buckley's underachievers, rather than trusting his own judgement. Even if you weren't convinced by Elliott and Kalala (who was playing through an injury anyway), Newell's signings have been on another planet from the likes of Simon Heslop and Tomi Ameobi.
So if all these fine loanees are never to return, the evidence is that Newell and Stein can be relied on to bring in more of the same. Success next season - whether you define that as mid-table comfort or a push for something more - depends not on keeping the most recent set of loanees but on keeping the management.