April showers

Cod Almighty | Article

by Ron Counte

1 August 2018

Town fans experienced every possible emotion during one month in the spring of 2018. Football is still kind of amazing like that, isn't it?

Rainbow over the Humber estuary, seen from Cleethorpes sea wallHow to explain the inexplicable? Whenever I find myself in the company of someone who thinks football is "just a game", I realise immediately that they are people who simply do not understand. How I pity them. Following the fortunes of Grimsby Town can on occasion seem like an intolerable burden. But the benefits, though sometimes spread rather too thinly over time, can be enriching like few other life experiences.

Take last season. Supporting Town is an emotional see-saw at the best of times, but across the 2017-18 campaign we experienced the full gamut of emotions, which varied in range and intensity in a manner extreme even for those of us schooled in decades of being dragged through the wringer time and time again by the denizens of Blundell Park.

To illustrate the whirling carousel of turbulence that we endured, I'd like to focus in on the month of April 2018. At the start of the month we were on our third manager of the calendar year. We had taken just six points from the previous 60 and at this stage the dominant emotions were anger and frustration. Anger at Fenty and the board for allowing the club to slip into yet another relegation battle. Frustration at the players who seemed lacking not only in ability but also, unforgivably, in application.

We were also starting to experience an emotion which is part of the normal cycle of the grieving process: acceptance. Given the lamentable state of affairs on and off the pitch most of us were beginning to believe that we would indeed be relegated. Our 'get out of jail' card was the two home games at the start of April.

In those matches Town managed to scrape a late win against Chesterfield – which ended a wretched winless streak of 20 games, stretching back into December – but could salvage only a point against Barnet. The brutal truth was that we had played the two bottom sides in the division and, in the view of many, had been the better side in neither game.

There had been a feeling that winning these two games would probably secure our survival, and losing them would mean almost certain relegation. The four points we did earn kept us in the frustrating no man's land of uncertainty. We were now feeling pretty much depressed at our failure to grab the six-point lifeline we had been banking on. Furthermore, given our rather difficult run-in, it was also pretty hard to see where any further points would be coming from.

Our minds embarked upon numeric gymnastics as we attempted to analyse the remaining fixtures. It was like juggling with six balls in the air

So we now entered a heightened period of desperation. At every unguarded moment our minds would embark upon numeric gymnastics as we attempted to analyse the remaining fixtures for ourselves and the five clubs around us. It was like juggling with six balls in the air. The number of possible permutations was bewildering. We were driven to distraction, as dizzy as a drunken teenager on the old Wonderland waltzers trying to make sense of it all.

Though we had just three games to play, many of our rivals had games in hand and so every Tuesday evening became a stress-filled ordeal as we waited for actual results to replace hypothetical ones, enabling us to reset our myriad computational analyses and begin the whole mind-blowing process anew.

Then, late in the month, a new emotion emerged. Against all the odds, Town won at Swindon. Though the hosts were in poor form at the time, securing the victory and keeping a clean sheet was, in the circumstances, rather more than we had been entitled to expect. So now in addition to everything else, we were dealing with a positive emotion: pleasant surprise.

This, in turn, gave us perhaps the greatest of all emotions: hope. It has been said that human beings can survive eight weeks without food, eight days without water, eight minutes without oxygen, but not even eight seconds without hope. The Swindon result certainly provided us with that and, established at long last a measure of certainty. For we now knew that we needed two points from our remaining fixtures to be mathematically certain of survival.

And thus the scene was set for the final game of the month, a match which will live long in the memory of everyone who follows Town, certainly everyone who was there. It was of course the game against Notts County on 28 April.

A tough assignment

On paper it was a pretty tough assignment. Notts needed a win to get into the automatic promotion places and they had some well-known players in their team. Set against that was the fact that they had lost at Chesterfield a few weeks earlier, but most of us would have settled for a point before the game.

On the way to the match my friends and I were chatting to some away supporters. They were friendly and enthusiastic about their team and almost the epitome of what we would call the 'genuine' football fan. They wanted to win, of course. But they wished us well and in fact were hoping that we would stay up. The rivalry between Grimsby Town and Notts County dates back to the Victorian era and there was clear mutual respect. It was a very pleasant prelude to the match.

As kick-off approached the anxiety levels increased. Paul Wilkinson was in the ticket office when we collected our tickets and, strangely, he seemed totally relaxed, appearing to have not a care in the world. He gave off the impression of quiet confidence, laughing and joking with not a hint of fear or anxiety on show. We were struck by his laid-back manner at such a crucial moment. He was clearly looking forward to the game and relishing it.

Twenty minutes before kick-off, Jolley was calm personified. Sure, he admitted, it was an important game. Then he said: "But we are ready"

A friend had paid to have his son as the mascot for the match, which includes a pre-match tour and a meet and greet with the players and staff. When he met Michael Jolley 20 minutes before kick-off, the manager, too, was calm personified. Sure, he admitted, it was an important game. Then he said: "But we are ready."

He really seemed to mean it too. This was not idle bluster: he exuded confidence. He radiated assurance and had the air of a man with a plan. Jolley had clearly managed to instil real self-belief in the squad, as the players also appeared totally relaxed. There is no doubt in my mind that the positive mental attitude he engendered was instrumental in persuading the players that they were good enough to get results, even against top sides.

I suppose the employees of the club have a less obsessive anxiety about matters than those of us who have lived and breathed GTFC for all our adult lives. For us, it sometimes feels like life or death. For most of the management and players, Town is only one entry on a footballing CV that will extend to numerous clubs. Very few of the squad were here two years ago, and very few will remain in two or three years' time. It's the fans who have the life sentence. On that day the management and players were probably the only calm people in the stadium.

One thing which tempered the intensity in the run-up to the match was the belief in many quarters that the game could well turn out to be an irrelevance. Stalemate specialists Morecambe simply had to hold Barnet and we were secure regardless of our result. There would be much anxious glancing at mobile phones throughout the afternoon.

The better side

Such thoughts were quickly banished when the game kicked off. Astonishingly, Town were playing slick, one-touch attacking football and were the better side by a considerable margin. At half-time we were one up. By midway through the second half, but for some poor finishing, we could easily have been out of sight. We were on course for victory and, most satisfyingly, were securing our own survival through our own efforts and not relying on results elsewhere. At this point it was even possible to enjoy the game, and now there was a growing sense of pride at the way in which the players were producing a performance that seemed unthinkable even at the start of the month.

But of course there was no way that this euphoric procession to safety could last. Sure enough, Notts County came into the game and suddenly it became a heroic rearguard action with great saves from Macca and some brilliant do-or-die defending to keep out the visitors. On 77 minutes came the dreaded news. Barnet had scored at Morecambe. Quickly checking the stats on my phone I could see that this was by no means against the run of play: Barnet were dominating the match and were deservedly in front. The Morecambe cavalry were not going to ride to our rescue today.

The most excruciating experience for any football fan is defending a one-goal lead in the dying stages of a game where the stakes are high. It is a unique form of agony

What followed is probably the most excruciating experience for any football fan: defending a one-goal lead in the dying stages of a game where the stakes are high. We entered that alternative reality where time slows down to such an extent that it seems to stop altogether. It is a unique form of agony. It sometimes helps to make an effort not to glance at the scoreboard but when, after resisting for what seems like 10 minutes, you glance back you find that only two have elapsed.

That said, we did seem to be hanging on pretty well and after an eternity the clock managed to get to 89 minutes. Jolely was about to bring on Karleigh Osborne to help shore up the defence and see the game out. There would be a bit of added time but surely the job was almost done.

We should have known better. An out-of-position lunge from McKeown, a miraculous recovery shot from a prone County player sprawled out on the touchline, a header from the edge of the box against the crossbar, and there was a County player to poke it home through a tangle of bodies. It was a sickening blow.

In the following three minutes a variety of thoughts came flooding into my mind. The first one was that we had all agreed before the game that we would be happy with a point. It now looked as if that was probably the best we would get. On the plus side, the performance had been so good that it was certainly possible to feel confident that we could get the other point we required from Forest Green the following week.

Next came speculation regarding the other matches. Surely Coventry would thump Morecambe on the final day, leaving them stranded on 45 points and ensuring our survival. And what about Barnet? Perceived wisdom was that they only had to turn up the following Saturday to get the three points they would need from the relegated Chesterfield. But perceived wisdom had also said they would not beat both Newport and Morecambe, which of course they were about to do. So could Chesterfield – in one last, heroic hurrah and farewell to the Football League – take Barnet down with them, like a drowning man condemning his would-be rescuer?

One thing was certain. The next seven days would be just like the previous weeks, our minds whirring round and round like one-legged clockwork soldiers. It would be yet another week of absolute torture. Total distraction as we descended into the realms of obsessive hyper-analysis of possible outcomes. It was a dreadful prospect in a season of dreadful realities. In short it would be another unbearable week of high anxiety. Meanwhile, the passing of time had returned to its customary rate, or possibly even quicker. We were three minutes into added time. Just 120 seconds to go.

Ecstasy at last

At this point I glanced down at the pitch and JJ Hooper was on yet another incisive run down the left wing. He really had tormented Notts County all afternoon. In what with hindsight now appears to be remarkable prescience, I thought to myself that, if he could perform like this next week, then there was every possibility that we could get the point we would need at Forest Green.

Hooper put another teasing ball into the box and Simeon Jackson harassed the defender into giving away a corner. I noticed that County left at least three players up on the halfway line. They were obviously still committed to going for the win. This meant that the penalty area itself was comparatively sparsely populated, but alas the corner from Summerfield was a poor one. The ball was so close to the keeper that he would surely gather it and punt it upfield, launching a counter-charge towards our own goal.

But no. Jamille Matt nipped in. And suddenly the universe hit the pause button.

There was a delayed reaction before the realisation of what had just occurred hit home. I could see the ball nestling in the back of the net. I could see the Town players hurtling towards the corner flag in celebration. I could see the referee signalling that a goal had been scored. I saw McKeown slide into the melée, having just covered 100 metres in a time Usain Bolt would be proud of. I let out a primal scream of such volume, intensity and length that it took my vocal cords more than 48 hours to recover.

How to describe this latest emotion? It was an incredible release of weeks of accumulated tension. The only word which comes close to describing it is ecstasy. It was a moment of pure, transcendent joy. An intense and stunning emotional high which seldom occurs in any other context.

But the game was not over. County restarted with all their players lined up on the halfway line. It was like the charge of the Light Brigade. They had not given the game up. There was still work to be done.

The referee blew for a free kick and half the crowd thought the match was over. We all had to rein our emotions in once again, calm down and concentrate. We were not there yet. A glance at the phone showed that Barnet's game had ended. There had been no last-minute reprieve from that quarter. And then it was all over. Now another emotion took hold. Riding the wave of a massive surge of relief came a less intense but in many ways more sublime sensation. Bliss. We were secure in the knowledge that we had avoided the plunge into non-League oblivion.

It was obvious from the way they celebrated both Town goals that these were no uninterested journeymen simply passing time to collect their pay cheques

Now we really did have acceptance. Acceptance of something we had fervently desired, but had only dared dream of and, until this very moment, could not have confidently assumed. We were safe. Not only that: we had earned our safety with two consecutive victories against high-flying opposition. We were safe and deservedly so.

But the carousel had yet not stopped spinning. There were more intense emotions to be experienced.

The first came on seeing Jolley taking the deserved adulation of a grateful crowd. Now I felt admiration and respect for the impossibly unlikely achievements of this remarkable man. Looking at the players, I felt an immense pride which I simply did not believe would have been possible a few weeks earlier. They had fought as if their lives depended on it. Every last one of them. They had survived the potentially crushing blow of conceding a 90th-minute equaliser and had still gone on to win the game.

And it was obvious from the way they celebrated both Town goals that these were no uninterested journeymen simply passing time to collect their pay cheques. They put their heart and soul into it. They really wanted to win this game. On the pitch at the end of the game a friend of mine spoke with the wife of one of the players, who I will not name. She said that it had been very hard for the entire family living with the criticism and disappointment of the fans before Jolley arrived, but that things were much better after the turnaround. The mood had lifted and it was great to be receiving such warm and sincere applause from the crowd.

Once again I was able to feel pride. Pride in the black and white stripes. Pride in my team. Proud to be a Town supporter. The euphoria would last for days and we would all be reliving the magnificent moment of Matt's goal over and over again.

And therein lays the story of the emotional journey which we all shared in that single month of April 2018. Is it really possible to explain all of this to a non-supporter? I doubt it. It would be like trying to explain what it feels like to be in love, to one who has never known affection. Without the emotional attachment to your team, it is simply unfathomable. A strange and perplexing mystery.

Just a game? I don't think so.

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