False dawn?

Cod Almighty | Article

by Ron Counte

12 August 2019

In August 2018, after a draw against likely promotion contenders, hopes were high for the Mariners. But there is no comparison between the side now and then.

It's August and the new football season is under way. Town have just earned a very creditable 1-1 draw against one of the sides widely regarded to be favourites for promotion. All is well.

Or so we thought. For this is August 2018, the game in question was a midweek visit to the Buckinghamshire base of a football franchise operation, and Michael Jolley was still revelling in the well-earned glow of his miracle-working exploits of the previous season.

On the night the Mariners certainly matched their opponents, who did indeed go on to win promotion. But that was the last point Town earned for several weeks as they embarked upon a run of six consecutive defeats which had some calling for Jolley’s removal. Few people watching that evening would have imagined that 12 months later only three of the outfield players who started the game would still be in the starting line-up, and four still at the club.


Of the back four only Harry Davis is still at Blundell Park. But for injuries, both Andrew Fox and Danny Collins would probably have been preferred choices. Instead the rest of the back four comprised Alex Whitmore, Paul Dixon and Akin Famewo, a young loanee who showed some promise before injury curtailed his spell at the club.

Whitmore came from relegated Chesterfield as Town continued their policy of taking players from teams who had just crashed out of the League. The fact that a player is in a relegated team doesn’t necessarily mean that they are poor, and Whitmore was a hard-working pro who might have been worth keeping on as a squad player. But as a first-choice defender the club certainly needed to upgrade if it had any serious pretensions about challenging for promotion. When he was released at the end of the season, Whitmore ended up signing for AFC Fylde in the Conference rather than another fourth division side.

If expectations were low regarding Whitmore, they should not have been for Dixon, who had won three caps with Scotland in 2012 and had played for Huddersfield in the second flight. Why was he such a crushing disappointment for us? From the start the crowd were disenchanted, perceiving in him either a lack of commitment, or noting his proliferation of mistakes. He very rarely covered himself in glory and, after he had started fairly well, this game was no exception. Early in the second half he lunged into a mindless challenge which was as clear a red card as you’re ever likely to see. An accident waiting to happen, Dixon made only six appearances before leaving the club by mutual consent.


In midfield Harry Clifton and Jake Hessenthaler are now mainstays of the team, but in August 2018 they were partnered by Martyn Woolford and John Welsh.

Woolford was at the tail end of his career. He had lost whatever pace he once had, though he still showed glimpses of the skills that had made him a regular for Scunthorpe, Bristol City and Millwall in the second flight between 2009 and 2015. But sadly he was no longer equipped for the weekly rigours of fourth division midfield battlegrounds.

Our real hopes therefore rested on the shoulders of John Welsh, our marquee signing. After a stellar career with Preston and with England under-20 caps, he was a tough, combative player who would surely be a class above average. That night, he certainly looked the part. Although clearly lacking match fitness, he put in a strong performance with some well-timed tackles. All the signs were that he would be a formidable asset.

How wrong we were. Welsh made a grand total of four league appearances. Certain periods of absence were explained by injury but the fact that he was hardly ever picked to play, or even in the squad, hinted at deeper issues. As we now know, he spent his time at the club awaiting prosecution for a late night drink-fuelled attack in which he broke a woman’s leg. He was convicted of grievous bodily harm and received a suspended sentence. Thankfully by then his contract had been terminated and so we did not suffer the indignity of seeing our club captain in the dock.

Jolley had obviously pinned his hopes on building a strong midfield unit around Welsh and Whitehouse, who had suffered a major injury in pre-season. Their absence left us seriously outgunned in midfield.


The forward line that evening comprised Jordan Cook, who is still at the club but has not featured too prominently in the side since, and JJ Hooper.

JJ Hooper is one of Town's greatest enigmas of recent times

JJ Hooper is one of Town's greatest enigmas of recent times. Port Vale fans were ecstatic when we took him off their hands – never a good sign – and it quickly became evident why. When he wasn't anonymous, he stood out for the wrong reasons, missing a sitter and failing to convert a penalty.

Then, towards the end of 2017-18, Jolley switched him on to the left wing and he was a revelation. Displaying great pace and delivery, he terrorised the Notts County defence in the never-to-be-forgotten game which secured our League status. The following week he scored a fantastic hat-trick at Forest Green. Expectations were high for the coming season.

Sadly it was not to be. He soon reverted to the ineffectual performance levels which had first got the crowd on his back. Jolley persisted with him, perhaps for a lack of alternatives, until early December by which time he had scored just two goals in 19 appearances. Then, loaned out to Bromley, he became a goal machine, scoring 19 times in 25 appearances, albeit in a lower league. Maybe the Bromley manager found a way of playing to his strengths in a way that Jolley and Slade could not, or maybe Hooper is a player with plenty of ability who simply can’t use it on a consistent basis. He is still a young man, and it will be interesting to see where his career takes him.

Summing up

Looking back at that line-up, we really should not have been surprised that the point we gained that night would be our last until October. We had a combination of players well past their prime, slightly out of their depth, or with ability but not application. Occasionally, when the stars were aligned, such as on this particular evening, they might get a good result. But there was no way that this line-up would be able to mount a serious and consistent challenge.

Thankfully Jolley managed to pull the club out of its nosedive and after a couple of impressive runs, we never looked in serious danger of relegation. He made some good loan signings, brought Ludwig Öhman and Seb Ring to the club, and gave games to promising young players Mattie Pollock and Max Wright. When he started to strengthen the squad once more in the close season, we were building on a stronger foundation. The eight new faces in the starting line-up against Bradford are all improvements on what was on show 12 months earlier.

It’s August and the new football season is under way. Town have just earned a very creditable 1-1 draw against one of the sides widely regarded to be favourites for promotion. All is well.

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