Cod Almighty | Article
by Pat Bell
22 September 2006
The great players endure long beyond their careers, like fossils in the geological core that forms the attachment of a supporter to a club. They date us: Mariners in their twenties will swear by Mendonca, Mariners in their sixties by Tees. Between those two ages, the five-foot-five frame of Joe Waters dominates.
The bigger clubs project and impose their traditions across nations. For us, they are handed down by word of mouth, from generation to generation, so that, even if we never saw Matt Tees play, even if our memories of Joe Waters are faint impressions from childhood, we have a sense of the kinds of players they were from tales that have been recounted so often that we sense that we were there.
The survival of the Mariners depends, in part, on us continuing to talk, and write, about deeds all the more heroic for the humble theatre in which they were performed. The news of the ill health of Joe Waters has given this duty a greater urgency.
Look at the books, and we find the superlatives, but not the memories that justify them. Ron Counte's article for Sing When We're Fishing, reproduced on the supporters' trust website is a start, and some other contributions follow.
Please send your memories of Joe Waters using our feedback page and we will add them to these pages.
Joe Waters and the BBC, or how Jimmy Hill was right
In 1974, Match of the Day showed highlights of a cup quarter-final game between Leicester and QPR. Nowadays I don't suppose I'd glance at it, but in those days you took whatever televised football you could get, and growing up in mid-Wales there wasn't much live football to watch either. A young Irish midfielder, making his debut, scored both goals to take Leicester to the semi-final. One I remember, because we were to see it a few times over the years: a darting run from the centre circle, a one-two and a shot from 20 yards. A good goal, and when Match of the Day had the highlights of two games a week, and nothing else - not even goals from the other games - it was a worthy goal of the month. Jimmy Hill was full of the young man. My brothers and I were sceptical. Sure, it was a good goal, but the other wasn't that special, and he hadn't done too much else.
Cut forward five years and Joe Waters is at the heart of a team that is reversing the seemingly inexorable decline of Grimsby Town. In those days, the BBC was aware that there was life outside the top flight: one of their two games this week is the Mariners' 3-1 win at fellow promotion contenders Portsmouth. "Grimsby had just that little bit more in midfield," Barry Davies opines, and much of that bit more came from Joe Waters.
Next year, Match of the Day expanded to show brief highlights of a third game, showcasing a club. After a 2-0 win over Millwall, Jimmy Hill predicts that Grimsby will win promotion: "They always have the extra man on hand to help out" - a tribute to the work rate of, among others, Joe Waters.
Next year, with Town recovering from a poor start to make an assault on a third successive promotion, Football Focus visits Cleethorpes. There is one constant feature of these snippets: they picture Joe Waters, remind us that he once scored a goal of the month, and usually show that goal, for Leicester against QPR, even as it receded into the background of Waters' career. This time they interview him about it. "A great start to your career?" the interviewer says, and Joe laughs: "And I ended up playing for Grimsby." He goes on to correct any negative impression the quip might have left, but he didn't need to. You can tell by the way he said it that he was as proud of his adopted home as it was of him.
Quality, attitude and loyalty
I've been watching Town since 1966, and no-one comes near Joe Waters in terms of quality, attitude and loyalty (since he could easily have gone elsewhere). He was part of growing up - one of the good parts. I used to be terrified that someone would find out how good he was and take him away. Sometimes you had to pinch yourself as a reminder that he was actually there, at Blundell Park, in the flesh. Town have indeed had other fine players since (let's not get carried away), but anyone who knows a bit about football understands. He might well have been the best player in the post-war period, but that's for even older readers to debate!
It's sad news indeed to hear of his plight. He was fantastic. A one-off. A small, rather podgy little guy, who didn't look the part at all. But he was. They don't come like him nowadays, or at least not with his loyalty. But what interests most is how we got him. A guy called Brian Jones (an amateur runner) had to run to Leicester and back to raise funds to get him signed (he came on loan originally). The Town board were too tight (and too dumb) to sign him! Things don't change...
I went to Joe Waters' home debut. At the last moment a drunken mate bagged a lift with me. As the whistle went for half time he muttered: "Hold these," and handed me his kecks. He then proceeded to streak around the pitch, upstaging some bloke who had done a sponsored run all the way from Leicester to raise money for Joe's transfer fee. The coppers eventually caught him. Midway through the second half the fuzz arrived at the back of the Pontoon asking for Stuart's trousers. Oh, how we laughed.
Ah, the memory fades, but somewhere in there stirs memories of punching the air in the Barrett, leaving my knuckles bloody and rusty as they catch one of the metal struts that hang low in a V-shape from the roof, as this little Irish ball of energy burst from midfield, all hustle and bustle, occasionally to pass and probe but often to lash one past the keeper. High energy, high enthusiasm, highly thought of.
More than a 90-minute man
Joe Waters was my favourite player from this era, and we had some good players: Kev Moore, Bob Cumming, Drinkell and Wilkinson, Trevor Whymark. Some bloke who used to stand near us at home games once described him as a "90-minute man", which sums up his physical qualities if not his immense talent. And he was involved in my favourite Town goal, scored by Wilkinson in the 1-0 home win against Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day 1983. It was fitting that Joe left at the end of that season, as we finished in our highest position for years (fifth in Division Two). Incidentally, it was rumoured that in 1987 he was invited to become Town's manager before the appointment of Bobby Roberts.
Siphoning the petrol from George Kerr's car
Joe was simply one of the best Town players I have ever seen. A tiny bundle of energy who was everywhere on the pitch. That promotion campaign under George Kerr was the best time to be a Mariners fan. So many great players - all living locally - a team on and off the park.
Joe on the pitch was a revelation - but he was also a legend off it. I remember a drinking session after the game at Liverpool with his family, how he siphoned petrol from George Kerr's car in the middle of the night so he could travel across to play for Ireland, and numerous other scrapes that will stay in the mind but still bring a smile to the face nearly 30 years on.
Oh for the youngster
I saw Joe Waters play many times for Town, from his debut onwards into the 1980s in what will probably come to be viewed as our best post-War team ever. But what sticks most in the mind when I think of Joe is the commentator Barry Davies. Joe initially made his name for Leicester against QPR in the cup in which he scored both goals in a 2-0 win. It's this game, strangely, that is etched on my mind much more than the many great matches I saw him play, probably because watching football on telly in those days (1974) seemed so much more real than watching Grimsby - as anyone who has ever seen Gordon Walker play or Bobby Kennedy manage will attest. But also because Barry Davies' commentary, when Joe scored the second, was where South American hyperbole met English stiff upper lip, as the spluttering excitement ran into dry air seconds after the eruption occurred. He exclaimed simply: "Oh... for the youngster!" Oh for the youngster, indeed. What a player.
Tears in sparkling eyes
Joe Waters was the man at the heart of one of the greatest Town sides, the team that was born in the mid-1970s and gained promotion to, and established itself in, the old second division in the early 1980s. The team revolved around Joe, the inspiration in midfield.
It was fitting that he scored in one of the greatest ever occasions at Blundell Park, the 4-0 win against Sheffield United in 1980 to give us the Division Three championship. Joe was also one of the best penalty takers to wear a Town shirt.
I loved his passion for the team and his fieriness; and, like teammate Bobby Cumming, he didn't let his small size restrict the physical side of his game. I remember one game against Derby at home near the end of his Town career where he was punching hell of out an opponent much bigger than him before being shown the red card.
I was lucky enough to be part of a group of supporters who presented Joe with a special memento just before he left for the States. Joe arrived at the Hainton thinking it was he who going to make a presentation to somebody else. When he realised what was happening, Joe was moved beyond words, tears welling up in his sparkling Irish eyes.
Leading by example
I missed Match of the Day in 1974. I missed Joe's loan period and his full debut. Fortunately there was a lot I didn't miss. Joe was the beating heart of the best Town team I have seen. Sure, I thought Bob Cumming was a great tackler and that Kev Drinkell was a fantastic striker. Kevin Moore was a truly elegant player who read the game so well. Then there was Joe: he was all these things and something just a little bit more. He could take a game and make it his, sometimes without you really noticing.
Strangely enough my best memory of Joe was at an away game at Hillsborough. Joe was running the game yet somehow Wednesday were leading. Joe picked the ball up, ran into the Wednesday half and let a fantastic shot go. It flew into the net from fully 35 yards and then the ref disallowed it because Kevin Drinkell was offside, miles from the ball or the goal but offside.
Joe Waters was my footballing hero as I grew up and I doubt that Town will ever see a player like him again.
My perfect captain
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone. I grew up with Joe and The Jam, Joe and The Undertones, Joe and Stiff Little Fingers and The Stranglers and Joy Division and The Clash... oh and that girl doing law at Leeds Uni who ditched me because I went to see Joe go back to Leicester. Joe was our Colossus, our Bobby Moore, our Martin Johnson. Get well soon the Limerick Mariner.