Cod Almighty | Article
by Pat Bell
8 November 2005
It is 1975, a grey day at Blundell Park. Although we are now well into the second half, a man in an overcoat is still putting up on the pitch-side hoardings the cryptic half-time scores: "A: 1-0, B: 0-2, C: 1-1...". Goals everywhere, but not here.
For the best part of an hour, a Grimsby side discernibly more cultured than the opposition has been dominating possession, without looking particularly like scoring. The activity with the alphabet is the first warning that the hope invested in this game for the last few weeks by a pre-adolescent boy from mid Wales is not going to be realised. Then there is a flurry as a tracksuit is taken off on the touchline: spirits are kept up with thoughts of last-minute goals and a sub - the only sub, back then - who could bring a spark of life to the dying embers of this third division match. My rising anticipation is not shared: the sounds of sighs and groans spread from the Barrett Stand as he advances to the touchline.
I am young enough to remember comic book stories about vilified players who prove their critics wrong. The new player is tall and fresh-looking in the clean kit. I keep on hoping. His face, though, is gnarled and weather-beaten. I am crying out for urgency. This man controls the ball immaculately but slowly, he weighs up his options, slowly; he delivers a pass accurately but slowly and the pass is better anticipated by the opposition than the team-mate. Minutes later he is in space and a through ball finds him... except that it is a few yards ahead of him and he can't accelerate to keep it in play. Hope fades.
My early Town heroes were Jimmy Lumby, Jack Lewis, Mike Czuczman and Harry Wainman. The other player who stands out in my mind, for the wrong reasons, was that sub: Malcolm Partridge. Converted to the Mariners after a 5-0 win over Charlton one Easter holiday, for the next few years our visits to Cleethorpes brought, it seemed, only 0-0 draws. There was pride in supporting Grimsby: a sense of the road less travelled against my mates who used the excuse of geographic isolation to support the teams they saw winning on Match of the Day, and an air of sophistication about our play that belied our struggle to remain in the third division.
Those few years were a schooling in disappointment and in modified expectations. I celebrated a point away from home and a position two places above the relegation zone as my friends celebrated cups. Real hope I find quite painful, and sometimes it feels as though our players - the ones who arrive with expectations to live up to - also struggle to cope.
Partridge, I once read - wrongly as it turns out, but I'm not going to let the facts get in the way of a thesis - was for a time our record signing. Even if he wasn't, he had the patina of once having partnered Frank Worthington. Reputations needn't sink a player: we did well out of Trevor Whymark and Garry Birtles. However, Partridge's was the reputation of a player with a promising career behind him. To me he seemed impossibly ancient, but he was in his early twenties when he signed. The air of mutual antipathy that I associate with him - Partridge allegedly told his son, Scott, not to sign for us - crystallises, because we have seen similar things that are fresher in our minds.
I know that an argument can be made in Phil Jevons' favour, but can anyone honestly say that he played like someone glad to be in Cleethorpes? Does anyone remember the invisible man, Stuart Campbell? Or Jason Crowe - always quick to where the action wasn't?
Or take Scott McGarvey, of whom it was invariably said (there was nothing else positive you could say): "He used to play for Man United." Like Martin Peters, he was ten years ahead of his time: his preening and egotism would have belonged perfectly in the modern Premiership dressing room. Between McGarvey and the Mariners it was hate at first sight. There is a tableau of him responding to criticism of Steve Saunders by berating the spectators: "You come up here if you think you can do better" - whereupon of course, half the crowd made their way to the pitch. It says everything: a player who thinks he is too good for us playing in front of supporters for whom nothing is good enough.
For years after McGarvey left, we gleefuly traced the descent of his career, and last heard of him playing in Japan. Strangely, the last time I saw him was in a televised match for Oldham. He looked quite decent. Maybe it was us. Blundell Park is no place for a player who has been chewed up and spat out by a big club and is too vain to have worked out why.
For the cast-off from the Premiership academy, Grimsby is another step in the process of setting his sights on something lower. They come to us with the youthful promise dwindling, but the character flaws that belie that promise on full display. We know them only as players, not as people - or perhaps we know them too well as people. We want the promising youngsters from our own ranks to do well for themselves as well as for us, so watching that same pattern of unrealised ambition is both slower and more painful. We have the memory of the hope - Jonny Rowan's debut goal, Simon Ford's early authority, Danny Butterfield's quick feet, Darren Mansaram's graceless effectiveness - to offset against performances that are increasingly nervous and error-prone as too much is asked of them, too young.
It is tempting to contrast the failed young hopefuls with the players of genuine achievement and say that if they come our way, it will be because they still love the game and, so long as their body holds out, they will do us, and themselves, proud. This works well for Trevor Whymark and Garry Birtles. The thesis struggles to cope with Neil Webb; sit low enough in the John Smith's Stand on a sunny day and I believe you can still see the dent in the pitch where he stood when he 'played' for us. The thesis gives up altogether and goes to the pub when confronted with Paul Warhurst: a mercenary with no appetite for a relegation battle and a symbol of the entire 2003-04 relegation side.
A big price tag needn't be fatal; Paul Groves flourished under the responsibility. But a record fee seems to affect some players in the wrong way. Tommy Widdrington evidently thought it made him a midfield maestro: the pointing was useful for arranging to meet his family during the warm-up at away games.
For others, the high fee is just an accident. Had Lee Ashcroft arrived by the Buckley Route Mark One - sign player for peanuts from the reserves of a third division or non-League side - we would probably regard him as a pretty fair player. Unfortunately, he was Buckley Route Mark Two - sign ex-Baggie - with the added complication of us having shelled out the best part of half a million pounds for him. The occasional wonder goal and regular support for the local catering industry do not seem a fair return.
Ashcroft had, in fact, looked a very good player when he played against us. Likewise, Murray Jones frightened the life out of us as centre-forward for an Exeter side intent on denying Town promotion at the end of the 1990-91 season. A month into the following campaign we were just frightened an injury crisis might force us to play him.
Then there was Jimmy Gilligan, signed for a near-record fee after scoring against Grimsby for Watford. Described as "looking like a footballer, and moving like a footballer, but playing like a plank", it wasn't quite the last goal he scored at Blundell Park, where he managed six in 22 appearances - a statistic rendered less impressive when you realise two came against York City in the League Cup.
Others manage to look good for us until they sign a permanent contract. This is not the point at which I talk about Neil Woods, who was a rather later hero to me, but I have to confess that his goals-to-games ratio never came close to matching the four goals he scored in a three-match loan spell. Terry Cooke - another well known for what he might do rather than what he actually did - was fine for a while. Even Menno Willems looked a decent enough player until we found £150,000 to keep him. Still others come back to relive past glories, sometimes in triumph (Matt Tees, Paul Groves), but sometimes to remind us of the adage about never swimming in the same stream twice (Aidan Davison).
The British, it is well known and repeated ad infinitum by people on pedestals, like to put people on pedestals and then knock them down. In this case, some managers can be regarded as archetypally British. The only thing that can really be said against Nicky Southall is that he wasn't as good as Dave Gilbert. However, he will always be associated with a typical Brian Laws soundbite. Like the trailer to a 70s Hollywood blockbuster, Nicky Southall is... The Rough Diamond.
Jimmy Gilligan was, so Dave Booth told us, the missing link that would turn Town from a fair second division side to promotion contenders. When he moved on to Cardiff, Gilligan's new manager remarked of his time at Blundell Park: "Up there, they expect you to row the boat out to sea, then catch the fish as well." Obscure, I admit, but I think he was suggesting our expectations may have been unrealistic. But, now and again, hope does not lead to disappointment. Back in 1976, we took an ageing young prospect on loan from a bigger club. He'd made a splash for them on debut, scoring a Match of the Day Goal of the Month, but not much had been heard of him since. He was great on loan, so much so that the board, reluctantly, agreed a relatively high fee for him. Ticking most of the boxes that mark him out as a certain disappointment, Joe Waters was instead the inspiration behind successive promotions: one of the players who makes you forget all those 0-0 draws and look forward to the next match and the next season.
With thanks to Bill Brewster and Tony Butcher
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