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20 July 2010
This was the first Grimsby season I watched as a season ticket holder and what a season. It will also be my last.
The reason for this short stop at fortress BP is not some crimson-faced protest at Fenty, or Woodses, or at the ribald gyrations of Mighty Mariner. Nor is it because my affections have been swayed by the total football of Lincoln City FC. It is the unfortunate consequence of a change in my employment circumstances. My temporary contract at the college (sorry, Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education) is almost at an end and I will shortly be wending my way down Grimsby Road. Yep, I'm walkin' down that long, lonesome road, babe, where I'm bound, I can't tell... well I can tell it's Barnet actually.
The strange events that put me in front of the Mariners for one season only lend me a strange perspective a view from the passenger seat window, nose pressed up against the glass, trying to absorb a hundred years of triumphs, disasters and inflatable fish. I offer you a view from the slow lane, of 24 home matches (give or take) watched through the eyes of a naοf in search only of a town and some Saturday entertainment.
Empty book, empty promises. Photo: Rory Dillon
As I rocked up to Blundell Park on 8 August with my crisp booklet of tickets in hand, I wondered quietly to myself: "How did I get here? Is this my beautiful wife?" No, it's not it's my Dad in an ill-fitting black and white polo shirt. I had drifted back into the Findus stand and back into football after three years of unabashed elitism and hedonism up at Durham University. Having been a glory-supporting 12-year-old watching Buckley's men pick up the Football League Trophy in 1998, I did not have the staying power for weekly football. I didn't mind playing the game (and achieved my highest honour in football shortly after as Weelsby Colts Manager's Player of the Year). But for me club football couldn't hold my attention. I was lost among the competing distractions of, consecutively, amateur dramatics, GCSEs, women, beer and shouty guitar music. Only periodic World and Euro cups could draw me. West Bromwich Albion 1 Charlton Athletic 1 frankly, who cared? As a first-generation Grimbarian, son of a Scot, what was it all to me?
But here I was, shiny new Town shirt and all. How did I get here? Well, the words of my mate Pete kept nagging me. This was real football. No primadonna Premier League bullshit here. This was blood and guts League Two, Division Three, Division Four football. This struck a chord somewhere along the line. I was back in town and I could go to the odd game. I liked it. He was right there is something enjoyable about watching the lower rungs of the Football League. You can see the joins. It's like going to the unsigned tent at the Leeds Festival. Young talent in the raw. By the end of the 2008-09 season, I was going to every game, taking free tickets from work to sit in the McMenemy suite and taking the international students to come and sing in the stands with bargain tickets from the paper. By the time Newell nailed the Vale (ahem), I was hooked.
"The Newell revolution was upon us... he had his squad picked and firing on all cylinders. I had a cheeky bet on promotion"
So I took the plunge and bought a season ticket gave some money back to the club to pay back for the freebies. Besides, everyone knows it's better craic up in the cheap seats. It gave me a chance to see my old man of a Saturday too no bad thing. By this point, I was getting excited about the prospect of a festival of football. The Newell revolution was upon us. This was the man to take us up a division for the first time since I was a boy and he had his squad picked and firing on all cylinders. I had a cheeky bet on promotion and a side bet on outright victory. I know, I know. I had a bet on Wayne Rooney being the highest goalscorer in the World Cup too.
So by now you're wondering where this blistering analysis of a season to forget has got to. You might also be wondering if I'm the right man to tell you anything about anything. If I tell you that I spent an hour walking up and down an empty Grimsby Road at the beginning of the season to a non-existent home game you'll wonder whether Lincoln might not be better with my support any road.
Well, I did sit through that first game. And a second, and a third. And I watched some really awful football. My dad started a running joke well, I think it was a joke that each game was the worst he'd ever seen. And remember this is coming from a Scotland fan. He missed the Bath City game. 2009-10 saw goalkeeping clangers and defensive errors. I lost count of misplaced passes and unseen runs. Forwards were stationed up front and died through lack of support and lack of confidence. We also saw our share of stramashes and off-field shenanigans.
What sticks in my memory most, though, was the draws. Never has defeat been snatched from the jaws of victory so consistently, so exquisitely and so excruciatingly. After another 1-0 victory slipped through Town's fingers on a bitter February afternooon, one of the Findus punditocracy whispered: "That'll lose us the season, that will."
So why were we so bad? Various scapegoats were led up Mount Moriah over the recent months, not least by the fine minds behind Cod Almighty. Was it the machinations of Con. Fenty? Was it Mike Newell and his alleged chair-swinging and bottle-emptying? Was Woods too untried, too weak, too late? What about the players not fit enough, not old enough, not Grimsby enough, or simply not good enough? Maybe it was the curse of the falling Labour government?
For me, the season that took Grimsby out of the Football League amassed its own grim gravity. Just as every press conference and every teary interview seemed to confirm Gordon Brown's status as a soon-to-be ex-prime minster, every post-match Telegraph interview and nervy 80th-minute intake of breath crushed the life out of players who should have won every other week. Sure, there are questions to be asked. Cod Almighty's Fenty line graph tells its own story, as did the face of Neil Woods as he tried to rebuild his leaky trawler of Grimsby Town FC while stuck in the North Sea in the midst of a force 9 gale. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said: "There is nothing to fear but fear itself," but as a recent Viz strip recently pointed out, that can be pretty pant-fillingly scary on occasion.
"I heard the careworn defeatism which hangs around town and the fetishism of its former glories... but also quiet determination to support a team"
For all the woe, I really enjoyed watching the Mariners this season. There was some football to be had. I can still see Atkinson controlling the ball in the box to lash in his belter against Barnet at the end of the season. I can still remember the noise of a town that was finally, finally urging on a group of players to at least do themselves proud. I really started to get into my football too, migrating from the Football League highlights to Match of the Day and from the Grimsby Telegraph match reports to the Guardian match reports.
What I will remember most fondly about my months of numb bum fourth division footy, though, is that I saw the best and worst of Grimsby. I heard the nasty shouts of angry men and the careworn defeatism which hangs around town and the fetishism of its former glories. I also heard the quiet determination to support a team and come together as a town which is still the biggest and best in some arenas (70 per cent of UK's value added seafood manufactured in the area, anyone?). And just as the quiet and constructive work of people at the college let me fall in love with a town which had chased me out as a smelly grebo aged 18, the honest quiet support of men and women who were funny and clever (and could write match reports in the voice of a Kafka-reading Dylan fan) made me feel part of something. I never thought I would come back to Grimsby; now I'm sad to be leaving.
So, I think that if Grimsby get the rub of the green this year there is no reason why they can't make their own luck whoever is in the building. For me, they'll always be Barnet at home as well as my new home in Barnet. There's also the prospect of Cambridge away next year and Hayes & Yeading. So, it's not quite goodbye from me but it is good luck.
Good luck Grimsby. The town deserves it.
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