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Yesterday once more
31 January 2012
Unemployment is over 2 million and rising. There are riots on the streets of London. Margaret Thatcher is being debated in the media. And Deirdre is suspicious of her daughter Tracy Barlow in Coronation Street.
These are not the current trending topics on Twitter, but the main events of March 1990. A month that also saw Poll Tax riots, Mikhail Gorbachev elected for the first time and a seven-match winning run for Grimsby Town of Division Four. Oh, March 1990!
Town, of course, have just enjoyed such a run for the first time since then, and football was a little different 22 years ago. It was about as popular as Mike Newell at John Fenty's house when he's got some new furniture – footy was broken and nobody wanted to fix it. The previous decade had seen hooliganism, dilapidated stadiums, disasters and general malaise. Indeed, at the start of March the game was still coming to terms with Hillsborough and the ramifications of the Taylor report. All-seater, out-of-town stadiums were a long way off and Blundell Park was mostly tinderbox caged terracing, screaming for a makeover.
Then – as now – the football club had been in the doldrums. Then – as now – it was in its second season following relegation with low crowds. And then – as now – the board turned to an untried non-League managerial team to bring back the good old days.
But the game was not the behemoth of now. The gap between the top and bottom was not that big – it was still a working-class game and quite sedate. Indeed, Grimsby were able to sign a former England international at the age of 33, something that would be implausible now. Garry Birtles had won a European Cup (see 'League, Champions') just nine years before he joined us. This would have been like Beckham or Cole swapping Old Trafford for DN35 in 1998. I repeat, implausible.
It is fair to say that Alan Buckley took his time in building what was to become his first successful XI. He tried and tinkered with different players in different positions as the likes of Dale Banton, Steve Stoutt and Ricky Gabbiadini came and went. But the marvellous cup run of the previous season bought time, supplied some finance and won over the ever-sceptical supporters.
The 1989-90 season had started as the previous one had finished: in fairly positive fashion, with just one defeat in the first six games and new signing Tony Rees among the goals. But one win in the next nine, including four straight defeats, meant that by Christmas Town were mid-table and inconsistent. In January almost four games went by without a goal before a mesmerisingly scruffy effort by Keith Alexander against Carlisle. Any thoughts Town had of promotion seemed as realistic as England doing well at that year's World Cup.
It is fitting that at the Oscars of March 1990, My Left Foot picked up a few gongs, for it was Dave Gilbert who catapulted Town from mid-table to second place during those seven matches. He scored the winning goal in four of them, as Town recovered from the muddy pitches of the winter and were able to play their passing brand of football on greener, more helpful turfs.
"I have yet to see a better midfield quartet than Childs, Cunnington, Cockerill and Gilbert. From any team"
I was a 14-year-old nerd in March 1990, focused on football and avoiding girls and bullies who didn't realise that black-framed glasses would be all the rage in 22 years' time. I had my first season ticket, positioned myself top left in the Pontoon and watched as the game of football grabbed me by my yet-to-drop balls.
Buckley's team was a finely honed machine, each part knowing what the other was going to do and when. In front of Steve Sherwood was – as now – an extremely young defence with John McDermott, Mark Lever, Andy Tillson and Paul Agnew filling those spots most games. The midfield picked itself and is the reason that subsequent central players have been vilified by fans from this era onwards. I have yet to see a better quartet than Gary Childs, Shaun Cunnington, John Cockerill and Gilbert. From any team. They were a match for any opposition as they glided about the pitch, winning battles, spraying passes, working triangles and supplying crosses for the front two of Rees and Birtles, ably supported by a 12-goal cameo from Alexander.
There's no wonder we keep harping back to the good old days, is there?
I actually missed my one and only home game at the start of March, a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Doncaster, who I remember from my beloved Goals on Sunday tape wearing a lurid green kit as Gilbert tonked home a free kick to win the game. Childs scored the only goal away at Hereford next before the leaders, Exeter, arrived in match 3. This game was memorable for Town playing in a brand new strip, ditching the white-sleeved Scoreline outfit for a sleeker Ribero effort, with black collar and red triangles on the shorts.
Still emblazoned with 'Europe's Food Town', the kit made a winning debut as Gilbert ran on to a rare long ball and unerringly fired home. This was a defining moment. We had beaten the champions-elect (they finished ten points ahead of second-placed Town) and the impetus continued with another Gilbert winner away at Rochdale.
As a schoolboy a midweek fixture meant a rare night out against Scarborough was very exciting. I remember being very confident about winning and Town did not disappoint, dispatching the visitors 3-0 with the underrated Rees the fulcrum of all that was good and scoring two. I note now that the attendance was 7,690 and I am surprised. I wasn't then: it all seemed so natural and brilliant. but it is proof that Town fans will support a winning team.
After a 2-1 win away at Gillingham came the biggest game in my life to that point. Lincoln at home on 31 March, the seventh game of the month. Blundell Park was bathed in sunshine and euphoric that day. Almost 11,500 were crammed in as a real battle ensued and Tillson was stretchered off after a tackle in the centre circle.
The Pontoon surged, as did Cockerill from the resultant drop-ball, flying into the area and being upended by the keeper, who was probably getting out of the way. I remember Cockers clenching his fist at winning the penalty and knew that Gilbert – still my favourite Town player ever – was going to smash it into the top corner. "Who'd be Dave Gilbert?" asked Nik Powell on Goals on Sunday. "He would! And the place went mad!" It certainly did.
The winning run came to an end at the Shay, where Town fans comprised three quarters of the crowd. Town led 1-0 and 2-1, with goals from Rees and Alexander, only to register a 2-2 draw. I remember the look of absolute disgust aimed at his strike partner by the Welshman when missing an open goal.
The season was capped by a tremendous victory over Scunny and Birtles' hat-trick in the last home game against Wrexham. But it was that thrilling seven-game winning run in March that got us promoted. As the number one single of the time noted, Town were 'jam hot' and the football was probably even better in the next promotion season.
The belief started in March 1990 and carried on for quite a few years. The belief definitely returned in January 2012. Let's hope history repeats itself.
What do you reckon to Paul's article? What are your memories of that last great winning run, back in 1990? Use the Cod Almighty feedback form to tell us.