Once in a lifetime

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Tony Butcher

12 September 2003

Hartlepool United 8 Grimsby Town 1

What you are about to read is based on a true story.

A pleasant, windless autumnal evening with just a hint of a soupçon of a suggestion of a chill in the air, with around 350 jumpered and jacketed Town fans gathered together in the 'Rink End' (as seen to your right on the television). What a difference a decade makes, for both the town and the ground have been transformed from dull-eyed suburban housewives into stars of stage and screen. Well, sort of. Everything is new and shiny, but tastefully done, comfortable and not anodyne. Dining alfresco with our pommes frites and avocado dips, it was a salutary experience for the visiting Grimbarians. Once Hartlepool used to make Grimsby look glamorous; now it's the other way round.

Town lined up in what has often been described as a 4-4-2 formation as follows: Davison, Crowe, Ford, Crane, Barnard, Cas, Groves, Campbell, Hockless, Rowan and Boulding. The substitutes were Edwards, McDermott, Nimmo, Soames and Bolder. Everyone played in the position you'd think they would, with Hockless starting at left wing. Nimmo among the subs? A startled throng of Town fans stared at the unknown soldier and, of course, called him Derek.

There was nothing of any note in the pre-match warm ups. No embarrassing singing and/or dancing. No terrible hair, no ridiculous routines. Just blokes kicking the ball about. Delving into the programme, we saw a picture of Stuart Campbell was captioned "Iain Ward". In the Doncaster programme Campbell was "Paul Smith". Is this going to be a running gag through the season? I do hope so. And Town's manager is Paul Fraser. Is that a prediction?

The programme was full of pictures of Paul Robinson, including a gurning poster portrait of the former loanee flopster. Yeah, yeah, we know the immutable law of the ex is about to hit us. And Marco Gabbiadini, like Flash Gordon, is still alive. He's 89 and got all his own teeth in a jar by the door, you know.

A pigeon fluttered into the rafters of the stand holding the Town support, causing much contemplation about where to sit to avoid collateral damage. Or perhaps this is the Grimsby (Evening) Telegraph's replacement for Stuart Rowson, training at any away game. Sports coverage via the medium of pigeon post.

On with the show.

First half
Town kicked off away from the massed ranks of the travelling Wilby's coach party and other animals. The ball was rolled back to Barnard, who simply wellied it upfield straight to their keeper. As he's been absent for two weeks with Wales, and we'd never seen that nonsense before, we can only assume that this is what international coaches teach their charges.

Shall I skip over the minor details? Perhaps, we'll see, for it is the little things that are important, like Hockless. The first quarter of an hour was even, interesting and relatively hopeful, for Town were passing it around nicely, creating moments of danger, if not chances. Hartlepool flapped around a lot, with Gabbiadini doing the Bump on the nearest Town defender and Robinson a perpetual motion machine, so let's relax a little, eh?

Cas surged past two defenders and dribbled a weak left-footed shot straight at the goalkeeper. Boulding twisted by the 'Pool supporters, near the left corner of the penalty area, rocking and rolling past the wrestling defender. His cross was sliced away for a corner. Other small moments where Town almost broke through, but crosses were too high, or passes erring. Barnard curled a 30-yard free kick in a lovely little arc straight into the goalkeeper's midriff.

In contrast, Hartlepool had a shot, which was ever so nice for them, after about 10 minutes. And they should have scored. A free kick, out near the left hand corner of the penalty area was curled over, over and beyond the last defender and the far post. Tinkler wallowed in and volleyed over the stand from about five yards out. Gleeful Grimbarians enquired as to the whereabouts of his walking aid, for Tinkler has more than a tinge of grey in his hair. He never told them, by the way. That's his little secret.

So far, so-so, but nothing to worry ourselves about unduly.

Just after the quarter-hour Gabbiadini shielded the ball from Crowe about 30 yards out way off to the right. Crowe tried to nick the ball away, but the Tubby Terror of Townpast crumpled. A soft, daft free kick and a stupid decision by the referee to book Crowe. The free kick was looped up high towards the near post and several Town players seemed to converge on the ball with no Hartlepool player near. The ball appeared to hang up on the wind (what wind?) and the unmarked Groves headed firmly into the top right-hand corner. Nothing more need be said about that.

From the kick-off Town faffed about, looking sorry for themselves. Or rather I should say the defence did, for Crane and Ford ponced about tapping the ball to each other and the ball was eventually lost with an aimless pass upfield. The Town defence held a line on the edge of the penalty area, and the ball was dinked over the top, towards the right corner of the box, for Gabbiadini to run onto. Ford got there first, was nudged off the ball and stumbled, and Fatman was away. Ford recovered and tippy-toed after him. Then Gabbiadini felt something, somewhere and all his bones dissolved. The referee stared at his linesman for several seconds before awarding a penalty.

Ford was not booked, though there was a humdinger of an argument between Gabbiadini, Crane and Campbell, with Groves and Barnard adding some considered views, after sucking a thoughtful pipe. Robinson trundled forward, stuttered, and placed the ball into the left of the goal as Davison crumbled to his right.

From the kick-off Hockless was flattened by Williams with an awful late sliding tackle as the ball was dinked up the touchline. A Jack Lester special, if ever there was one. Williams received only a yellow card and it was clear that the excuse was already there in the minds of several of the experienced Town players. They were acting as though they were being cheated by opponents and referee, concentrating on the next moan. Some time later Rowan was booked for a similar offence but, as it's Rowan, we know it was because he is rubbish at tackling, not through any demonic will to crush a grape, or ankle.

After a couple of minutes of harrumphing and general flappery Town settled down a bit, with the occasional passing movement. From one such moment Campbell drifted past a midfielder and surged forward and, when about 25 yards out, pinged a shot a couple of feet over the bar. Hartlepool were, you will not be surprised to learn, quite excited and pleased by events. Their players perked up and ran around even more, as they too could see the collapsing soufflé at the heart of the defence. Gabbiadini also knew the referee was falling for his falling. He's not stupid, even if officials are.

Near the half-hour Town attacked and there was a huge lumping clearance back upfield. The ball bounced once on the Town right and Barnard (yep, that's right - Barnard on the right) stood underneath the plummeting plastic. Gabbiadini ran forward, launched himself at the Welsh wanderer and performed a double piked Lutz with twist. Free kick, so obviously a free kick, thank you Mr Referee. Huh? To Hartlepool? About 25 yards out, just to the right of centre. Strachan loped up, lofted the ball over the wall and curled it into the top right hand corner. Hats off for the strike, metaphorical knives out for the decision.

It was beginning to dawn on some that the game was possibly beyond saving and that events had conspired against Town. The clues were there. How would the players react?

Two minutes later Hartlepool finally scored a 'proper' goal, though even that was delivered to them like a deluxe pizza with extra cheese. Crane and Ford continued their comedy double act with a Chuckle Brothers routine - "to you, to me, to you, to Hartlepool" - near the right touchline. It may be six steps from Kevin Bacon, but with Crane and Ford you're never more than four passes from a Hartlepool goal. Crane eventually swiped the ball up the touchline directly to an opponent. The ball was quickly switched out to their right, with Barnard still sat on the bench at the San Siro. Corporal Jones reappeared and the comic twist is that we don't like it up 'em.

Hartlepool lofted the ball to the far post where Crowe, or rather a holographic approximation of Jason Crowe, appeared to be. Crowe backtracked, leapt pathetically and allowed Humphreys to collect the ball on his chest, nuddle, nurdle and thwack it low into the bottom left corner from about six yards out.

There is nothing positive to say about the rest of the half, which was just 15 minutes of partying and Hollywood showboating by the now cock-a-hoop Terminators from Teesside. At will Gabbiadini, Robinson and Humphreys waltzed, samba-ed and foxtrotted through the cardboard cutout figures representing the Grimsby Town Football Club notional back four. Davison was finally called upon to make a save when Gabbiadini outpaced Ford (please, stop laughing at that unlikely scenario; it happened before our very eyes, playmates) and was facing the forlorn stopper from six yards out. Davison blocked well, with a rueful, sheepish smile from Gabbiadini.

At times it looked as though the Hartlepool players were so embarrassed that they didn't really want to score any more. Just yet. Their manager did - and was furious at any slackening or anyone showing off their skills.

A minute before half time, a cross-shot flashed a couple of feet wide of Davison's left post. And that was the end of something: apparently, it was a half of football. It was all very odd, for despite losing 4-0, it didn't feel quite like some of the disasters of the past. It wasn't as if the whole team were rotten, collectively and individually, or that Hartlepool had peppered the Town goal. But there was always the feeling that when they attacked they were going to score. Great play by them or rotten defending? Really it depends what you want to believe, for Hartlepool were organised, committed and capable of passing to each other regularly. Their strikers had a nice balance of flab and fluff, and were part of the best team we'd played so far this season - but they weren't great, just good. So in summary...oh no, it's still only half time, isn't it? Gulp.

Stu's half-time toilet talk
"Take away the goals and this has 0-0 written all over it."
"I taught Hockless how to play the theme from Hill Street Blues."
"All our defensive chickens are laying eggs at the same time."
"Am I the plastic Uri Geller?"
"If we leave now we could get back before the pubs close!"

Second half
Ah, now that's much better. Town attacked with aplomb, gusto and other fruits of the forest. But not before another wibble, for Davison had to sprint off his line and smother the ball at the feet of Williamson on the left of the area. There was, we must report, a Town defender near. Well, nearer than the shelf stackers at the local Asda, which was an improvement of sorts.

After two or three minutes Town won the ball in midfield and played those triangles of old, with first-time passing, to knock the ball out to the unmarked Hockless. The midget magician flipped the ball first time over the defence right into the flightpath of Boulding, just outside the box to the left of centre. Boulding surged past his marker and scuffed a shot across the face of goal. The goalkeeper scrambled and, egged on by the crowd, Rowan slid forward at the far post and diverted the ball just inside the right-hand upright. The Town fans gave a passable impression (from a distance of at least 50 feet) of normal supporters, delirious at scoring. We were laughing while we danced.

There then followed a very strange 10 minutes, in the context of this match, for Town dominated, pulverised, ripped apart and bashed the Hartlepool defence. It even induced that Escape to Victory feeling: "C'mon lads - we could still do this." Indeed they could, and it would be appropriate to point out to any lawyers reading this that we never actually specified what 'this' was.

One touch, bish-bosh, Cas free down the right. He looked up and dinked a cross to just beyond the far post, where Boulding rose above his marker and headed into the side netting. Hockless, all trickery and flippery with his feet, teased and pleased with swishing and swaying, leaving defenders on the floor. He had a couple of gallant long-range efforts, one of which went a yard over the bar and the other a few inches.

Cas again, rampaging past his little marker, crossed from near the bye-line; the ball looped off a defender and bounced beyond the far post. Hockless ran in and, from just inside the six-yard box, headed back across the face of goal. The goalkeeper beaten, the crowd about to rise; suddenly a defender ran across and booted clear. Bummer. It was a bit of a weak header, in all truth.

During this brief moment of clarity the only scare was when Davison punched away a long throw straight to Humphreys, about 25 yards out. With Davison way off his line Humphreys wellied a volley toward the top right corner. Gabbiadini dived forward; Davison dived at the flabby forward; and the ball slipped a couple of feet wide of the right post.

Wait - there's more Town pressure. Campbell surging, Hockless dazzling, Rowan moving, things happening and positive too. Hockless danced across his marker and played a one-two with Rowan (I think) before slapping an underhit shot towards the goal. The keeper plunged slowly, like a old steam pump, to plop on the ball as it drifted by.

A steadied ship, equilibrium achieved, Hartlepool not having penetrated the Town penalty area for minutes. All much better, much calmer - and then hari-kari Ford arrives to lose the day. A punt upfield, the usual run-of-the-mill stuff, which should be no difficulty for a professional footballer. Ford was in front of Robinson and a simple tap back to Davison was bound to follow. The Space Cadet glowed and collapsed, leaving Robinson alone, 30 yards out, with just Davison in front of him. Robinson rolled the ball under the sprawling keeper and the Town players shrank by a further three inches.

The half continued as if nothing had happened. You know, it was only a game, why change the pattern. Barnard curled a free kick six inches over the bar from a similar position to the one from which he scored against Wycombe. No I don't mean from Blundell Park, but about 25 yards out, to the right of centre. The Town fans taunted their opposition number with "6-5, we're gonna win 6-5." Oh, and don't forget that penalty incident, when Cas crossed and a defender lay down on the turf, raised an arm and diverted the ball away with aforementioned limb clearly wombling free.

Town still pressed, with Crowe taking the philosophy of attack being the best form of defence to its logical conclusion, being a defender who only attacks. Cas seemed bewildered by Crowe's constant sprinting past him whether he had the ball or not. This left even more space, if that were possible, in which Hartlepoolians could roam free.

Now take a wild guess how the next goal was scored. Yep, Crowe absent from duty again. As always, from humdrum nothingness danger lurked. Groves challenged for a high ball near the halfway line. Crowe decided that he should start sprinting past Groves, but he only half cleared, the ball being immediately sent back over him to where Crowe had once been, long, long ago, when Noggin the Nog was at centre-back. Humphreys (I think) turned past a giant redwood tree which had inexplicably been planted on the right edge of the Town penalty area. Crane? Get off your horse and drink your milk. This vague Hartlepoolian crossed into the centre and Gabbiadini, a few yards out in the centre, stroked the ball into the net.

At this point Rowan was wheeled off and replaced by Liam Nimmo, a much sturdier looking young man, who bounded on to much encouragement from the gaggle of juniors seated as close to the exit as possible, Messrs Parker, Ward, Young and Hughes. And from darkness light emerges, for the chink of hope is here. A most encouraging debut. He moved! He didn't fall over! He passed and linked with Hockless and caused plenty of problems to the defenders, where previously they'd strolled in the moonlight. His first two touches set up half chances for Hockless to cross or shoot.

Oh hang on - here they go again. Another attack, another goal. Some more rotten, rotten, disgusting defending from those employed to do so. The ingredients were the same as the other goals. Defender misses tackle, fails to run after a striker, lets ball roll across the face of goal. It was undoubtedly from the left or the right, all agreed on that point, with the majority of fingers being pointed at Darren Barnard, who spent the entire evening pointing infield towards where he though his winger should run. The winger kept running into the spot and, yikes, there was no cover. Anyway, it was scored by Williams from very close in following a low cross. Again Davison was faultless as the striker was left to his own devices six or seven yards out.

Only 66 minutes had gone, apparently, and some were beginning to lose count, having lost hope many minutes earlier. In dribs and drabs Town fans departed, which is an interesting psychological study: what is the breaking point of a Town fan? If they leave after seven does that mean that they think six conceded is acceptable and that is only the seventh that makes it embarrassing? Why now, when they may have been only 24 minutes from History; who can forget 28 January 1931? You? Exactly!

Nimmo nearly scored, you know. Campbell tipped the ball through the defence and Nimmo peeled away from his marker a dozen yards out to the left of goal. Unfortunately, the goalkeeper sprinted off his line and hurled himself towards Nimmo as the ball bounced up. A corner followed. Soames then came on for Boulding with about quarter of an hour left.

You will be delighted to know that all this jiggery-pokery didn't stop Simon Ford from playing his natural game, for he still indulged in some back-heels and flicks when he was the last defender. Never fear - the game didn't enter a period of prolonged torpor, and the locals got their money's worth.

With about 10 minutes left Hartlepool were allowed to do as they wished in front of the Town defence, the ball ending up on their right. Barnard closed off the wing with a swivel of his huge hips and showed the attacker the way, and he went where instructed, tipping the ball between Town defenders. Yet again a striker was allowed to turn free inside the penalty area with Ford (I think) the culprit. Ford, Crane, it doesn't matter which - they were equally culpable all game. Back to our story of derring-do with damsels in distress and rampant lionhearted knights saving their honour. The striker crossed low to the near post and Robinson, very close to goal, appeared to flip the ball into the net, possibly a back heel, probably not. It was far away in another land. That's eight isn't it?

Finally, some fine wingery by Hockless resulted in a low cross pulled back towards Soames, who helped the ball across the penalty area. Nimmo, towards the far post and about 10 yards out, spun and hooked the ball back towards goal, hitting the foot of the post and drifting away from goal. Shame.

And that's it, surely? Yes, surely, that is it in many respects. A very, very surreal match, for the goals seemed disassociated from the general play. Previously the complaint has been a "lack of protection" for the defence. That was simply not the case here. The individuals in the defensive positions all made serious errors and all looked as though had given up after the third goal.

The rest of the team was different, for they were cohesive and organised as an attacking unit. They kept looking back in horror at the shambles behind them. The Town defence was like the spoons on offer at the snack bar to stir the coffee with. Superficially adequate for the task. A spoon, spoon shaped, and hard plastic. All the ingredients were there for a successful spoon/coffee stir. However, when plunged into the hot liquid it simply melted. You can't blame the stirrer for choosing that spoon when there was no indication that it was so unsound.

Was this the highest shot-per-goal ratio ever recorded? Eight goals conceded but Hartlepool cannot have had more than a dozen efforts on goal. And the faultless Davison only made one save.

Was it all a dream? What more can I say? It was a freak match, but you don't want to talk about it. So this is where the story ends. Sleep tight, hope the bugs don't bite.

Nicko's man of the match
Just so many candidates to choose from...where do I begin? Really only two could hold their head up high, in Argent fashion. Nimmo had a super cameo debut, but overall only one Town player could be secretly pleased with his contribution to road safety. Step forward and on to a stepladder Little Graham Hockless. Now wave to the crowd and accept your certificate with a sheepish smile. Oh, and hum the theme from Hill Street Blues as a mark of respect; Mr Rhodes, your old music teacher, really was watching you.

Official warning
Mr S Mathieson gets 5.00000 for turning up. A couple of decisions, which turned out to be pivotal, were wrong, but overall the game was so strange there wasn't scope for much moanage.