Arrested development

Cod Almighty | Article

by Peter Anderson

28 October 2014

The experience of Dayle Southwell shows how hard it is for young players to get a firm foothold in the first team. It was not always like this. 

Southwell celebratesGrimsby Town's third goal against Coalville Town in last season's FA Trophy was a footnote to most people in the small crowd. Deep into injury time, many of the Blundell Park faithful were already making their way home, the first round replay already won.

Coalville's noisy following had provided most of the atmosphere and their team responded with a decent display which, on another night, could have brought a shock victory. However, by the time the ref had checked his watch for a second time, it was 2-0 to Grimsby and the Mariners were on their way to round two. That's when a deflected 20-yarder became Dayle Southwell's and Grimsby's third goal of the night.

Dayle Southwell celebrates scoring against Coalville Dayle celebrated with gusto, as well he might. It was the local lad's first senior hat-trick. Sadly, it would also be his last in a Grimsby shirt – he was destined to be released by the club at the season's end.

I had reason to celebrate with a little more enthusiasm than the Town fans around me that night. The goal brought to an end a strange run of over 60 games, spanning 34 years, where my Jonah-like presence at games had restricted Town to scoring no more than two goals.

Even though I can claim fame among the ranks of those who entered the world in the long-demolished (and by now almost mythical to those of a certain age in Lincolnshire) Croft Baker maternity home in Cleethorpes, I have lived in Ireland as a Mariner in exile since I was very young.

Opportunities to go to games were scarce. When I did it was re-lived and replayed on my back garden for months and years to come Opportunities to go to games were scarce. Trips back as a kid were often during the close season in the summer holidays. This wouldn't diminish the excitement at the first sight of the Blundell Park floodlights on every visit. When I did get to attend a match back then, it took on huge importance and was re-lived and replayed in the back garden for months and years to come.

I'm hoping this can explain my nerdish ability to recall in great detail each of the 60-odd games I have seen Grimsby play over the course of this 'run'.

Dayle's release by the club prompted me to consider the stark contrast between the modern game and the era of the other game that bookends the sequence of results. The last Town side I had seen score three was the 1980 third division championship team: a team who, in my eyes, both then and now, were close to perfection. With locals and youth team graduates at the core of a skillful attacking style, they rose through the divisions and came within a whisker of an unprecedented three successive promotions.

As for the game in question, I was seven and remember cars with Town flags and scarves filling the motorway to and from the away game at Chesterfield. Stuck in traffic for an hour and getting lost in the town centre, it's a tribute to my dad's and uncles' planning that we still had two hours in the pub beer garden before the game. The away terrace at Saltergate seemed to be below pitch level but maybe it was just weighed down with Town fans that day.

Three goals, a thrilling victory, top of the table – being a Grimsby fan is easy, right? Only years later would I come to understand why, no matter how well the season was going, or what division we were in, my dad would always greet a win with "another few points and we should be safe from relo".

Time to develop

Southwell is award man of the matchObviously a crop of players like that Town team of the early 1980s doesn't come around very often. But when it did, it was given time to develop. By fluke or design, future stars like Kevin Drinkell, Kevin Moore and Tony Ford were given time to find their feet during a couple of inauspicious Division Four seasons in the mid- to late 1970s. Just the type of seasons that would earn the manager and half the squad their P45 nowadays.

Dayle Southwell with the match ball after his hat-trick against Coalville In common with many clubs today, Grimsby managers are on a short hook and don't have the luxury of building a team over a couple of seasons. Loanees and experienced players on short term contracts are drafted in with each new manager and given preference over youth. Unfortunately Dayle Southwell is just another name in a long list of young players to leave the club in the past few years without having a prolonged run in the first team.

Countless people would argue that the decisions to release a lot of these players were vindicated - only Cameron Jerome in the Premiership and Charlie I'Anson in La Liga have gone on to prove to the club that they were wrong to discard them (albeit pretty emphatically in both cases). The counterargument is less tangible and harder to prove. Who can assess the impact of dumping a player at such a crucial stage in their development? Many drift out of the game or end up at local lower league clubs. It must be difficult to get a trial or even a call back from another club when the highlight on your CV is getting the boot from a non-League team before your career has even started.

Could we really be any worse off if we had stuck with homegrown talent over the past ten years? A more concrete argument for youth policy to play a greater role in the long-term plan for a club is Town's current plight. The cycle of hiring then firing managers and players in the pursuit of instant success has left us non-League and with levels of debt that would have a third or even second division chairman in a sweat. Could we really be any worse off if we had stuck with local homegrown talent over the past ten years?

Perhaps the club is starting to see things in this light too. Perversely, in the same week that Southwell was released, three youth players – Caine Winfarrah, Ellis Humble and Paul Walker – were signed to professional contracts. It may be that the club's financial plight could force our hand and finally give such players a chance to become first-team regulars.

At the very least, we supporters would be able to remember the players' faces from one season to the next. Who knows – with any luck they could end up being like the 1980 team and still be remembered 34 seasons later.

This article was originally written in May 2014. With thanks to Grimsby Town Football Club for the photographs of Dayle Southwell.

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