Under the flyover: Town's Conference years

Cod Almighty | Article

by Ron Counte

2 August 2016

As the Mariners prepare for their return to the Football League, Ron looks back on our six years in the Conference.

The 2016 play-off final"There's no place like home, there's no place like home..." Dorothy slowly came round and drifted back into consciousness. There was the faithful Toto by her side. Aunt Em and Uncle Henry were standing by her bed. Was she really back in Kansas? Had the Wizard, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion been just an hallucination? Hurriedly she reached for her i-pad and scrolled down to the football page. There it was in black and white. It had all been a dream. Town were in the Football League and she was back home!

For the last six years we have not so much been "over the rainbow", as "under the flyover". It has been as if we were sleeping in a cardboard box, sustained only by hope and cheap sherry. Now our concerned relatives had found us at last, cleaned us up, and given us a decent meal and fresh set of clothes so that we could rejoin society once more.

Relegation was the culmination of years of mediocracy, mismanagement and decline, the only thing of real quality produced the Poojah rant

Of course we should never have dropped out of the League in the first place. When the crisis came we had the chance to appoint Russell Slade, an experienced manager who had, against the odds, rescued both Brighton and Orient from near certain relegation from the third flight. But instead we opted for Neil Woods, a totally inexperienced manager, and kept with him as he went almost an entire half season without a win. The last rites were administered at Burton, but by then safety was no longer in our hands. It was the culmination of years of mediocracy, mismanagement and decline when the only thing of real quality produced in association with the club was the Poojah rant.

Not that going down initially appeared to be the seemingly endless ordeal it was to become. A Lincoln fan who had experienced their drop and subsequent immediate return was quick to reassure us that we were going to have a great year, winning almost every week, visiting charming but forgotten football outposts like Nuneaton and Tamworth, and coming straight back up with a new trinket in the trophy cabinet. That really didn't sound too bad at all. The reality however was to be very different.

The first astonishing portent of what awaited us was the 2-1 home defeat to Hayes and Yeading. Who? More humiliation soon followed as we had to become accustomed over succeeding seasons to defeats at the hands of teams few of us had ever heard of. In that first season we never looked like serious promotion challengers as, not for the last time, a rich benefactor bankrolled a small club - in this case Crawley - to win the division with ease. We crawled to 11th place after Woods, and us, were finally put out of our misery by his long-overdue sacking.

The one spot of light relief came when a gloating Lincoln fan taunted us when his team reached 40 points, and apparent Football League safety, with 10 games to go. Incredibly they then proceeded to lose nine of their remaining games a la Woodsy, and came down to join us in the pit. Priceless.

The following season saw the dynamic duo Hurst and Scott, with a record of promotions at Ilkeston and Boston behind them, in charge for the entire season. Once again the championship was purchased by a team with more money than fans. This time it was Fleetwood led by a skinny waif called Vardy (I wonder whatever happened to him?) who sealed up the title early while we demonstrated lamentable consistency by finishing 11th again.

And so the bell went for round three. This time we did manage to briefly reach the top of the pile before Mansfield and Kidderminster went on astonishing runs which saw them both hardly drop a point after Christmas. The turning point came when our visit to Mansfield was postponed while we were in top form and they were struggling badly. By the time the rearranged fixture came round form was reversed and we never came close to catching them.

We did, however, enter the weird fantasy world of the play-offs for the first time by finishing 4th. The play-offs are a little like the realm of quantum mechanics. The normal rules which govern the universe no longer apply there. Given that Kidderminster, who on the last day of the season might have won the title, were streets ahead of the other play-off contenders and in red-hot form, it was a mere formality that they would prevail. Their centre-half, a certain Josh Gowling, looked like a colossus in the heart of an impregnable defense. In fact they lost both legs of the semi-final and began a decline which led, astonishingly, to their relegation three seasons later.

We on the other hand were full of confidence. As luck would have it we played our semi-final opponents, Newport, in the last game of the regular season and gave them a right old 3-0 thumping. The fact that they had rested eight of their first team regulars didn't seem that relevant at the time. In the first leg at Blundell Park it was once again evident that big matches rest on narrow margins. Late on a Disley header hit the post when it might have gone in, then a minute later the visitors were given a very soft free kick and the ball ended up in the net. There was a gallant but brief effort in the away leg, but the damage was done, and so were we.

Thus it came to pass that we were consigned to a fourth year in oblivion. We had bad luck with strikers in previous seasons. Liam Hearn, our most lethal forward for several years had succumbed to two terrible injuries, but in Ross Hannah we had unearthed a real gem of a loan signing. He simply could not stop scoring, until that is we signed him up full time. There was often more aggression from the dugout than on the pitch, resulting in a pruning of the management pair, but we again claimed fourth spot after Luton, themselves perennial play-off losers, finally put together a title winning side largely on the back of a lucrative cup run the previous season. Once again we had to accept that we had no realistic hope of automatic promotion months before the season ended.

Christmas came early for Gateshead as gifts were presented by three unwise men

The first leg of the semi took place on the same evening that Rick Wakeman performed Journey to the centre of the Earth at the Grimsby Auditorium. But once again, our hopes were soon to be buried. After wasting numerous chances to establish a first-leg lead, Christmas came early for Gateshead as gifts were presented to them in the second leg by the three unwise men.

Firstly James McKeown allowed a harmless lob to slip right through his arms into the net to gift them a goal. Then the referee issued a stunningly ridiculous red card to reduce us to 10 men. Then Sam Hatton decided to practice his kung-Fu kick on the halfway line to reduce us to nine men. To reinforce his stupidity he was then seen high-fiving in the dressing room. His most memorable contribution in a Town shirt. Another season had slipped by. Not even a well-deserved FA Cup victory against rivals Scunthorpe could remove the bitter taste of disappointment.

As we embarked on our fifth season in the fifth tier we once again fell miles behind the early pace setters, this time Barnet, within the first few weeks of the season and were never able to catch them, despite beating them convincingly twice. We just dropped too many points against the poorer sides. Newbies Bristol Rovers almost caught Barnet in the final week of the season, but narrowly missed out in what had once again proved to be a two-horse race in which we didn't have a ride. We did however, rise to 3rd in the table and a 3rd consecutive play-off spot. This time we made short work of our semi-final opponents Eastleigh, and proceeded to a Wembley showdown with Bristol Rovers.

I said before the match, for which we were slight underdogs, that we could win if we just got the rub of the green. Well we got it for the first three minutes when Lenell John-Lewis, surely the worst finisher in history to score 20 goals in a season, scored with a ricochet off his face.

But there our well of fortune ran dry. On 19 minutes the Rovers keeper made a deliberate hand-ball outside then area, as clear and unambiguous a red card offence as you will ever see. It was immediately clear to everyone in the stadium that he had to go. Everyone that is apart from the referee who in an act of wanton cowardice gave only a yellow card. It was the most outrageous in a long line of refereeing gaffes which characterise the standard of fifth-tier officialdom. Of course it is by no means certain that, 1-0 up against ten men with 70 minutes to play, we would necessarily have won the match, but it seems highly likely.

There was a sense of inevitability about what came next. We were aware of Ollie Palmer's reckless streak having seen him ripping beer bottle caps off with his teeth, but even we did not expect him to practice his back flips in our six yard box to gift Rovers an equalizer. When the game petered out to the inevitable conclusion McKeown maintained his 100 per cent Wembley penalty record by conceding all five, just as he had done in the Trophy final two years earlier, and it was all over for yet another season.

The truth is that we came up against a Bristol Rovers side having an off day, but still didn't do enough to win the game. However, the sense of injustice at the red card issue sparked a real mood of anger among fans which resulted in them raising £110,000 to try and ensure that we would not be placed in the same situation again. The play offs were too much of a lottery. We needed to ensure our exit from the abyss in the only way guaranteed to succeed, by winning automatic promotion.

In our sixth season in the wilderness it didn't take long for the optimism to fade, as by the end of August Forest Green opened up a points gap that we were never to close. The biggest surprise however was that newly relegated Cheltenham not only caught but overtook FGR and eventually cantered to the title with weeks to spare. This put the lie to the myth that it took relegated clubs several seasons to adjust to the Conference as they, like Bristol Rovers the previous year, bounced straight back to the League at the first attempt. It seemed that not every club found escape from the division as tough a prospect as we apparently did.

As automatic promotion once again proved well out of reach, fan frustration at our failure to compete for the title grew, especially during a severe dip in form in the run-in. We did though manage to secure a play-off spot once more and, taking a leaf out of Newport’s book three years earlier, we rested the majority of the first team in our final game, against Tranmere, while semi-final opponents Braintree had to field their strongest side to secure their spot. So this must give us the edge, surely?

Unfortunately it did not pan out that way and in the first leg we meekly surrendered to the plumbers and accountants of the Essex part-timers, led by their PE teacher manager. This released an avalanche of vitriol from fans as the pent-up frustration of months of lacklustre performances, questionable team selections, and baffling tactics finally burst out in a flurry of angry rhetoric. Defeat seemed inevitable and calls were made for the immediate sacking of the manager, the board, the tea lady, and anyone else associated with the club. In retrospect some of the reaction might appear unduly harsh, but such angst is inevitable where there is such a grievous disparity between expectation and performance. The Braintree players did a lap of honour when they qualified for the play-offs. For them it was a real achievement. For us, however, nothing short of promotion would ever count as success.

It is clear that the criticism hit home to both the players and the management. How far this motivated them in the second leg is open to question, but they certainly played with passion and conviction in turning the tie round. For once we got a slice of luck when a defender foolishly grabbed Gowling’s shirt in the box, and then Amond’s badly scuffed penalty bobbled in with the keeper having committed himself in the opposite direction. After that there was only going to be one winner.

And so to Wembley once more. This time we were up against another rich man’s vanity project, Forest Green Rovers. The scale of the absurdity of this latter day executive toy can be gauged by the fact that a paltry 117 FGR fans turned up for their semi-final away leg against Dover. Shocking, but then they really are just a village team, despite the massive playing budget their chairman throws at them.

For the benefit of those who may have missed it, Omar Bogle staged a reenactment of his winning goal at Braintree the week before to give us the lead. The FGR keeper was still in a daze of confusion at this apparent deja vu a minute later as he spilled a shot from Arnold, and Bogle smashed in the rebound with considerable aplomb to send us in 2-0 up at half time.

I have witnessed six previous promotions, celebrated victories at Anfield, Goodison Park, Stamford Bridge, St James Park and Molineux, and seen a golden goal winner. But never have I known such elation as the moment when Arnold coolly slotted the ball into the net

As was to be expected the vegan villagers came out fighting in the second half and they scored a wonder goal by the impressive Marsh-Brown. But after 15 minutes they had blown themselves out unable to sustain a real assault on our goal. Maybe they needed more red meat in their diet. Our midfield maintained its grip and they were reduced to hopeful long-ball punts, most of which went harmlessly into touch. We had weathered the storm and indeed looked the more likely to score in the closing minutes, which we duly did.

I have witnessed six previous promotions, celebrated victories at Anfield, Goodison Park, Stamford Bridge, St James Park, Molineux, and countless others, and seen a golden goal cup final winner. But never, in all my 45 years of supporting Town, have I known such elation as the moment when Arnold took the ball round the keeper and coolly slotted it into the net. That one, sublime piece of calm, majestic finishing unleased a tsunami of joy from the Town faithful that shook the stadium to its foundations. In that single, glorious moment, six years of disappointment, depression and heartache were banished to the furthest recesses of consciousness. An open wound had been cauterized.

We had come home.

What are your best and worst memories of Grimsby's Conference years? Tell us