The rest is history

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pete Green

10 September 2008

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" – George Santayana

"Please try to keep recent events in historical perspective," I was advised the other day on the internet, while I was pondering the Mariners' not-too-distant past. It's a useful reminder. Some of us Town fans, after all, tend to overreact to any moderately poor performance by deeming it the worst we've ever seen in 40 years of supporting the club. But I wasn't on a messageboard, co-ordinating a 'Buckley out' protest or wondering when was the last time we went six months without a league win. I was looking at Wikipedia.

To be precise, I was reading through the Wikipedia entry for GTFC and had reached a section called 'Notable former players'. A more accurate title for this section might have been 'Just about anyone at all who has pulled on a Town shirt since 1992', as its authors are clearly either too young to vote or have memory spans that would be shamed by your average goldfish.

I don't mean to be harsh, as Wikipedia is famous for letting anyone have a go at writing or editing an entry. But even Vance Warner's and Laurens Ten Heuvel's mums would have baulked at including them in a pantheon of illustrious Mariners at the expense of Pat Glover and Matt Tees.

In fairness to the publishers of Wikipedia, they are well aware of their site's shortcomings and quite willing to flag up to readers any content that may be less than authoritative. And one of these warnings appears at the top of its list of 'notable' former Town players. "This article or section may be slanted towards recent events," the site points out. "Please try to keep recent events in historical perspective."

After Town's 2003 relegation from the second tier, the then chairman Peter Furneaux blamed the instability created by the team's over-reliance on loan players

So once you've recovered from the shock of seeing in the list GTFC legends such as Enzo Gambaro (one substitute appearance in 1996) and Nicky Rizzo (68 minutes at home to Chester last January), the most notable thing of all is how the list lays bare the sheer blind headless panic of Town's revolving door transfer policy in the Paul Groves/Nicky Law era.

After Town's 2003 relegation from the second tier, the then chairman Peter Furneaux blamed the instability created by the team's over-reliance on loan players. Despite the success of short-term acquisitions such as Andy Todd and Steve Kabba, this seemed a reasonable assessment, possibly informed by the collapse of two more such transfers on the March deadline day.

At that point the Mariners had already reached the maximum number of loans allowed for one season, but two of these had been used up on John Oster, and would be freed up again when the Wales winger signed the deal he'd agreed with Groves to return permanently. At the last minute Oster decided he didn't fancy a relegation scrap after all and told the manager he'd changed his mind. The final two loan deals waiting to be signed, but dependent on Oster's fidelity, were in tatters. Groves' plans to save the season dissolved into chaos as the deadline ticked by.

Granted, one of the players Groves had lined up to save Town's ass was Des Hamilton, whose performances in the 2003-04 campaign, after his belated arrival in the close season, suggest that he may not have been quite up to the job. But the impression remains one of abject desperation and planning on an hour-by-hour basis rather than from one season to another.

Optimism of 2003

Furneaux looked to draw a line under Town's age of instability by promising ten new permanent signings. The summer of 2003 was a time of huge optimism among supporters, with this thrilling burst of activity in the transfer market accompanied by a tremendous run of results in the pre-season friendlies. (There were wins over Boston United, Halifax, Barton Town, Lincoln, Hull and Middlesbrough; a draw with Sunderland; and a Copa Ibiza in the trophy cabinet, for what it was worth.)

The irony of misplaced hope is the harshest irony of all, and we might never learn all the reasons why that promising 2003-04 season unravelled so nightmarishly. But when the rot began, Wikipedia 'notables' such as Iain Anderson, Jason Crowe and Marcel Cas proved unable or unwilling to stop it.

Let's be fair to Furneaux (and to John Fenty, who was emerging as an influence in the GTFC boardroom around this time). No-one could have anticipated that these players, who all seemed decent enough signings at first, would prove so spineless when the tide turned against their team.

But when it came to addressing the problem, the directors would have done well to heed Wikipedia's advice and seen these recent events in historical perspective. Instead they repeated the very mistake that they themselves had identified as the cause of the team's failure less than a year previously. And this time the consequences were even more shattering than before.

The cascade of names on the Wikipedia list gives a horrific reminder of the massive temporary workforce that marched through the gates of Blundell Park like a team of cowboy builders

In his six games as caretaker manager Graham Rodger showed every sign of being able to preserve Town's third division status. And why was Law appointed to replace him? He knew lots of agents and other managers, which meant he could sign a load more players on short-term deals – and destabilise the squad all over again.

The cascade of names on the Wikipedia list gives a horrific reminder of the massive temporary workforce that marched through the gates of Blundell Park like a team of cowboy builders as the Mariners slipped back into the bottom four. And just as promptly scarpered to their next contract when the walls came tumbling down at Tranmere on the last day.

Paul Warhurst...

Jamie Lawrence...

Craig Armstrong...

John Thorrington...

Readers of a sensitive disposition are advised to look away now. It's impossible to convey the despair these names evoke without mentioning... Mikael Antoine-Curier.

Not all of these were bad players, of course. Lawrence tried his best as the captain of a sinking ship, and Alan Fettis played well in goal for his dozen or so games. But when so many are coming in, a small coaching team can't give them all the attention and tactical instruction that they need, especially as the team is plunging down the league.

Our experience in 2004 ought to prove conclusively that the emergency recruitment blitz is a relegation-battling tactic to be used only as a last resort, when all else has failed and your club is still gasping for life in the drop zone. Town, by contrast, had managed some upward mobility and caught a few deep breaths at the fatal moment when Law reached for his bulging Filofax.

A lost generation

These errors can't be put right now. But there are lessons to take from this time, significant footnotes to flag up for future fans. For one thing, the absurd inclusion of David Soames on Wikipedia's list of notable former Mariners reminds us of a further, forgotten casualty of that era: an entire generation of youth team players.

Many of Soames' peers seem now to have slipped out of the game altogether, and only Darren Mansaram seems to remain on the radar (having just joined the laughably 'rebranded' Leigh Genesis in the Northern Premier League after a couple of years in Ireland). No-one can say for certain whether the likes of Chris Bolder, Iain Ward, Liam Nimmo and Wes Parker might have made it as pros in other circumstances. As it was, they were plunged haphazardly into an arena of abject mayhem because the ITV Digital cutbacks had left nobody else to wear the shirt. Maybe it would have been different had they been brought into the first team with calm timing and a careful eye on their development.

Maybe not. But recall the shocking, venomous treatment Mansaram received from some sections of the Town 'support' – while he ran himself into the ground every week as the lone striker in a 4-5-1 system. And you have to wonder about the long-term effects of that sort of bile and viciousness on the frail confidence of a wide-eyed teenager.

Next time you're impatient for a recruitment drive, and feel like joining in with the catcalls, just hold your horses a minute

But the overwhelming sense you get from a few minutes scrolling up and down this list is that, despite Town's current worst-ever run of five straight seasons in the fourth division, the management at least seems to be planning carefully ahead rather than scrabbling desperately like a cat falling out of a tree.

Alan Buckley's rebuilding for 2008-09 numbers four 'permanent' signings and two loans. This is a bigger-than-usual total for a manager who is increasingly berated for his slow and steady approach to squad building. Yes, he's been back nearly two years; yes, there are still positions to be filled; and yes, in terms of results at least, it's been another appalling start to a season. But next time you're impatient for a recruitment drive, and feel like joining in with the catcalls, just hold your horses a minute.

Whether it's 'Buckley out' this weekend or a couple of seasons down the line with the next poor fool, stop and consider Wikipedia's sorry inventory of 'notable' former Mariners instead.

It offers a historical perspective that should make us all a lot more careful what we wish for.

Oooh, I bet that's got you angry, hasn't it. Grrrr. Make the Cod Almighty feedback form a receptacle for your rage.