They used to play on gravel: seven intriguing GTFC friendlies

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pete Green

17 July 2018

2 November 1878
Brigg Britannia 2 Grimsby Pelham 0

The circumstances of Grimsby Town's foundation in 1878 are fairly familiar to the club's supporters. The cricket club were looking for a winter sport to play, they met upstairs at the Wellington Arms, they formed a football club and called it Grimsby Pelham for a while because a local family called Pelham owned some land and English deference to the bourgeoisie. But less is known about the club's first match.

This came two months after Pelham were formed: a friendly, away at Brigg Britannia. Think of a friendly today and you'll typically think of a languid kickabout in the heat of summer, the players grinding their rested muscles slowly back into the rigours of match fitness. But before the advent of league competitions and professionalism, friendly fixtures were a regular, season-round aspect of the schedule alongside county tournaments and the FA Cup.

The new team's 2-0 defeat seems a reasonable result given their inexperience and lack of fitness. The Hull Packet & East Riding Times reported that "after playing for a quarter of an hour pretty well together [Pelham] appeared quite exhausted and unable to get the ball out of their territory".

Delightfully, one Pelham player was living the dream of being plucked from the crowd to join the team. George Haddlesey had travelled as a fan to watch his brother Sam represent Grimsby, only to be named in the side himself as the new club scrabbled around for players to make the numbers up.

What happened next
Britannia could legitimately be called the Mariners' first bogey team, as a return fixture two weeks later at Clee Park ended in another defeat, this time 4-1. It would be a year before the new club upgraded its suffix to 'Town' and recorded a first win, which appears to have been in another friendly: 1-0 at home to Grimsby Wanderers on 25 October 1879. Two weeks later they lost at home to Brigg Britannia again.


21 September 1891
Grimsby Town 4 Canadians-Americans 0

Now playing regular league fixtures in the Football Alliance, Town faced international opposition for the first time when players from Canada's Western Football Association and clubs in New England undertook a hectic British tour. The group arrived at Grimsby's Abbey Park stadium having faced Bolton Wanderers, Ireland, Everton and Lincoln City during the previous seven days. The Alliance, on the other hand, had only kicked off two days previously, allowing a fresh and fully rested-up GTFC side to despatch their exhausted visitors with some ease. (The tourists had still managed to beat Lincoln 2-1, mind.)

In all the North Americans would play an astonishing 58 games between their arrival in mid-August and departure in early January

Jack Ackroyd opened the scoring for Grimsby early on, with the hosts adding two more before half time, watched by a crowd estimated at 500. A relentless Town side added a fourth after the break – "playing like demons", as the Yorkshire Herald colourfully recorded it.

What happened next
Town completed an indifferent season in the Alliance, finishing 10th out of 12 teams, but joined the Football League immediately afterwards as founder members of Division Two. In all the North Americans would play an astonishing 58 games between their arrival in mid-August and departure in early January. Their forward Walter Wells Bowman, who played 51 of them but was rested for the match against GTFC, stayed on to become the first overseas player in the Football League, making 47 appearances for Accrington and Manchester City.


22 August 1938
Chesterfield 0 Grimsby Town 0

One night in May 1938 an underground coal wagon derailed at Markham Colliery in Derbyshire, damaging a power cable, which then sparked an explosion of coal dust, killing 79 workers and injuring 40 more. Local authorities, dignitaries and media quickly established a disaster fund to support the families affected.

The public dug deep. George Formby played a benefit gig. And Grimsby Town – firmly established at the time as one of the leading sides in England – suggested a benefit match against Markham's closest professional club, second division Chesterfield. The team Town sent to Saltergate included stars such as Jack Hodgson, Alec 'Ginger' Hall, Teddy Buck and the great George Tweedy, whose exertions over the following months would carry the Mariners to that FA Cup semi-final against Wolves, watched by a crowd unsurpassed at Old Trafford to this day.

Perhaps fittingly for its sombre circumstances, the game ended goalless, though the Daily Independent reported "a second half packed with thrills", mentioning several chances for the hosts and a busy Town rearguard in the closing stages. An attendance of 3,579 raised the respectable sum of £192 10s towards the disaster appeal (almost £12,500 in today's money), which ultimately funded funeral expenses, school fees for the workers' children, compensation to the injured, and an annual sum to every bereaved family at Christmas.

Markham Colliery

Markham Colliery pictured shortly before its demise in 1993. Photo: Dun.can, cc-by-2.0


What happened next
Safety in the coal mining industry improved after nationalisation in 1947 but tragedy struck at Markham again in 1973 when a brake rod failed to slow the cage carrying workers to the bottom of a shaft. This time 18 were killed and a further 11 injured. Production ended at the colliery in 1993 as John Major's government wiped out most of what remained of the British coal industry from its earlier savaging by the Thatcher administration.


16 October 1958
Grimsby Town 2 Prague Dynamo 2

Břetislav Dolejší played for Czechoslovakia in the World Cup in Sweden four months earlier but had already ensured his fame by saving a Djalma Santos penalty at the Maracanã in 1956, when his nation overcame the mighty Brazil by a goal to nil. Four minutes into his appearance in the slightly humbler surroundings of Blundell Park, the ball was tapped back to him by a defender, whereupon his clearance was snatched and carried by the North Sea wind, bouncing once on the edge of Town's penalty box, then sailing over young goalkeeper Malcolm White and into an empty goal.

Programme from the Prague gameThree more goals followed, all in the first half, with Jimmy Fell and Ron Rafferty on target for the Mariners. Dolejší's exploits continued as he saved a retaken Ron Cockerill penalty – some achievement given the power with which Cockerill is said to have struck a football. It was his appearance on the scoresheet that would stay long in the memory, though – with a contribution reported in the Times as "one of the most remarkable goals ever scored in first-class football".

What happened next
Dynamo's visit followed an end-of-season tour of Czechoslovakia by Grimsby, whose chairman Arthur Would was developing business interests there. Town finished second-bottom of Division Two and were relegated, but returned to Czechoslovakia twice more. During a 1959 tour they met Dynamo again in Prague, this time losing 4-0. A televised game against Slovan Liberec in 1962 would be the first ever Town match to take place on a Sunday.

White, who was deputising for the injured Clarrie Williams, recovered from his blushes to serve out a respectable term as Town's back-up keeper with 65 appearances before moving on to Walsall in 1963.

Dolejší won 18 international caps in all before emigrating to the USA, where he died in 2010. Dynamo were renamed Slavia Prague in 1965 but regained their former eminent status only after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in the 1990s. Since then they have won four Czech league titles and four domestic cups and been regular contestants in European club tournaments.


10 August 1971
Grimsby Town 7 Japan 2

You're used to seeing them in the World Cup these days but football in Japan only started to be a thing during the 1960s. As part of their development the national team toured Europe to play a couple of international friendlies, a selection of top club sides, and Hull City. So it was that they arrived in Cleethorpes one summer evening to face a Town team being lifted from the doldrums by manager Lawrie McMenemy.

Typewritten teamsheet from the Japan matchJack Lewis opened the scoring early, and Town dominated possession for much of the first half until the visitors equalised on 41 minutes through Kunishige Kamamoto – Japanese football's first superstar, who would score a total of 80 goals in 84 appearances for his country. The Mariners' lead was restored before half time by the great Matt Tees.

A crowd of more than 3,000 watched Mike Hickman complete a second-half hat-trick, with Japan replying through Kamamoto. A young trialist called Geoff Hart was subbed on for Town; although he never won a contract, he enjoyed a successful Northern League career with Spennymoor United and Blyth Spartans, and unlike several billion other human beings he will always be able to say he scored two goals against Japan.

What happened next
When the season began Town flew out of the blocks, scoring four goals in all three of their opening games and going on to seal the fourth division title at home to Exeter City in front of 22,000 delirious fans. McMenemy left for Southampton, where his 11 years as manager brought an FA Cup in 1976 and promotion to the top flight, a League Cup final in 1979 and league runners-up spot in 1984. He received an MBE in 2006. McMenemy's invigorating approach and charismatic persona are fondly recalled today by Town fans of a certain vintage – as are the players he brought to Blundell Park.

The experience was clearly a positive one for the visitors, who played a full international against Iceland three days later in Reykjavik and won 2-0 (Kamamoto scoring both again). It took until 1993, though, for Japan to establish a fully professional club competition with the launch of the J League, a year after the national team won its first Asian Cup. The side's first appearance at a World Cup finals came at France 1998 and the nation co-hosted the tournament with South Korea four years later. Japan have been Asian champions three times more and qualified for every World Cup since, forcing a stunning comeback from Belgium as the teams competed for a quarter-final place earlier this month in Russia.


9 August 1986
Þróttur Neskaupstaður 0 Grimsby Town 6

Ten years after the Third Cod War ended in Iceland's favour, with Grimsby's trawler fleet still reeling, GTFC were despatched to the far north Atlantic, accompanied by Cleethorpes MP Michael Brown, on a three-match pre-season tour to patch up relations between the countries. Kicking off against Íþróttabandalag Akraness (more commonly known as IA), Town came back from 2-0 down to win 5-2, then travelled to the sparsely populated east coast to face Þróttur Neskaupstaður, a team representing a village of just 1,700 people.

Town coasted to victory with an Ian Walsh hat-trick and a Neil Horwood brace plus one from Neil Robinson. Horwood, a Grimsby lad on trial, earned a contract for his efforts on the tour. The item of greatest historical curiosity from the Þróttur match, however, will be the playing surface – which was composed of gravel.

Hásteinsvöllur stadium, the home of Íþróttabandalag Vestmannaeyja, with dramatic island/mountain backdrop

Hásteinsvöllur stadium, the home of Íþróttabandalag Vestmannaeyja FC. Photo: Halli14, cc-by-sa 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


What happened next
Town rounded off their tour two days later at a dramatic island location off Iceland's south coast, with a 2-1 win over Íþróttabandalag Vestmannaeyja (IBV). The following season a shocking late collapse in form saw the club relegated to the third division. You might blame the distraction of a follow-up visit from Danish side Brondby for a friendly the following February, but most would blame Mike Lyons. Þróttur merged with two other clubs in 2001 to form Knattspyrnufélag Fjarðabyggðar, who are playing today in Iceland's third division.


1 August 2009
Winterton Rangers 1 Grimsby Town 12

When Town fans are feeling good about a new season, no warning signs will persuade us to exercise caution. No memory of bitter experience will moderate our fanatical determination to be 'positive'. In many ways that's a good thing. But sometimes it bites us on the arse. And when Town narrowly avoided relegation in 2009, we turned a deaf ear to the alarm bells sounding as Mike Newell prepared for the new campaign.

Nathan Arnold had been on trial but, according to some accounts, was so alienated by the booze-and-banter culture that he left without waiting for a contract offer

On the face of it, those preparations were thorough and professional. A training camp in Devon included friendly fixtures in a tournament format to give a competitive edge from the off. There seemed no need to read any significance into the heavy weather made by Newell's players of overcoming Belgian part-timers RRFC Montegnée in their opening game.

But when Town reached the final against Luton, and found themselves looking at a schedule of eight games in 14 days, they decided not to bother with it and went home. A certain Nathan Arnold had been on trial but, according to some accounts, was so alienated by the booze-and-banter culture of Newell's set-up that he left without waiting for a contract offer.

Subsequent results were mixed. A creditable 1-1 against Leeds was followed by non-scoring defeats to Stockport and Doncaster. Fans remained convinced by the manager's programme of renewal. As the pre-season programme ramped up in intensity, Town's players rose to their final challenge before the season kicked off. And by golly, Winterton Rangers didn't know what had hit them. Three goals came from Barry Conlon inside the first half-hour, two from home-grown hero Danny North, and four from Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro after half time.

It was only a friendly. Against a team from the Northern Counties East League. With a week to go until the new season, a broken metatarsal left a big Nathan Jarman-shaped hole on the right of midfield. But it was Town's biggest friendly win ever and there was no way we weren't getting irrationally excited. As Cod Almighty's diary had it: "The lesson we must not forget is that these summertime kickabouts tell you absolutely nothing at all about what's going to happen when the season actually begins, and that we must never, ever, ever – on pain of death, or worse still, relegation – read anything at all into their outcomes. Unless of course you win 12-1 away at Winterton Rangers."

What happened next
Ninety-nine years of football history came to an end when RRFC Montegnée were dissolved in 2014.

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Sources: About Derbyshire; British Newspaper Archive; Canadian Soccer History; Grimsby NorgeGrimsby Town: A Complete Record, 1878-1989 by Les Triggs, David Hepton and Sid Woodhead (Breedon Books, 1989); The Grimsby Town Story 1878-2008 by Dave Wherry (Yore Publications, 2008); Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation. Additional research by Rich Mills and Mark Stilton.

Edits: This article originally stated that Walter Wells Bowman was the first Canadian player in the Football League. Thanks to Chris Corrigan for pointing out that he was the first non-British player of any nationality to do so.