Helter-skelter: Town's return to the Football League

Cod Almighty | Article

by Ron Counte

24 July 2022

Kick-started by one amazing comeback, it ended with a three peaks challenge. Ron recalls the test of character that was our return to the Football League

It was a ride to give an astronaut a nose bleed. When Grimsby scored only once in our first two games and were 3-1 down against Barnet it looked like being a very long season, and so it proved but not for the reason I expected. A campaign kick-started by one amazing comeback ended with three more.

The win over Barnet sent us on a run to the top of the league, and had one opposition manager calling us "champions elect". For me the highlight was beating Wrexham whose main tactic seemed to be Tozer's long throw. Imagine relying on a long throw. The tragically fragile wonder boy Max Wright scored a goal George Best would have been proud of before quickly returning to the treatment table.

Then we went from the top to the bottom of the form table, and back again. For three months we couldn't beat an egg: we only lost by fine margins, but we just weren't good enough. Then in came a raft of reinforcements and suddenly we were beating the teams above or around us in the league.

Just reaching the play-offs at the first time of asking was a real achievement. We finished sixth, which meant a footballing version of the Three Peaks Challenge

Three things happened at the New Hive at the end of April, as we closed on a play-off place. Michee Efete went over on his ankle on the ploughed field Barnet call a football pitch. His season over, in came Jordan Cropper with what is not so much a long throw as a guided missile. Ben Fox came on at half time and embarked on a scintillating run of form to transform our midfield. Finally, two down with nine minutes to go, we rescued a point. It would not be the last time we saw that never say die spirit.

Just reaching the play-offs at the first time of asking was a real achievement, when last time we were in the Conference it took us three years, and it's a league which had only got tougher since. We finished sixth, which meant a footballing version of the Three Peaks Challenge: three games away from home in a compressed time, all against teams who had finished higher up the table.

I don't think I have ever felt so relaxed before a play-off game as I was on the Monday evening at Meadow Lane: whatever happened we could be proud. With 16 seconds left we were rehearsing our concession speeches: "… harsh penalty… had been the better team…" then, rather as Braintree rescued our season in 2016 by conceding a daft penalty, a Notts defender needlessly pushed Harry Clifton in the back. We might easily have added "ought to have been a penalty for us" to our concession speech, except, well, Holohan, BOOM.

A last-minute winner to add to the last-minute equaliser, then we got down from the Eiger only to find we had four days to recover before climbing Everest. Among the walking wounded after 120 minutes, Gavan Holohan and John McAtee looked in particularly bad shape. It was hard to see them making the Wrexham game.

Was it a game, or just the next episode in a Netflix series scheduled to end with Ryan Reynolds holding the play off trophy aloft at the London Stadium? The Town players didn't receive a copy of the script and beat them 5-4. No point in describing the match because if you haven't seen it you wouldn't believe it anyway. At the end, Wrexham manager Phil Parkinson seemed a little unhappy with the ref, despite the fact that he gave them one of the softest penalties anyone can remember seeing outside of primary school football, and allowed Paul Mullin to punch the ball into the net for Wrexham's third. It's all a matter of opinion, but I have a different take: I think the reason Wrexham lost is due to us putting five goals past them. Just saying.

Now the anxiety levels went up to 11. We were still underdogs - Solihull had just won seven games on the bounce, finished 10 points ahead of us and had already beaten us twice in the regular season - but being so close to promotion changed the mood. At the London Stadium, apparently chosen in anticipation of a Notts County v Wrexham final, there was however a fabulous omen. Walking past us to the turnstile was none other than Nathan Arnold, not only there to cheer the lads on, but in the very shirt he wore when slotting home the third goal in the 2016 final. Awesome.

When the teams were being introduced to the big wigs I couldn't help noticing how happy and relaxed the Town player looked, while several of the Solihull players seemed stressed, as though the weight of expectation was heavy on their shoulders. I wondered if they would be equal to the tests of character which we had repeatedly overcome in the last fortnight.

In the first 20 minutes Solihull were as advertised: well organised, neat passing game, creating chances. Then we started to get on top, and when Solihull did score it was against the run of play. But we like to give the opponents a goal start to make it interesting. Once we equalised there was only going to be one winner. When Jordan Maguire-Drew poked the ball home the body language of the Solihull players was unequivocal. They had had it.

The celebrations lasted almost as long as the match. But though it was fantastic to win the game, this season has seen an even greater victory. The team, the manager, the new owners and everyone at the club has won back the hearts and minds, hopes and dreams, of the Mariners' community.

We have emerged from the darkness and can look forward to the future once again. To echo the words of a lad born not too far from Solihull the winter of our discontent has been made glorious summer by the sun of York.