A tale of two finals

Cod Almighty | Article

by Ron Counte

28 July 2022

There are uncanny similarities between the 2016 and 2022 play-off finals. The difference is that this time we won't squander our success

So after a gap of six years, we once again boarded the train to London to watch a Paul Hurst team take part in a National League play-off final. The parallels were uncanny.

Superficially, they looked like David and Goliath matches. Grimsby were aiming to return to the Football League against teams hoping to get there for the first time. In 2015-16, Forest Green's average attendance of 1,750 was one Town could easily match for big away games, and Solihull's 2021-22 gates of 1,866 were less than a third of Town's. In 2016, Forest Green fans made up 3,000 out of a total Wembley attendance of 17,198; Solihull's contingent at the London Stadium was around 5,000 out of 22,897.

Town looked like the giants but Forest Green, bankrolled by Dale Vince, had players earning £3,000 a week, players with experience in the third and fourth flights and above. In 2021-22, when Hurst was reported to have attempted to sign Andrew Dallas, we found we could not compete with the kind of package that Solihull were able to put together. All was not as it appeared to observers looking only at attendances.

The clubs' outlays had been reflected over the two seasons. Solihull finished ten points above us in 2022, Forest Green nine in 2016, finishing the season in second place. Even that wasn't good enough for Vince. Two weeks before the play-offs he fired manager Adrian Pennock, installed Scott Bartlett as a caretaker and two days before the final appointed Mark Cooper. Cooper was at Wembley supposedly only to observe but when the second half began it was clear that he was calling the shots. Once, at Rochdale in 1979, I saw the crowd change ends but I had never before seen a team change managers at half-time.

Town's failure to build on 2016 was symbolised by Jon Nolan, one of many players who within weeks departed Blundell Park. This year only Ben Fox of the players we wanted to retain is no longer with us 

Forest Green did win promotion in 2017 and this year went up to the third flight. Meanwhile we were busting a gut to once more regain our League status.

Town's failure to build on 2016 was symbolised by Jon Nolan, signed by us in January after he had been released by Lincoln City, at the time just a moderate National League club. He played in the last 23 games of the season, scored 5 goals, and made some critical contributions in the final itself including his part in the goal which sealed the victory. Within weeks he was one of many players who departed Blundell Park.

This year, it was Ben Fox who exploded into action a few weeks before the end of the season and was outstanding in the three play-off games. Like Nolan, he has now left Grimsby, but this time he is the only one of the players we wanted to retain who is no longer with us. That fact alone speaks volumes about the new culture permeating the club at all levels.

All of the promise and opportunity of 2016 was squandered. This time I have the feeling it's going to be just a stepping stone to far better things.