Scarlet runners

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

16 June 2024

For a few months in 1934, Grimsby Town were perhaps the best team in England, helped by an innovation in their kit.

Writing almost half a century later in 1981, Jack Waterman remembered the scene perfectly. It was 6 October 1934, and the Blundell Park crowd had gathered with anticipation and a little apprehension, for Grimsby Town had made a tentative start to their first season back in the top flight and their record against that day's opponents, Aston Villa, was poor. Then, as the teams came out onto the pitch there were gasps. For beneath their usual black and white stripes and black shorts, the Town players wore new red socks, vivid in the murky autumn light.

It was not just their socks which dazzled. From the kick off, Charlie Craven dribbled through the Villa defence to give Grimsby an early lead. Dai Astley equalised after ten minutes but he was eclipsed by Pat Glover, his rival for the Wales centre-forward's jersey. Within two minutes, Glover set up Town's winger Ben Burley and then scored a solo goal to put the Mariners 3-1 up. Finally, Craven completed a hat-trick and a 5-1 win.

Grimsby, wrote a former official of the Liverpool FA, would have beaten any team in the country. Their fast, accurate passes zipped along the wet turf, leaving the visitors bewildered. The quick control of Craven and Jack Bestall was a wonder. Among the spectators was Town's first captain, Tom Atkinson. The 80-year old had cycled to the game from his home in Lincoln and afterwards he declared himself satisfied. There was a twinkle in his eye which belied the modest praise.

Their pillar box socks did not blend with the rest of their strip but they were easy to pick out, allowing his players to pass with the same accuracy but a split-second quicker

It was the start of an unbeaten run which took Town to fourth, two points below the League leaders. A Sheffield newspaper posed the question whether Grimsby would be top of the table at Christmas. Later that season, Bestall won an England cap and columnists around the country argued that George Tweedy, Harry Betmead and Craven should follow. Glover was reckoned the best centre-forward in Britain, and the trio of Alec Hall, Betmead and Ted Buck the League's best half-back line.

The Mariners could not sustain their form. An injury to the stalwart full-back Hugh Jacobson weakened their defence, and they lacked an outside forward with the same quality as the rest of the side, so that too often their intricate passing lacked penetration. Nevertheless, for a few months the "scarlet runners" of Blundell Park caught the imagination of the football world.

Town's greats were all recruited by their former manager Wilf Gillow, but if his eye for a player was unsurpassed, his successor Frank Womack, after 16 years as captain of Birmingham, had a player's eye view of the game. He tinkered with the practice of holding training camps before big games when his own experience told him that they were often a distraction. He encouraged his players to think about tactics, and was happy to admit that they sometimes made him change his mind. And he wanted to help his team, in the thick of the action, to pick the right pass.

Womack experimented with different patterns of the black or white socks that Grimsby had worn in the past before introducing red into the Town kit. As one reporter observed, their "pillar box socks" did not blend with the rest of their strip but they were easy to pick out, allowing his players to move the ball with the same accuracy but a split-second quicker. With their red socks, the Mariners finished the season fifth in Division One. It remains their best-ever placing.

Teams did change strips, most often to bring about a change of luck. In 1910, Grimsby were at a low point in their fortunes and changed colours almost as often as they changed players. They adopted stripes for no better reason than a director thought that by copying Newcastle, one of the most successful teams of the time, they might also copy their success. In 1930, they listened when in another bad spell a woman asked in an open letter "whoever heard of a sailor going to sea in a green jersey?" to persuade them to change the colour of their goalkeeper's shirt. He wore white for their next game and Town won. In 1936, the outfield players wore white to avoid a clash with the stripes of Hartlepools United. It was the start of a run which took them to the semi-finals of the FA Cup and they kept the white shirts throughout.

With time, a kit became part of a club's identity, and harder to change. Jack Waterman's programme note of 1981 was read by supporters who well remembered taking a subbuteo team out of its box and painstakingly repainting their socks to turn it from Newcastle or Notts County to an unmistakable Grimsby Town. But in 1934 the scarlet stockings were a startling innovation.

Frank Womack, despite his long career with Birmingham, was a hard-headed Yorkshireman who let nothing get in the way of helping his players perform at their best. Today, if he was persuaded that a change of socks would give the Mariners a fair advantage, he'd have gone to the outfitters himself. Putting the team first should be our best tradition.

Pat is researching a history of Grimsby Town between the wars. Follow him on X @3020s.