In a year that provoked such wildly contrasting emotions, it seemed almost poetic that the Mariners would experience the ecstasy of promotion against the team they played so badly against in the regular season.
Many words were shared about Town’s awful mid-season run, in which we lost 11 of 14 games between late October and early January — words like ‘Sort it, Hursts!’ and ‘This is excrement’.
Yep, the Fishy’s illegitimate swear filter was one again being put through its fornicating paces.
The 2-0 defeat at Solihull Moors, which came in late November, was also part of an eight-game losing streak on the road, in which we scored just three goals.
However, another word doing the rounds was ‘data’. It told Paul Hurst, and other vital decision-makers within the club at the time, that, yes, results were a bit crap, but performances were okay.
Defeats were mostly by the odd goal. Margins were fine — as they always are in football, of course. Notts County, Wrexham and Solihull Moors will testify to that.
However, those small margins saw us fall from the top of the league all the way down to tenth, leaving us six points adrift of the last play-off spot with over half the season played.
The dream of an instant return to the Football League — though it was an ambitious one, even for the most optimistic Mariner — remained just that: a dream.
The reality was that we were, like our manager, a bit short.
HMS Piss The League had sailed without us, departing from Alexandra Dock in the middle of the night.
Jason Stockwood has since confirmed that Hurst’s job was never in doubt. What good would it do, and how hypocritical would it be (I’m paraphrasing here) if we got rid of someone, given all we’d said about building a culture of trust and backing good people?
Let’s face it — a public backing is a Judas kiss, and it’s been that way for decades. A sacking with lipstick on. If you feel the need to back someone publicly, there’s an underlying problem.
Of course, sticking rather than twisting doesn’t guarantee promotion. It could be argued that the brumal ghost of seasons past stuck by Neil Woods despite relegation, only to sack him eight months later when our debut season in non-league quickly became a mid-table procession.
But I ask you: was he valued, trusted and backed in the same way Hurst was this season?
Or did Woods operate in an environment of constant anxiety, fearing the next unfair, unhinged or badly mistimed decision that would ultimately affect his ability to do his job?
His heart rate would’ve shot up each time he heard the uncorking of another Merlot, or the sound of a keyboard being pummelled down Humberstone Avenue at close to midnight.
Hurst may not have the media-savvy persona of another unhinged character closely linked to our club’s recent past, but he does have a knack of finding good people and generating incredible team spirit without the aid of an illegal darts tournament.
(Holloway denied a darts tournament ever took place — then he confessed there may have been one, but when he walked in the room and saw two dozen men throwing arrows at a circular cork board, he didn’t realise it was a darts tournament.)
Like a Greek God, Paul Hurst — or Small Burst, as he’s known in our household — has his weaknesses. But the one thing he isn’t is a duplicitous little shit.
On more than one occasion, Hurst talked about signing ‘good people’. Talent isn’t enough.
Without doing a disservice to the bloke, Giles Coke won’t make it into many fans’ Best XIs. But he turned up one day, trained with us for a couple of weeks, out of his own pocket, and did so without any promise of a contract.
Why he ever wanted to hang around at a club with misshapen balls in the first place is a mystery, although I for one am glad he did.
And the fact he earned a deal until the end of the season — and then a year’s extension — is probably more to do with his professionalism than his talent. It embodied everything that had been missing from this club since Hurst departed in the autumn of 2016.
It’s hard not to emphasise what a gargantuan achievement it’s been to turn this club around so quickly.
Let’s be honest — neither Stockwood nor Pettit would’ve expected promotion to happen this season. There were far more pressing matters to attend to off the pitch (not least the misshapen balls).
If some fundamental improvements to the training ground, pitch and stadium could be implemented so new players wouldn’t think we were a complete basket case, then that would be a start.
When asked about the task of reparation, Stockwood repeatedly talked about culture.
Obviously, we’re talking about a culture of teamwork, positivity, kindness and selflessness — not a culture of see-who-can-be-the-most-pissed-up-player-at-training-on-Monday-morning (and get a top-bantz pat on the back for it).
The thing about culture is that you can’t just swap out an old one for a new one. Well, you can, but it takes time.
B-Corp status isn’t granted overnight.
I’ve worked at a place that has undergone massive change over the last three years and, as we all know, people don’t like change. It brings uncertainty, it disrupts an existing culture that, for good or bad, people are comfortable with, and it freaks them out.
If a new parent company barges in and says ‘this is how it’s going to be’, people will reject it. It’s certainly not going to make them jump on board, no questions asked.
But, even to the casual observer sat on the moon, it was clear that things had to change.
The change at Grimsby needed to be values-led and subtle enough so as not to send latent potential running for the hills. I’m no expert (and I certainly haven’t written an excellent book on it like some have) but this seemed like common sense to me — which just goes to show that common sense was something our boardroom lacked in abundance for the best part of two decades.
The club had been bleeding for years as a result of self-harm, and the only kind of medical treatment it ever got was sticking plasters.
Promotion was always the aim, let’s not pretend it wasn’t. But what mattered more — not just for this season, but our future — was to address the haemorrhage (at an outrageous cost), heal the wound and make that shift in culture.
Like beginning a diet, initial gains are easy. They only had to do the right thing on two consecutive days and, hey presto, you could see and feel the improvement.
The fan survey not only showed the new board was prepared to listen, it also gave them a list of priorities.
Fan Zone. Catering. Match day experience. Open and regular communications.
Then you had the playing side. The training facilities. The pitch at Cheapside. The pitch at Blundell Park.
Other things would take time too, like the squad itself. The one that began the season with that 1-0 win over Weymouth was very different to the XI that finished the play-off final.
Back on that late August weekend we had McKeown in goal; Longe-King at centre back; Crookes at left back; Hunt in midfield; Bapaga, John-Lewis, Revan and Max Wright on the bench, along with Waterfall.
McAtee, Clifton, Taylor, Sousa and, to some degree, Efete, were mainstays throughout. Everything around them changed.
Waterfall came into the starting XI and didn’t look back. In came Max Crocombe after that defeat at Solihull. Towley, Hunt, Bapaga and Revan returned to their parent clubs.
Jordan Maguire-Drew signed. Andy Smith joined on loan from Hull. Amos and Cropper signed deals until the end of the season. Gavan Holohan signed. Tristan Abrahams and Mani Dieseruvwe agreed loan deals.
Sean Scannell was like a new signing. Joel Grant was a figment of our imaginations.
To make this level of transition mid-season and come out the other side with a run of just three defeats in 20 matches to fight our way back into the play-off picture was remarkable in itself.
While there’s always more to do (continuous improvement is one of the club’s five values), it’s clear to see that the shift in culture has already gripped in a big way.
One of their other values is trust. It gives people at the club the freedom to innovate, explore and act upon their ideas without fear of failure or judgment. See what happens when you let Liam Emmerson loose with the equipment he needs?
And just look at what Hurst can build if you support him with the players, the coaching staff, the analyst and (dare I mention) the strength and conditioning coach.
Interesting fact: they won’t win you three points on a Saturday but they’ll help you get through three extra time periods at the end of a long season (because you never know when you might need that particular super power).
And again, look what the players can produce when they work within this culture of trust. It’s been trickling down from the top all season and the messages have been consistent in every Stockwood interview.
Values-led culture. Treating footballers and staff as people. Supporting each other. Using the power of football to bring communities together.
You know, there aren’t many things left in this ever-dividing world that have the power to unite people with so many differences. I can have a protracted Twitter disagreement with a fellow Town fan about local politics but on a Saturday I can sit next to them and enjoy their company because we can at least agree on one thing: we love our club.
Following the 0-0 draw at Boreham Wood some Town fans shared their frustration at the team not showing more attacking intent, suggesting they were in some way being held back or inhibited by the pragmatism of Hurst.
His use of subs, and timing of them, were repeatedly called into question.
While I understood where that frustration was coming from, I couldn’t — and wouldn’t — join in with the criticism given the season could still end in promotion (and yes, I’ve afforded myself a wry smile over this since Sunday).
That goalless draw was followed by the 2-1 home defeat to Solihull, which appeared to show our true weakness: we couldn’t win against the teams above us (and that we couldn’t defend against 6’9” strikers).
Ha! We can laugh about it now.
Our response was to smash Chesterfield 4-1 and then beat a Stockport side that had won 19 of their previous 20 games — coming from behind in both ties.
Now there’s a theme we stuck to.
We won crucial home games against Dagenham and Torquay, and secured a 1-0 win over Boreham Wood in the reverse fixture to seal our play-off spot.
And if we thought the 4-4 draw at Eastleigh was simply a dead silly dead rubber, it only teed up the drama that was about to follow across an unforgettable fortnight.
Our season was 15 seconds from ending. The players could’ve had their feet up on a beach somewhere in the Algarve by the time we kicked off against Wrexham.
Instead, Holohan swept home through a sea of legs and triggered extra time, leaving Ian Burchnall on his haunches.
I’m not even sure my celebrations at the time were anything to do with keeping our promotion hopes alive. It was just a late goal worth celebrating. After all, this match at County was a ‘free hit’. They were the favourites; they were winning.
And good old Town spoiled their party! For a bit, anyway.
Better was to come, as we all know. Just 90 seconds before spot-kicks were due, Mani crept across his marker to bundle to ball home for a dramatic winner and then left a swear word out there for BT Sport to deal with in his post-match interview.
Quite why they had to apologise for the bad language was beyond me. It was gone 10pm.
One late goal to save the match; another late goal to win the match. A new quote for a t-shirt. It was enough for us to dine out on for a long, long time. But it had set up another play-off match so we had just five days to relive the occasion, again and again.
And I’d still be revisiting it today if it weren’t for that incredible win at Wrexham.
Had we won 2-0 at Notts County inside 90 minutes I remain convinced we’d have lost at Wrexham. Winning in that style in Nottingham made a difference in North Wales, of that I’m absolutely sure.
So then, Wrexham. Just one defeat at home all season. They had the division’s top scorer, and an ex-Town player up front who, naturally, was bound to score against us.
Just as he did in the league.
Ollie Palmer’s move was financed by Hollywood — which had a script written, a Netflix documentary recorded and a big promotion cake baked, albeit missing just the cherry.
Oh, and they had Tozer’s famous long throw.
Home advantage, fresher legs and BT Sport cameras trained on Ryan Reynolds’ face, on his special balcony. Town were up against it on so many levels you wouldn’t believe.
They paid a lot of money for their long throw. And yet they lost the tie to a long throw we picked up from a bargain bucket in Burnley.
They paid a lot of money for Mullin’s goals too. And yet they conceded a goal and two assists to a ‘lazy’ guy kicking his heels on the bench at Scunny.
It’s a funny old game, as they say. Funnier still, when Scunny get relegated in tragic fashion.
The narrative was such that even a fortuitous 1-0 win would’ve given me pleasure in winning at the Racecourse. The fact that there were nine goals and the lead changed hands four times gave the pleasure a kind of intensity that I’ve very rarely experienced following Town, at any level.
We thought nothing would beat that night at Notts and yet here we were, into the final of the play-offs, having seen off moneybags Wrexham like they were Fulham in ’98.
Keegan should’ve told ’em — ‘Watch out for Grimsby. They don’t care how much money you’ve got. Also, don’t have one of your players fly in two-footed on their centre back in the first half.’
At least they heeded the final part of that imaginary warning. Not that it did them any good.
The game was brilliantly brutal, packing all the ups and downs we’d experienced across nine months into 120 minutes.
‘Ah, shit ref! Oh well.’
‘Hang on — yes! What a strike! Game on!’
‘Get in!!!! This promotion is on!’
‘Ah balls. Still, we’re level. Anything could happen.’
‘Shit. That’s what happens. And he’s handballed it. Course he has. That’s it, I reckon.’
‘Yessss! What a header! Maybe this game isn’t done yet!’
‘OMG Mani! Is this happening?! Someone pinch me!’
‘Ah crap. Looks like extra time. Not sure we’ll have the legs for this one.’
‘LUKE FUCKING WATERFALL! THE TOWN ARE GOING UP!’
So many times I thought our season was over. So many times I thought our season might yet end in glory. My emotions flipped on that subject throughout the season.
And then it flipped at least two dozen times in just a couple of hours.
There was too much to absorb; I couldn’t take it all in. There had been so much drama and emotion that it didn’t seem possible that it could be wiped out by a defeat to Solihull in the final.
Was I allowed to think like that? I felt bullish about our chances, which was unfamiliar territory and so naturally it also made me feel awkward. It’s complicated being a Town fan.
We’d been here before, though.
Rewind six years and we find ourselves up against Braintree in the National League play-off semis. Braintree — our kryptonite. They, like Solihull this season, appeared to have the measure of us in the regular season.
We had 45 minutes to do something we’d previously failed to do against Braintree in three-and-a-half games. Namely, score a goal.
A tug of a shirt, a stroke of the ball from 12 yards and that was it. Goal! Relief. Job done.
Except it wasn’t because we hadn’t won the game at that point. We’d only just levelled. But such was the outpouring of emotion in proving that we could break down the Cowley resistance that it installed a belief and an unstoppable momentum that essentially won us the play-offs in that moment.
Bogle headed in the winner during extra time (winning in extra time, eh? What a neat idea) and, like Hurst post-Wrexham, captain Disley welled up in front of the cameras.
You speak to any one of those Town players from that promotion squad in 2015/16 and they’ll all say the same thing: that was the moment they knew they’d beat Forest Green in the final.
Solihull were beaten a week before they’d even kicked a ball. We even gave them a goal advantage — you know, to make us feel comfortable.
We can’t talk on behalf of the Town players but we all felt it. After watching us win at Wrexham I was so hyped and euphoric that I nearly took up exercise again after a five-year absence.
Going 1-0 down is what Town do. They could use it as our motto and stick it on our badge where the 1878 flag is.
Jordan Maguire-Drew stepping over that ball was essentially Grimsby stepping over Scunthorpe’s body. John McAtee and his slightly dehydrated calves did the rest.
Extra time is Grimsby time. We knew it. BT Sport knew it. Solihull probably knew it too, despite all the advantages they held. Their biggest, however, had been subbed off and with him went their chances.
It’s still not known why professional footballers appear to panic so much more when the ball is hurled in rather than kicked in, but Moors only flicked on the danger and there was JMD, ghosting in at the back post to prod the ball into the roof of the net with his outstretched boot.
There were a couple of nervy moments in the nine (plus three) remaining minutes, but Crocombe claimed and cramped like a pro to the cheers of the 13,000 Mariners fans who’d paid over the odds to watch the victory unfold.
Three tight games, three draws, three of the club’s biggest wins achieved in extra time.
Those fine margins had flipped in our favour.
There’s delight in hearing players like Andy Smith, Danny Amos, Max Crocombe and John McAtee say it was the best day of their lives.
Let’s be honest — we’ve had more than 200 players represent the Mariners since we last won promotion into the Football League and not many of them will reflect on their time at Grimsby and say ‘It was the best period of my career’ or ‘I have a lot of happy memories from my time there’.
But for those few that can? They have one thing in common: they were signed by Paul Hurst.
The promotion six years ago was in spite of the way the club was run.
The promotion in 2022 is because of the way the club is run.
Rejoining the Football League was against the odds, it has to be said. But now that we’re here again, you can be sure of one thing: the owners and the board won’t be making any derogatory contract offers to its best players and making the same mistakes that meant our previous five-year stay only ever felt temporary.
With more than 4,000 season ticket sales likely, it’s clear they won’t let this momentum slip.