Grimsby strike lucky, but lose – and Wembley remains in sight

Lenell John-Lewis celebrates scoring a goal for Grimsby Town with his arms out wide.

Image taken from the Grimsby Telegraph.

With just two games standing in the way of a Wembley return it was a bit of an odd moment for the Mariners to put in their wobbliest and most unconvincing performance since the 4-0 defeat at Halifax in September. Yet they managed to salvage something from a pretty shoddy afternoon at Cambridge by scoring a crucial goal in the very last minute of injury time to change the complexion of this intriguing FA Trophy semi final.

Lenell John-Lewis’ goal right at the death means that Grimsby Town go into next week’s second leg trailing 2-1, rather than the 3-0 (or possibly 4-0) scoreline that the U’s thoroughly dominant performance probably deserved. Yes, that’s right – it’s time to pull your chair up to the table, lay your serviette across your lap, grab your knife and fork and dine out on the “It’s only half time!” cliché for the next week.

Let’s make no mistake about this: Town enjoyed not just a slice but a massive wedge of the good fortune cake to come away with a 2-1 defeat. It’s left me wondering whether a 2-1 defeat can be described as “smash and grab”, since usually there’s literally nothing to grab from such a scoreline – but given that it’s just half time, Town’s late goal counts for so much more than a consolation.

The emotions of Town fans are all over the place at the moment. Can we really look at ourselves in the eyes and celebrate that result without feeling a smidgen of guilt? Given the turmoil our club has suffered over the past 10-12 years, I think we should revel in this kind of thing. Forgive us if we don’t quite know how to act graciously following good fortune since we don’t have a lot of experience in this department.

Spare a thought for the Cambridge players. While they comprehensively outplayed us, they have the misfortune of working for the division’s most easily agitated and highly volatile manager in Richard Money. Just imagine his mood at the full-time whistle. No doubt he’ll have given a typically prickly interview to the local radio station (whose reporter sounds too scared to ask the pertinent questions).

Talking of questions…

There’s that part in all football fans that wants to know why the performance wasn’t better, even though we can be mildly satisfied by the result. Following the sluggish showing against Southport at Blundell Park last week, and the fact that the Mariners have failed to begin any match with grit and gusto since 2012, supporters have begun to wonder whether these acceptable results are papering over a few emerging cracks.

One of my personal wonders is why we’ve yet to play Andy Cook and Ross Hannah up front together, since they were so impressive as a partnership last season. Cook finally got his call-up at Cambridge, yet was paired with John-Lewis. I’m not too sure what the thinking was behind that.

And the man who was setting up all of Hannah and Cook’s goals last season – Scott Neilson – was left on the bench. A caller in Radio Humberside’s phone-in show made the point that Neilson and Hannah were the division’s most dangerous attacking duo when they kept the ball along the ground. Neilson fed Hannah to feet, and Hannah did the rest. When it went in the air, Cook was making a nuisance of himself and scoring 16 goals to end the season as Town’s top marksman.

But maybe that debate can wait for another day. The overriding issue Town fans have at this moment in time is the wider team selection. Manager Paul Hurst appears a bit too keen to make changes in order to keep a small squad feeling fresh. First of all, Town didn’t have a game in midweek, so every player should’ve been feeling fresh for the trip to Cambridge. Why so many changes?

The second leg

Before Town host Cambridge in the return leg, they have a tricky tie at Barnet. It’s pointless trying to second guess the manager’s thoughts on team selection now as simply anything could happen. Will Jamal Fyfield be dropped for Aswad Thomas? Will Joe Colbeck replace Alex Rodman? Will Neilson return? The Shop and Cook won’t start together again any time soon. Andi Thanoj did well after coming off the bench.

Plenty of food for thought – and a lot is bound to happen between now and next Saturday, when the Mariners have to overturn that 2-1 deficit to make a return to the national stadium (that only seems to be described as “sensational” by the Telegraph).

What are our chances of doing that, then? God knows. I know three things for sure: 1) Town don’t tend to get good results in front of big crowds at Blundell Park; 2) we’ll start slowly, so don’t expect a Grimsby goal in the first 20 minutes; and 3) literally anyone could start.

Take the strikers, for instance. Good striking partnerships are built on solid foundations of time. We have four strikers (plus Dayle Southwell, if you want to count him) and Hurst has no idea which is the best partnership. This is not the time to experiment and hope to strike lucky. Out of all possible combinations, only Cook and Hannah has previous (good) form.

It’s time to pick a pair and stick with them.

It’s probably worth pointing out here that I think Hurst is doing an excellent job. Even when Buckley was manager, we all had little gripes. Supporters strive for perfection. But, failing that, we’ll accept success in whatever way it comes!

Just a final word for the 1,023 Grimsby fans that made the journey down to Cambridge. That’s a remarkable following at this level. It’s a shame their commitment wasn’t quite matched by the performance of the players. Still, they got that goal right at the death – and a trip to Wembley remains a little more achievable thanks to John-Lewis’ seventh goal of the season that snatched a narrow defeat from the jaws of, um, a wider margin of defeat.

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