Grimsby Town are back at Wembley! Blimey. I think the fans sensed we could do it – and the players proved they could do it as they did the business – quite comfortably, as it turned out – against an Eastleigh side that looked a shadow of the one that finished the season as the second highest scorers in the Conference.
The 5-1 aggregate scoreline included three strikes that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Premier League. Ollie Palmer’s first today might have been closer in than those of Nathan Arnold’s in midweek, but if you could produce silk in liquid form and pour it over your face then, well, you’ll have some idea of the quality and class of the strike.
It helped settle the nerves. Town played the opening half an hour in exactly the fashion I’d predicted; cautious, edgy and dangerously in the knowledge that they didn’t have to score. The visitors got near our goal, but a few blocks, clearances and wayward finishes meant McKeown didn’t have an awful lot to do other than tidy up the edge of his six yard box after taking goal kicks.
The goal from John-Lewis was richly deserved. The manner of it epitomised his performance today; he chased and charged and – for want of a better phrase – played like an absolute bastard, closing everyone and everything down. The fact that he mugged one of the centre backs for the ball didn’t actually come as a surprise (even if his cool finish did).
Half time was joyous – but still the two blokes sat behind me in the Pontoon refused to get carried away, and made a point of not singing any Wembley songs.
Much has been made of the Mariners’ style of play this season, which appears to lend itself more favourably to playing away. But with a team desperately chasing the game – so desperately in fact that they made what’s known in football as a ‘sod-it-let’s-just-go-for-it’ triple substitution at half time – it just played into Hurst’s perfectly cupped hands.
Town began picking Eastleigh off on the break. Palmer, clearly buoyed by the goal and inspired by John-Lewis’s barrell-chested display, became a nuisance himself. It’s been a long time since I saw two Town strikers work so hard, as a pair, and completely flummox the two centre backs of a team that was built to bully others.
Well today the bullies got bullied.
The third goal was simply a result of the Palmer/John-Lewis partnership, working in perfect harmony. I’m not sure The Shop’s lay-off was intentional, but Palmer was mopping up to clip in a third.
Eastleigh are no mugs – after all, they finished the season just a place and four points behind the Mariners. They were one of the few sides to beat Bristol Rovers. But to borrow another term from cricket, Town have the wood on them. That’s four victories from four against them this season – including four goals alone for the impressive Palmer. They must be sick of the sight of him.
The players will celebrate tonight, and I think that’s right. Promotion hasn’t been won, but it’s important to acknowledge that we’ve laid some play-off demons to rest. Hurst has built an exceptional squad where the players genuinely look like they want to play for the fans – and each other. The spirit is good in the camp, and no matter what limits there are to your ability, as Bournemouth have shown it can take you a long, long way.
Luckily we’re a pretty good side anyway. Whatever happens at Wembley, I’m damn sure the players will do us proud.
John-Lewis got my Man of the Match award today – a goal, two assists and a spring in his leap that made him win just about every aeriel duel in the second half. It was the all-round performance that justifies why Hurst rates him so highly.