The state of play at Grimsby Town: what now for Hurst, Fenty and the fans?

Paul Hurst looking pensive

Image courtesy of the Grimsby Telegraph.

It’s been a weird week in the world of Grimsby Town. Two underwhelming draws against teams expected to battle against the drop and fans remain disgruntled with the lack of bite up front, calling for a change in management. On Thursday major shareholder John Fenty said sacking Paul Hurst wouldn’t be an ‘appropriate or sensible action‘. So what now for Hurst, Fenty and the fans?

John Fenty and his comments

I’m not entirely sure what value we can attach to Fenty’s comments. Was it a vote of confidence for Hurst, who’s feeling the pressure more so now than of any other time in sole charge of the club? If it wasn’t a vote of confidence, then what exactly was it?

Whether Fenty says something or nothing, we’re still left guessing as to what he’ll actually do.

This sense of insecurity and unpredictability comes from years of him making poorly timed and ill-judged statements. And we all know our last two managers were sacked just days after he declared that sacking them wouldn’t benefit the club. He was right, but it didn’t stop him from doing it.

Sadly, the formation of his character can’t be undone or quickly forgotten. Fans struggle to trust that what he says is genuine or sincere.

So for me, his comments offer no clarity on the situation whatsoever. Defeats at Wrexham and Torquay, and the threat of dwindling home attendances on the immediate horizon, will almost certainly force Fenty’s hand.

And when I say Fenty, I of course mean him and the board of directors.

Paul Hurst and his strikers

I have long been an advocate of Hurst and was one of those fans happy to see him stay over the summer. His record between the Rob Scott saga and Christmas last season was impressive; sadly that form didn’t continue into 2014, although he did enough to steer the side into the play-offs.

Our lack of fire power cost us in the home leg against Gateshead, and unfortunately that theme – despite the recruitment of some decent players – has continued into this season. I like Hurst because he offered some stability during a fractious time at the club. He’s spoken sensibly and honestly in the media and clearly forges strong relationships with the majority of the players he works with.

But I’m not blind to his faults, either – and here’s my argument as to why we’ll never score a bagful of goals with Hurst at the helm: he just can’t get strikers scoring.

Attacking approach

I admire his loyalty to Lenell John-Lewis and I appreciate the shifts he puts in. I understand that Hurst uses him in a way that means he’ll never score 20 goals a season, and I believe him when he says he’s the type of player all strikers want alongside them. I get all that; I just don’t think this is the only way to use strikers in the Conference.

Alan Connell and Liam Hearn managed to score plenty of goals without a John-Lewis-type striker alongside them (although you could argue that Anthony Elding had some similar qualities). Our team doesn’t have to have John-Lewis in it.

But I really do believe that Hurst has no other ideas when it comes to forming his striking tactics. His hand is slightly forced by the lack of personnel he has at his disposal right now, and while he’s been unlucky with the injury to Jon-Paul Pittman, who has impressed when he’s played, there really isn’t anyone else to blame but himself.

Track records and loss of form

This time two years ago Andy Cook and Ross Hannah were on fire. Fed by Scott Neilson drifting in from the left, the trio were central to our rise to the top of the league. Sadly that Cook/Hannah partnership was rarely played again. It was dismantled by the arrival of Richard Brodie and an apparent lack of application from Cook the following pre-season was the beginning of the end of his time at the club, despite being our top scorer in 2012/13 and earning the Conference’s Young Player of the Year award.

Last season Hurst couldn’t get the best out of Cook. January reinforcements never worked out; Connor Jennings – who had proved himself a goalscorer at Macclesfield in the first half of the season – looked anything but a goalscorer in a black and white shirt, while Oumare Tounkara added very little. Hannah completely lost his way, and I’m in very little doubt that it was the constant tinkering and rotating of the strikers that meant none of them found any form when we needed them most.

Hurst’s track record in working with strikers isn’t great. Although plagued by injuries, Hearn was played out wide in the 4-3-3 formation when he was fit. Perhaps it was no surprise that he was so intent on joining Mansfield in the summer, rather than entertaining any realistic thought about giving it another go at Town.

We have had good strikers at the club. We have a couple now, but they’re either injured or out of form. When fit, they’ll only be rotated. When they start, they know they’ll be subbed after 70-75 minutes. We’re completely one dimensional and rely heavily on a player who works hard for the team but whose instinct to put the ball in the net just doesn’t come naturally.

And what about the fans?

As we are reminded often, football is an entertainment business. Fans want to be entertained, and goalless draws at home to Altrincham don’t cut the mustard. As happened with Neil Woods, Hurst could become a victim of his own success following two huge back-to-back wins, which raised expectations around Blundell Park and promised a season of goals.

There are two reasons why they’ll return to Blundell Park in November: the Mariners either pick up points at the Racecourse Ground and Plainmoor (and score a few goals along the way too) or Hurst is replaced.

Who we’d replace him with is another discussion entirely. But we should be careful what we wish for – the qualities we look for in potential managers might already be covered by what’s already on Hurst’s CV.

Personally I hope he can turn it around and find a way to solve our attacking impotency. I appreciate a lot of what he’s done as manager but he’s now facing his biggest challenge yet – this is the time to prove his worth and show his versatility in thought and approach.

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Decent but not quite dominant: Chester report

Scott Neilson in action for Grimsby Town.

Image taken from the Grimsby Telegraph.

Three more points and one game closer to the end of the season: Grimsby Town’s 2-1 win over Chester at Blundell Park on Saturday edges them nearer to confirming their place in the Conference play-offs, but there are a couple of tricky ties on the horizon that could yet provide more twists and turns before the 2013/14 campaign is complete.

Five points ahead of sixth placed Braintree – who recorded an impressive 3-2 win at leaders Luton – should be a big enough gap to get over the line barring a disastrous run of results, but when in-form Halifax visit Cleethorpes on Tuesday night they have the chance to leapfrog the Mariners with a victory.

Town’s performance against a fairly limited Chester side was difficult to assess. Scott Neilson and Alex Rodman were effective on the wings in the first half as the Mariners passed through midfield and approached the Blues’ goal as a team. The opening goal was deserved and created by good work from Rodman, who picked out Oumare Tounkara to finish from eight yards out.

The visitors looked like they had equalised within a couple of minutes, but the offside flag denied Hobson from what was their first meaningful attack on goal.

Tounkara was then tripped near the edge of the box when chasing a ball away from goal to win a penalty, but Neilson saw his tame spot kick saved. The half time discussion centred around whether that miss would be costly as Town could and should have been at least two goals to the good.

Town were less of an attacking threat in the second half as Chester enjoyed more possession. James McKeown flapped at a cross that was lifted over the bar at the far post, and later parried a shot into the path of a player following up, but he also lifted his effort into the Osmand stand.

Andy Cook replaced Tounkara with 20 minutes to go and was immediately effective; winning his first header to set up Jennings, who poked wide, and then later taking a long McKeown punt brilliantly on his chest before turning, weaving and beating his man, only to drag his 20-yard effort wide. He finally got his goal – and Town’s second – after Neilson crafted something from nothing, beating his man to the bye-line and then squeezing the ball across a congested six-yard box where Cook was ready to snaffle the chance.

The consolation goal from the Blues right at the death was nothing more than an absolute fluke.

There were periods of dominance, and periods of containment; there were moments of menacing persistence and then moments of mild peril. Town looked a team, but also individuals. It was a contradictory sort of performance – one that leaves the glass-half-full fan claiming it was effective and encouraging, but the glass-half-empty fan wondering whether we’re good enough to make any sort of mark if and when the play-offs come around.

A few years ago I went to watch a Harrogate Town match where they picked apart Hinckley in a Conference North match (bear with me – this is relevant!). They played a 3-5-2 formation and won easily and impressively. It was so impressive that I went back again and saw the same thing – another dominant performance and another convincing result. Their manager at the time was Neil Aspin.

It’s no surprise to me that he’s enjoying lots of success at Halifax. They’re the second highest scorers in the Conference after Luton and have begun to win on their travels to complement their outstanding home form (which Grimsby know all about). They have goals in their side and our defence will be given a stern test on Tuesday.

I was so impressed with Aspin’s Harrogate side that I once (actually, twice) tried to start an ‘Aspin to Town’ rumour on The Fishy when the Mariners first sacked Buckley and then Mike Newell. It’s unlikely that Aspin ever had a conversation with anyone at Grimsby about the vacant managerial positions at those times, but it was worth a stab as I believed he was one of non-league’s brightest bosses – and he’s proving to be just that at The Shay, having dropped two divisions to join them in 2009 and leading them to three successive promotions.

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.

How to solve a problem like Grimsby Town’s striker issue

Andy Cook runs away with his right arm aloft to celebrate scoring a goal for Grimsby at Tamworth.

Andy Cook scoring a winning goal at Tamworth last season. Image courtesy of the Grimsby Telegraph.

 

Strikers, strikers, strikers – they’re all Grimsby Town fans are talking about these days. It doesn’t seem too long ago that I was thinking we had too many strikers. I also remember, this time last year, signing Lenell John-Lewis on an 18-month deal – just after we had added Richard Brodie to the squad – and wondering exactly why the management felt the need to have eight strikers on our books. Fat load of good that approach did us back then.

Sadly the Mariners haven’t often had strikers who were capable of scoring over 20 goals in a season. Alan Connell was the first since Kevin Donovan in 1998 to achieve that feat, scoring 29 goals in the 2010/11 season. We finished 11th.

That summer we bought Liam Hearn from Alfreton. He went on to score 29 goals too – even though it took him about 10 games to score his first. He really ought to have scored over 30, but he, like the team, ran out of steam towards the end of April. And again, the Mariners fell short of the play-offs.

So, um, yeah – you can see where this is going.

When we did finally make the play-offs, last season, we did it without one player scoring over 20 goals. Andy Cook managed around 16, while Ross Hannah chipped in with 10 (nine during his loan spell and one after signing permanently in January).

Of course it doesn’t hurt to have a striker that scores 20-30 goals – after all, when you have a Ronaldo or a Messi in your team, you’re going to win things. Personally I feel uneasy when we start to depend on one particular player to score all the goals. Some of the best Buckley teams had goals distributed throughout the team – which was a clear reflection of the way the Great One got his teams to play.

Maybe that’s not the only way, and so perhaps not always the right way. But just recently there seems to be this opinion that if we don’t get another striker we’re going to lose our play-off spot. Perhaps.

Time for Cook to step up to the plate?

But I do think it’s time to give Cook an extended run in the first team – his performance against Huddersfield reminded us all of his talent. I seem to remember it took him time to score his first goal last season, but once he got going he was a regular scorer. It may be that we already have the answer to our striking conundrum without having to participate in Sky Sports’ overly-hyped time-limited period of transfer activity.

I’m a big fan of Cook and I’d like to see him given a chance alongside Hannah up front, with Neilson and one of Colbeck and Rodman dishing up some tasty service from the wings. With Craig Disley and Scott Kerr in the centre, that to me seems a fairly strong side capable of scoring goals.

But I understand that Hurst is looking for a Hearn-type player to push Hannah for a starting place. Whether it’s Gillingham’s Adam Birchall or someone else, I don’t think they necessarily need to replace Hannah upon signing. He’s got 10 goals so far this season and roughly a 1-in-2 strike ratio, so it wouldn’t seem fair to drop a player currently on course to make that magical 20-mark.