Broken bonds

The only two players whose names I’d have considered getting printed on the back of my replica shirt have now left the club.

Thanks Diz. Thanks Shaun. Thanks for the memories.

They each gave six years to the Mariners. In that time, they came to understand what it was like to be part of the town. They both lived locally, and did work in the community. They were both honest and committed players, with the skill and graft to get us back in the Football League.

They were (and possibly still are) fans of the club.

I just watched the play-off final video again, with JT’s commentary, and while I still get incredibly emotional when Arnold rolls the ball home, the end scene – when the team lifts the trophy – now feels tainted.

There were so many happy faces on the Wembley balcony that day.

And now, a little over one year later, the only person who remains at the club is James McKeown – a player who nearly left us in January.

We won at Wembley to finally achieve what we’d come close to achieving on three previous occasions. What got us over the line that day wasn’t just skill, but also a special bond and team spirit that had grown in the squad over a number of years.

The likes of Disley and Pearson were at the heart of that bond.

Had we been able to keep that squad together, I’m certain we’d have achieved at least a 14th place finish in League 2 this season.

To be honest, I’d have accepted finishing 15th or 16th this season, if it was that promotion squad, because I’d fallen in love with it. They were playing for us.

There’s a lot to be said for continuity in football. Winning is a habit, as they say. Leicester and Chelsea have won the last two Premier League titles having made the fewest changes to their starting XIs.

As Bristol Rovers proved, from the season before, it was possible to go up again with virtually the same squad. I was desperate for us to keep the majority of our squad together, and it’s a crying shame that it wasn’t.

Fair enough, you’re not going to keep Tait from playing in the Scottish Premier League, or Nolan from plying his trade in League 1, if that’s what they wanted.

But letting Amond go to Hartlepool after scoring 37 goals for us in one season?

Personally speaking, I thought Robertson and Clay were worth another season after they’d worked so hard to get us over the line.

What happened – or what didn’t happen – with Arnold is possibly the most upsetting, yet typifying, moment of last summer. No player is bigger than the club but, come on, the guy was good enough for League 2.

Did we dick around with contracts? Whatever the real story is, from the outside it looked like we weren’t prepared to reward those promotion winners with the contracts they were looking for.

Although it’s only recent history, I feel like it’s history that has already written itself. Of this era, our future Wikipedia page will read:

“After spending years building a team the fans could be proud of, the club then ripped it apart the very summer they returned to the Football League. Further instability followed when new manager Marcus Bignot made a host of unnecessary signings.”

On the pitch, we’ve had an acceptable first season back in the Football League. Off it, we’ve been awful.

Three managers, poor recruitment and lop-sided formations were just a few of the main issues. We’ve slipped back into our old ways. Bridges built through campaigns like Operation Promotion feel like they’ve burnt away because we have a non-chairman who doesn’t know how to communicate in the 21st century.

And now two of our most loyal and esteemed players have been released. With them goes any remaining bond between the players and fans.

Slade built a competitive squad for 2005/6, but while they came close to delivering success I don’t think I felt as close to those players as I did with the class of 2015/16.

By releasing Disley and Pearson, I hope we’re not swapping loyal grafters for disinterested journeymen who won’t be with us in six, five or even two years’ time.

Being economical with the truth

For the first time ever, I think, Grimsby Town’s transfer activity on deadline day stopped me from going to bed at a sensible hour. I actually went to sleep believing that Omar Bogle was still our player, but woke up this morning to find he is not.

No one knows how much Wigan paid for him, or what kind of deal we negotiated, or how well Solihull did out of the whole thing. I’m sure this will all become clear once the Fishy has speculated to such a degree that it either drives one of the shareholders to put the issue to bed with a badly written club statement, or Wigan relax and let us know from their end.

Anyway, good luck Omar – you did us proud. That winner you got at Braintree in the play-off semi final second leg was a moment I’ll never forget, and those two goals in the play-off final at Wembley still give me goosebumps, as well as a glimpse into what football heaven is really like.

I can live with his departure. We always knew he would go for a fee, and him going now means we probably got more money than we’d have got if we held onto him until the summer.

The cash will surely be used to cover the transfer fees and wages of our eight new additions – Adi Yussuf, Gavin Gunning, Jamey Osborne, Chris Clements, Akwasi Asante, Luke Maxwell, Sam Jones and Calum Dyson.

So, eight in, one out – although I expect more than just Bogle will be heading out of ‘the BP’ in the next week or two as the shunned squad players contemplate the prospect of not even warming the bench but sitting on a standard plastic seat in the stands like the rest of us. Or staying at home.

I fully supported the appointment of Marcus Bignot and I still believe things will come good. He hasn’t made that bad a start as Mariners boss, on a points-per-game basis, although it is worrying to see the standard of our performances dropping when really they should’ve started badly and gradually improved as the players got to grips with his new style and system.

He’s made radical changes after initially saying everyone at the club would get a chance to prove themselves with a run in the team. I don’t think he’s delivered on that promise.

He also said Bogle wasn’t for sale, and sold him, and said he wants to keep Disley when he clearly doesn’t intend on using him. Bignot says Disley can leave on his terms, like he’s doing him a favour, and being respectful. Maybe Disley just doesn’t want to go?

And then there’s been that disagreement between him and our loyal first choice keeper. McKeown said the boss made it very clear he wouldn’t play again this season, and Bignot says otherwise. I don’t know who to believe – the person who has been at the club for six years and been as honest as the day is long, or someone who’s been at the club two minutes and already lied about a number of things.

I say ‘lied’. I’m not sure it’s quite that bad. Let’s just say Bignot is economical with the truth, and knows what the fans want to hear. It’s strange, because our last manager had no idea what the fans wanted to hear, and he was often hammered for it.

The manager claims we don’t have any width in midfield. He didn’t include the only two players capable of offering width, Bolarinwa or Chambers, in his latest squad of 18, then tells Chambers he’s free to leave.

Then he signs four central midfielders when we already have six on our books, three strikers and a centre back – and no wingers.

It’s just odd. I don’t know what to make of it all.

This was meant to be a season of celebration and stability. We’d have all been happy to see the team that got us promoted stay together and continue battling for each other to finish 12th in League 2. I know I would’ve.

But Hurst broke it up more severely than I could’ve expected, and the team he left us with has been broken up severely again just a couple of months on. Those few players who survived the Hurst cull, and the ones we connected with the most – McKeown, Disley, Gowling – are no longer in the side. It seems a shame.

In fact, I just looked at the XI who beat Forest Green on that marvellous day in May and not one of them will start our next match at home to Luton:

McKeown – out of the side and looking to leave
Tait – left for Motherwell
Robertson – released and retired
Gowling – out of the side and told he can leave
Nsiala – left for Hartlepool
Arnold – released and joined Lincoln
Nolan – left for Chesterfield
Clay – released and joined Motherwell
Disley – out of the side and told he can leave
Bogle – sold to Wigan
Amond – left for Hartlepool

Today’s sole survivor is Shaun Pearson, who was only on the bench for the play-off final and came on as an injury time sub:

Pearson – in the side
East – released and joined Guiseley
Marshall – released and joined Boston United
Pittman – released and joined Harrogate Town
Hoban – released and joined Mansfield

I’m not one for living in the past, as the last 15 years haven’t been particularly kind to us. Football moves on, and so should we, but the success of last season was the result of a manager who was given time to build a squad and create a style of play that gave us the best chance possible of winning promotion.

The same has to apply here. Things are messy now, but I’m sure that once everything settles down – and that still might not happen just yet, what with about eight players looking for new clubs – we’ll perhaps begin to see what Bignot is trying to build.

I’m sure he’s a good manager, but it’s difficult to believe anything we’re told right now. If he builds an exciting and attacking squad that gets us scoring plenty of goals and pushing for the play-offs, then there won’t be many complaints.

Time for Hurst to show he’s learnt from past mistakes

Christian Jolley celebrating

Christian Jolley celebrates his play-off final goal against Wrexham at Wembley in 2013.

The news that Grimsby Town have signed Christian Jolley and Gregor Robertson is definitely welcome, and the additions should strengthen what’s already a very decent squad for a push at the Conference title.

But forgive me if I don’t get too excited just yet. While this is more good work by Paul Hurst in the transfer market, only time will tell if they have the desired effect. We’ve been here before – twice, in fact – and on both those occasions we’ve come up short.

While Robertson will no doubt slot into the left back position in the continued absence of Aswad Thomas, Jolley’s role seems less clear. Is he a winger or a striker? Well both, according to his Mariners Player interview. You can see why his credentials appealed to Hurst, who favours a tricky, pacy wide player with an ability to play up top.

If used as a winger, or inside forward, what does this mean for Mackreth, Pittman, Arnold and Neilson? If used as a striker, where does Palmer fit in? Will Hannah drop one more down the pecking order? And will Watson get another game?

I’m delighted with the quality of these signings. Hurst doesn’t sign many duds – and even the ones we knew nothing of (Magnay) or doubted (Clay) have turned out to be better than we imagined.

But my true judgment will be reserved until May, when we’ll know if we’re back in the Football League or remain a Conference club.

The two previous January transfer windows have promised much and delivered very little. Hurst arms himself with so many attacking options that no one player feels like they can command a starting spot every week, and I think they find that unsettling. A lack of consistency usually delivers a lack of form.

His tendency to rotate his attacking players has not worked. We failed to get the best out of Jennings last season, we saw very little from a promising signing in Tounkara, and as a creature of habit, Cook never suited Hurst’s rotation policy. Neither did Hannah.

Hurst has a squad that many other managers at this level would envy – and that’s credit to him – so the important thing now is being able to get the very best out of it.

As one of Hurst’s big advocates, if there’s one area of his management that I doubt it’s this. Get the best out of the strikers he’s got, between now and the end of the season, and he’ll write himself into the Grimsby Town history books.

Let’s hope that’s the case. In the meantime, here’s hoping he gets (and keeps) all our players fresh, focused and firing.

Will Connell make a sensational return to Grimsby Town?

Alan Connell celebrates a goal for Grimsby Town.

Alan Connell in the black and white stripes. Image courtesy of the Grimsby Telegraph.

There’s not a lot that gets Grimsby Town fans reminiscing about good times in the Conference – hell, we’ve only been here three and a half years. But the name Alan Connell is one that brings a smile to our faces. When a stuttering side struggled to make any impression on the league table in what was an eye-opening induction in non league football, Connell enjoyed the most profitable season of his career to date.

In 48 appearances he registered 29 times, but unfortunately the Mariners could only finish 11th in the league. A managerial change in February didn’t stop the flow of goals, but it became clear from March onwards that Rob Scott and Paul Hurst were looking to cash in on a player that had attracted a lot of attention from Football League clubs. Connell himself had publicly expressed his desire to play in the Football League, so when Swindon Town came calling in the summer with a six-figure fee the striker headed to Wiltshire.

In truth, Connell was too good for the Conference. He had a level of intelligence to his play that reminded the Mariners fans of Clive Mendonca. Both were never blessed with any pace or great aerial ability; instead they relied on their movement, poise and strength with their back to goal. They were team players but never afraid to shoot on sight, with finishes oozing class and confidence.

But let’s leave those comparisons there. After all, in football everything is relative. I’m not too sure Connell is so potent in the higher leagues – especially if his career history is anything to go by. But we know from first hand experience that he’s potent in the Conference, and that’s where we are right now.

Will he move to Blundell Park? We know Connell wants to play in the Football League – it was his desire in 2011 and it’ll probably remain his first choice in 2014. If the rumoured interest from Plymouth Argyle is true, then that could be a difficult hurdle to overcome. But then maybe Connell would rather play in a side that is near the top of their league, creating chances for him to tuck away. And that could put him in the shop window this summer.

Dropping down into the Conference is something he’s done before in order to go back up. Maybe he sees the same opportunity again – and who knows… maybe he can enjoy playing for Grimsby in the Football League next season? There’s no doubt that if Hurst is able to bring him to Cleethorpes this month it’ll represent an excellent piece of business.

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.