We all know what happened on Sunday 15th May 2016.
In April 2003 I watched my beloved Grimsby Town surrender meekly at home to Walsall and drop out of the second division with two games still to play.
The following season, after an 8-1 defeat at Hartlepool, a 6-0 defeat at Oldham and a 5-1 defeat at Port Vale, I stood on the terrace at Tranmere, staring into the abyss, as news of a 90th minute goal elsewhere relegated us from the third division. Continue reading
Right from the very start of the season – just after I’d booked a holiday that would potentially clash with the play-off final date – there was a strong sense of inevitability that the Mariners would reach that play-off final. Once they did, I was resigned to the fact that I would only be able to listen to the match from my hotel room in Seattle (which offered the view seen in the pic above).
So there I was, tucked up in bed, eight hours behind the UK, earphones connected to my iPhone, my iPhone connected to the hotel’s wifi, the sun trying to creep between the curtains. It was 5.55am. I’d just tuned into Radio Humberside and the fans were about to belt out the national anthem.
We had a long day ahead of us. We had to get a taxi to the airport at 10am, and then we had a nine-hour flight from Seattle to London Heathrow (followed by shorter flights to Dublin and then Leeds Bradford). A victory would certainly ease the pain of such a torturous journey.
I’d actually gone to bed just as Town fans were waking up and making their way down to Wembley. Although I’d had a long day (in which I was trying desperately to regain my balance after being on a cruise ship for a week) I found it difficult to sleep – mainly because I made the mistake of checking Twitter before I settled down for the night, and all I saw was an endless list of excitable tweets.
I’d be exaggerating if I claimed I got a wink of sleep.
John Tondeur asked Alan Buckley what a manager should say to his players before they went out onto the pitch. “All you can ask of them,” he said, “is that they leave that field with no regrets. I only ever wanted them to give me their best, and if they did, I wouldn’t have any complaints.” His comments were sensible and measured – in contrast to my mood.
Two minutes in and Tondeur interrupts Buckley without apology. “Here comes Arnold, he’s still going… this might be a chance for John-Lewis – he’s going to score here. He’s going to score… he has!”
Seattle had yet to wake up, but in this dark hotel room I was wide awake and celebrating on my bed. It was more of a stunned celebration than anything else. I hesitated for just a second thinking Tondeur may have got it wrong, but he hadn’t.
I thought about that video of Darrell Clarke sparking chants of ‘We are going up!’ in a Bristol pub, and I smirked. What an idiot.
It sounded like Town did well in the first 20 minutes and could’ve been 2-0 up. “John, I’m telling you – this Bristol defence is not that great,” asserted Buckley. “When we get them facing their own goal, they’re panicking. We need to do it more. This keeper doesn’t look settled.”
Well, ‘this keeper’ was lucky to stay on the pitch moments later, although both Tondeur and Buckley broadly agreed that the yellow card was just about right (in stark contrast to the reaction I saw from the majority of Town fans on social media).
The equaliser wasn’t such a surprise when it came. “It was thrashed into the net from close range,” explained Tondeur. “That’s what happens when you don’t clear your lines.”
Just a few minutes later and Shaun Pearson made an uncharacteristic mistake. There was a big roar and you couldn’t make out what was going on. “Now what’s McKeown done? It’ll be a penalty – and he’ll be sent off too! And Town don’t have a keeper on the bench.”
My heart sank. Everything had gone wrong so quickly. “But what’s the referee given here? A yellow card for diving!”
The half time discussion centred around the two controversial decisions. Mike White was on the touchline, providing some commentary on how the Town bench had been reacting to the unfolding action.
The rest of the game made for difficult listening. Rovers appeared to be in control, and then Town had their spells. Gregor Robertson was struggling, then he stopped. Toto pulled up with cramp ‘too early in the game’, according to Buckley – although he lasted the rest of the match and did well.
Palmer wasn’t getting any change. It sounded like he and John-Lewis weren’t as fluent as they were in the second leg against Eastleigh and his substitution for Jon-Paul Pittman wasn’t entirely unexpected. Clay soon replaced Brown, who had begun to tire.
Pittman had two good chances in extra time, but if I’m being honest (and it’s easy to say this now) but it felt like the game was heading to penalties as early as the hour mark. Players sounded too nervous to be ambitious; they erred on the side of caution. Whenever Rovers had the ball I was happy to see it through to spot kicks; when we had the ball I harboured hopes that we’d do something special with it. But that special moment never happened.
As time ticked towards 120 minutes I was hoping that we’d keep possession and deny Rovers the chance to bring on Steve Mildenhall, just to scupper their evil plan. “Do you know what he’s got,” asked Buckley. “Presence. Look at the size of him.”
Ex-keeper comes back to haunt Town? The future was already written, and I began to fear the worst. But then we were given the chance to take the penalties in front of our fans, which was different to the FA Trophy final, and I felt a brief twinge of optimism.
When Disley’s spot kick hit the net to make it 1-1 I punched the bed. The first strike is always crucial. Sadly Rovers kept tucking theirs away, despite McKeown’s efforts. For some reason I lost confidence as soon as Tondeur explained during Pittman’s run-up that he’d be taking it left-footed. I’m not sure why.
“He’s missed! Oh! It’s gone way over the bar; it’s a poor penalty from Pittman.”
Rovers scored to make it 4-2. Clay showed a cool head to make it 4-3, but that was as much as we could affect things.
“If Mansell scores this, Rovers are up. And he does.”
It was all over so quickly. I hadn’t yet washed or dressed, but I was completely exhausted. It was not the ideal preparation for a long, long journey home. I felt for the fans who were there, then I felt for the players. I genuinely felt sorry for all involved.
It was probably the most difficult game of football I have ever listened to on the radio – and the setting was a bit weird too. Sadly it’s not a day I’m going to forget easily.
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.
So, this is FA Trophy semi final second leg eve. No one knows what’s about to happen. That’s the thing about sport – and life in general. We can’t be certain what’s around the corner, so in an effort to make sense of what’s likely to come, we turn to the past.
Grimsby Town are on the brink of making their fifth appearance at Wembley – and their sixth major final in recent times. Which got me thinking… have we ever had to overturn a first leg deficit from all those previous semi-final occasions? Let’s take a look.
1997/98: Football League Trophy Area Final v Burnley (won 3-1 on aggregate)
The Mariners were held to a 1-1 draw at Blundell Park in the first leg (att: 6,064) before winning 2-0 at Turf Moor.
1997/98: Second Division play-off semi-final v Fulham (won 2-1 on aggregate)
After a 1-1 draw at Craven Cottage, Town managed to win the return leg 1-0 (att: 8,689) through a late strike from Kevin Donovan.
2005/06: League 2 play-off semi-final v Lincoln City (won 3-1 on aggregate)
A Gary Jones strike at Sincil Bank gave the Mariners a 1-0 lead going into the home leg, which they won 2-1 (att: 8,062).
2007/08: Football League Trophy Area Final v Morecambe (won 1-0 on aggregate)
A 1-0 win at Christie Park was followed up with a goalless draw at Blundell Park (att: 7,417)
2012/13: FA Trophy semi-final v Dartford (won 3-0 on aggregate)
Town did the deed in the first leg at home when they won 3-0 (att: 3,573). The second leg finished 0-0 down in Kent.
2012/13: Conference play-off semi-final v Newport County (lost 2-0 on aggregate)
Town fell to a late goal at home in the first leg (att: 5,414) before underperforming in the away leg to lose that 1-0 also.
So what does all the above tell us? Firstly, it tells us that when Town get as far as the semi-finals or area finals of a competition, they tend to go on and make the final. However, the one time we had to overturn a deficit from the first leg – as is the case with Cambridge this weekend – we failed to progress.
Will the Mariners do what they’ve never done before and overturn a first leg deficit to make a Wembley final? Forgot about the fact that none of our strikers are scoring enough goals; forget the fact that we haven’t started a game well since 2012. This is a one-off game and the players need the type of support we gave them at Cambridge when the fans stayed positive right until the final whistle.
And if we don’t make Wembley, well… we’ll all save some money (and we’ll get to go to Nuneaton instead! Wow).
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.
Throughout the 2013/14 season Grimsby Town have been asking fans to write about ‘Marmite Men’ – players fans either loved or loathed. This is my article on the Mariners’ record signing, Lee Ashcroft, which was published in the Braintree match day programme on Saturday 14th September.
For many Town fans, he’s the striker that never provided a satisfactory return on a record-breaking investment. To others, he was a player of undoubted skill that simply struggled to find the form that justified the price tag.
Or, to use a culinary analogy (which seems appropriate given the rumours that he supported the town’s pastry industry), he was like a frustratingly average main course at a restaurant famous for poor puddings.
Record breaking fee
Lee Ashcroft arrived at Blundell Park in the summer of 1998 from Preston for the princely sum of £500,000, paid by Alan Buckley to today’s current Manchester United boss David Moyes. At 26-years old, he joined to bolster the Mariners’ attack to consolidate the club’s place back in the second tier. By the age of 30 he’d be playing non-league football.
In many ways, the transfer was always going to fail. Town had never committed so much money to one player before. It was also a signing that broke previous conventions from the Buckley era. Had he arrived from a lower league’s reserve side for just a few thousand pounds, the fans may have been more forgiving.
But at half a million quid – and with the Mariners still riding on the crest of a double Wembley wave – Ashcroft came with a weight of expectation never seen or felt before in these parts. A mixture of injuries and inconsistent form meant that he failed to command a regular place in the starting XI, which made it difficult for the majority of fans to warm to him.
Sharp, strong, willing, cultured… but frustratingly inconsistent
Ashcroft was neither tall nor fast. In that sense at least, he was a typical Buckley striker. Sharp with the ball at his feet, and strong with his back to goal, Ashcroft crafted opportunities from his willingness to run the channels and take centre backs into areas of the pitch they didn’t want to go.
His debut goal was a cultured one, full of the poise and technique that Buckley was so happy to pay that sum of money for. It came in a 2-1 home defeat to Barnsley when, after receiving the ball from Tony Gallimore with his back to goal, he played a quick one-two with Jack Lester before rolling his marker and sweeping the ball home.
His strike at Bristol City later in the season – when he struck an effort into the top corner from 30 yards out – underlined his obvious talent and demonstrated his ability to conjure something out of nothing. In January 2000 he put in an immense display against Forest, out-witting an experienced back line to lead the Mariners to an epic 4-3 win.
Sadly, such outstanding performances were all too fleeting in his Town career. Sporting a tuft of scruffy dark hair and stubble before David Beckham had made it trendy, Ashcroft often coupled his untidy appearance with untidy performances. One week he’d kill the ball with an excellent first touch; the next week his close control would end up in the main stand.
The partnership with Jack Lester
Given the transfer fee, it was all too easy to demand 20 goals a season. However, Ashcroft was never an out-and-out striker. His most productive season was his second at Town, when he and Lester struck up a particularly fruitful partnership. His accuracy from the spot was constantly tested as Lester enjoyed a typically assiduous campaign hitting the floor in the box. Ashcroft never missed from 12 yards.
And just as that partnership was establishing itself as one of the division’s best, Lester moved to Forest for £300,000. It was a massive blow to the team, the fans and the partnership, and it signalled the beginning of the end of Ashcroft’s career as a Mariner.
The slide into Non League
Although he finished the season as Town’s top scorer with 13 goals, he was sold to third division Wigan for a reported £350,000 in July 2000. The fact that he joined a town famous for its pies was one not lost on Town fans.
Sadly it was the same story at the JJB Stadium. After a decent first season for the Latics under Bruce Rioch he fell out of favour in the second. Unsuccessful loan spells at Port Vale and Huddersfield was followed by his release in February, and he saw out the season playing for Southport in the Conference.
His rapid decline through the leagues following his departure from Town wouldn’t have come as a surprise to some. However, to those who saw the glimpses of the quality he had (which includes me, a handful of other Town fans and the England Under 21 bosses that gave him an international cap in 1992) it tells the story of what happens when gifted individuals fail to translate their latent ability into results on the pitch.
Today Ashcroft manages Northern Premier League first division north side Northwich Victoria following six years at the helm of Kendal Town. He was in the news earlier this year for abusing a female opposition coach, which led to him receiving a 10-game ban.