Drawing to a conclusion

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Tony Butcher

10 March 2003

Nottingham Forest 2 Grimsby Town 2

A warm evening with a blustery wind billowing around the stands, severely inconveniencing the hirsute among the 400 or so Town supporters gathered behind the goal to the right, as seen on television. A parting on the left became a parting on the right, though no beards grew longer on the night. Town limbered up below the weary gathering with a variation on the usual routine. A sort of half-hearted swirl of passing and movement reminiscent of the Metropolitan Police Dog Unit display team, but without Livvo jumping through a fiery hoop, though a Rottweiler did attack a padded man, or was that merely Pouton shadow boxing with Darren Barnard? Ah yes, Barnard - good enough for Wales but not for Town's starting XI. Forest went all retro in their warm-up, recreating the 1920s with an impressive chorus line of tap-dancing boys with feather boas. Arms outstretched as rigid as a juggernaut, and toes a-tapping.

Town lined up in a 4-5-1 formation as follows: Coyne, McDermott, Ford, Santos, Gallimore, Campbell, Pouton, Groves, Hughes, Oster and Mansaram. The substitutes were Allaway, Chettle, Barnard, Livingstone and Bolder. It was exactly the same as at Ipswich, with the exception that Mansaram was up front, rather than Boulding. Cooke was in the stands, pieless and sans duffel coat, the milder weather allowing him the opportunity to showcase more of the Terry Cooke 'Man About Town' range. Today Terry wore an olive green jacket made from 58 per cent cotton and 42 per cent man-made fibres, with contrasting dark brown flannel trousers. All available from Boyes and the club shop. Reasonable prices for reasonable people. Perhaps his jacket was more pickled onion than olive.

Immediately before the game, we watched seven men walk around the pitch dippling down divots in perfect harmony, clearly wanting to prepare a smooth pitch on which Forest could pass us to oblivion. One question: why was Danny Butterfield pictured above the Town squad on the back of the programme? Was this to frighten us?

First half

Forest kicked off towards the Town fans and passed, and passed, and passed, and passed, eventually sending the ball up to Harewood after a minute or so. Harewood was tightly marked but still managed to force his marker back. Nothing happened though. Town sat back into a solid wall of five across the middle, shuffling up and across, forcing Forest to pass sideways, then eventually to knock long punts down the channels, or up to Harewood and Huckerby. They pressed, they probed, they always looked on the verge of breaking through, but didn't. Somewhere in the first 10 minutes, from a Forest corner on their left swung high into the centre, Hjelde, unmarked and just 10 yards out, headed softly straight to Coyne. That was their early chance, their only one. They huffled and puffled, but they didn't blow the house down.

Town weren't bothered with attacking much, just disciplined defending. It felt for the most part like they'd forgotten how to attack, with a series of up-and-unders towards Mansaram or, more accurately, to where Coyne imagined Mansaram to be. Drop kick after drop kick sliced, hooked, looped and bumbled back to the Forest centre-backs. Frustratingly daft tactics that merely invited pressure.

But lo! a shot from Town was sighted far away, on the horizon. And, come to think of it, the first one created in open play. Town retained possession - a novel thing that could be contagious - with several passes tapped sideways across the pitch. Pouton, on his own, about 30 yards out, spun and surged to his left. Incredulity was not confined to North East Lincolnshire as he attempted to whack, with his left foot, a shot. The ball spun off a defender's boot and looped gently into Ward's arms. Hey, it was a shot and had some passing leading up to it. Innocent bystanders would, after much deliberation, have cast their vote in favour of the description 'football'.

So far, so fine. Apart from the free header from a corner, Forest had created zilcho. The muscular running of their fast frontmen had caused some mild panic in the Town support, but not on the pitch, where the defence had shepherded them to safety, with Coyne an alert but unperturbed bystander, the midfield a quintet of quiet command.

Halfway through the half, after some Forest pressure was cleared towards the halfway line, Mansaram ran back and challenged Scimeca as he raced forward. Mansaram hassled, a vague pest to the roaming rhinoceros, who barely noticed the fly buzzing around his ears. Unfortunately, the referee managed to see what no Town supporters saw and awarded a free kick, about 30 yards out to the left of centre. Way out, too far out for a shot. The ball was tapped sideways to Reid, an eight-year-old mascot in professional clothing, who smacked in a shot from the centre. POUTON ambled forward, half turned, and the ball deflected off some part of his lower limbs, taking a gentle arc towards the middle right of Coyne's goal. Coyne was motionless within his lair, having set himself for the shot swerving off to his left, and the ball rolled down the back of the net. Just typical, isn't it. Dejection, deflation, dismay and many other words beginning with D too. And B and S, and, well, I can't remember any beginning with Q, X or Z.

Pouton was energised by this misfortune, flying into tackles for the next five minutes like a raging bull. Frenetic, splenetic, his anger brought forth added determination but detracted from the organisation, for Forest had a bit of a surge, during which a cross zipped though the Town area. A little later more good fortune for them, when a clearance hit one of their midfielders and spun behind the defence to Huckerby, on the Town left, just inside the area. He swept forward and smacked a low shot across Coyne and off the foot of the far post - before everyone realised the linesman had his flag up. Silly us, it was Harewood's hyphenated henchman, Darren Huckerby-Offside, a name too long for his shirt. How else would he be free?

The pattern of the game remained Town setting up a Maginot line and Forest seeking to nip round the sides using Blitzkrieg tactics, otherwise known as "hit it long and let the fast men run". The steely determination of the Town players didn't let that happen. McDermott was simply McDermott, placing himself between man and ball, defending without tackling, easing away his man. Gallimore - yes, Gallimore - was solid. Despite Harewood being at least 156mph faster, Galli was determined and pushed his body to its physical limits, fighting off the speedster, even using McDermottian tactics to cut off all available roads to the ball. Credit where credit is due: Galli rocked! The only times he was beaten were as a result of deflections or defraud, such as when Harewood pushed him over when chasing a ball over the top. A dangerous moment that came to naught as Harewood hit the by-line and crossed low and hard, but Coyne scooped the ball up at the near post.

Similarly Huckerby, briefly, managed to barge his way free down the Town right and, deep inside the penalty area, turn inside and clip the ball straight to Coyne at the near post. A shot? A cross? Who knows? Least of all Huckerby. He swung his boot and hoped for the best - which, for us, it was.

And then a funny thing happened on the way to the second division; Town started to retain possession. And how. They passed the ball slowly, but deliberately, across the midfield, back to the defence, back across the park, up, down, back, sideways, seemingly going nowhere. Mild frustration from the Town support turned to smiles as Oster suddenly spun and hit a first-time pass to McDermott on the touchline, just inside the Town half. A-ha, free at last, bounding down the wing. The cross was blocked and a corner followed - nothing great in the pantheon of football, but a start, and tactically astute too, for Town had slightly bored Forest and pulled them out of position. A start.

Then they did it again: 20, maybe 30 passes, everyone involved, ending with a Mansaram surge and mis-hit shot. You know, professor, we may have something here. What is the formula? The missing X factor was passing and movement. Sure, it wasn't at speed, but it was passing with purpose. Half time was approaching and Town were at least doing something, though Cooke chose this moment to sneak off to eat his pie in private, away from the stern gaze of the crust police.

I can't recall exactly when the move started, maybe in the 38th minute, perhaps even during the pre-match warm up, but the ball was flipped around the Town team, slowly at first, the pace gradually increasing, and always to a spare man; there was always someone free. The clock ticked. It was almost half time. Town had had the ball for several years but hadn't got out of their own half. The impatient among the Grimsby diaspora - specifically a lady sitting to my left - groaned: "We always pass it so slowly" - just as Campbell upped the pace, knocking the ball down the left touchline. Oster stepped over the ball, allowing it to roll into a space behind their right back. Mansaram sprinted forward, controlled the ball, cut infield and swooshed towards goal. From somewhere near the by-line he cut a cross back into the penalty area. A big, yawning, gaping, pleading hole into which, as if by magic, GROVES rumbled, stretched and steered a shot across Ward and into the far corner. The Town support almost spontaneously combusted in pleasure. A stunning team goal, where everyone seemed to touch the ball. How many passes? Seven? Three? Twelve? Yes, that's it - 12 consecutive passes and we had witnessed the greatest goal ever scored, ever, tonight, in Nottingham, by a man called Groves.

This must have been very confusing to the casual viewer. That little team down at the bottom, the one with the funny name, was the one passing the ball. Forest were very direct, nothing like the slick, groovy machine that demolished Town in September. Forest are supposed to be the purest football team in the first, aren't they, not some kind of cut-price Crystal Palace. Didn't bother us. We quite enjoyed them trying to hoof their way ineffectually towards Coyne. They'd forgotten rule two of hoof: lump it high into the penalty area, for Grimsby can't deal with crosses.

And then it was half-time, and my, were we pleased. Who cares that it probably looked quite dull on television, with Town stifling the game. Town have no obligation to television companies. There were few incidents of note in the half, just lots of tackles and clearances, each one cheered to the concrete rafters. Mild moments of worry sprang up when the referee was indulgent to some strong challenges on Town players, in particular when McDermott was cracked on the ankle by Williams. More than one Mariner noted that Pouton got a red card last Tuesday for a very similar tackle, and such are the vagaries of life. You know that's the problem with life, other people. In footballing terms that's generally code for the ref.

Anything else? How about Oster's triple pirouette, proving he's three times better than Kingsley Black? It's a wonder he didn't fall over at the end with his head a-swirling. So that's it - first half over; a lot, lot better than anyone expected, but we had that Grimsby feeling: they aren't setting us up for anything but heartbreak, to make our disappointments deeper.

Stu's half-time toilet talk

"You're eating a treacle sponge?"
"Something's bound to go wrong - why do they do this to us?"
"Hughes is like Stacy on Ice."
"At least there'll be less traffic when we come to Nottingham next year."
"I thought they were supposed to be good?"

Second half

No changes were made by either team at half time, with Town reverting to the old trick of making the opposition hang around for a few minutes before they finally emerged. The first couple of minutes meandered a bit, just midfield clashes and smashes, with the first moment to rouse the crowd being a Mansaram turn towards goal, ending with his being mugged by several Forest players about 30 yards out, to the right of centre. Got to admire the lad - he didn't give them his mobile phone.

Ford trundled forward; Oster raised a hand and floated the ball into the penalty area. Ward came off his line and leapt into a bundle of players, about 10 yards out at the far post. His punch was more of a flap and the ball dropped about 20 yards out. POUTON raced forward, jumped up and hit a goose-stepping volley that fizzed low through several legs past Ward and into the bottom right-hand corner. As the ball hit the net he ripped off his shirt and threw it in the air, turning to receive the plaudits from the Town fans, except he went to the wrong bit and found himself staring at some displeased lacemakers and children. At this point the consensus was that the "Town are staying up", quickly followed by a warning about enumerating poultry before conception.

And the siege began. At first it was simply an encampment beyond the moat, near the trees. Excursion parties were sent out to test Town, but they never got near goal. As in the first half, the only early attempt at goal was from a corner on the Forest right, floated into the centre. Hjelde climbed all over and above his marker to steer a header a few inches wide of Coyne's right post. A little later Harewood looped a header over and across Coyne, but it landed on the roof of the net. "Oooh"s from the crowd, more to keep themselves interested than anything.

Pressure, pressure, but no break in the dam, the great Hoover dam that was sucking and soaking up everything thrown towards it. [If you're going to mix metaphors, then do it with style, that's what I always say - Ed.] Huckerby irritated and Harewood muscled, but they were not getting through to Coyne. Huckerby, in fact, was fortunate to stay on the pitch after Gallimore chipped the ball down the wing and the Lincoln/Newcastle/Coventry/Man City reject (take your pick as the insult of choice; the Town fans couldn't decide) left his boot in the way of Galli's beautiful left foot. Galli crumpled and a gaggle of players bounded over, shoving each other, and Huckerby was eventually booked. Lucky boy; some refs do, some refs don't, some refs need a lotta lovin' and some would send him off.

And this heralded a period of pettiness, all centring upon Huckerby. After a player was felled in midfield, Coyne rolled the ball out for the physio to rush on. Play restarted with a Forest centre back lofting the ball down their left wing, behind McDermott, who trotted back. Huckerby, the iconoclast, ignored convention by bursting into the area and bearing down upon goal. McDermott was forced to retreat and perform a last-ditch tackle to save the day, and Huckerby's highlighted head, for if he'd scored several Town players would have decapitated him there and then.

After 20 minutes or so Forest saw the light, or rather the darkness spreading before them, and replaced a defender, Hjelde, with another lightning-quick striker, Johnson. And now it really was a siege: cannons belted into the wall, tunnels were dug, fiery balls were catapulted over the top. Ugly football, but passionate, and finally the home crowd roared and sucked the play towards Coyne.

And within a minute or so of coming on, Johnson nearly scored. Harewood burst down their right, surged past a couple of defenders and, from somewhere near the corner of the penalty area, swiped a raking shot across the area. The ball seemed bound for the far corner but hit something about six yards out and flew over the top. The something was the unmarked Johnson, who had somehow managed to clear from under the bar. Hopes rose in the Town end - was this our day? Maybe. Harewood, again, bundled down the wing with Galli reverting to a former self and back-pedalling like a determined interviewer collaring a timeshare swindler. Harewood rolled along the by-line and crossed to Johnson, at the near post, who side-footed wide, very wide, from about 10 yards out.

Is there more? Of course there is. It didn't rain, but Forest poured forward. Forest players twice side-footed the ball over the bar from exactly the same spot, about 10 yards out level with Coyne's left hand post. First a deep cross from their left was headed back across towards the near post by Harewood, and a midfielder whacked it over. Five minutes later Johnson skied it after a low cross by Harewood (I think) on their right. Wahey, they'll never score. More songs, more raucous premature celebrations from the Town supporters, especially with occasional dangerous breaks from the Mariners. Pouton, Oster and Mansaram kept bustling and hustling the centre backs, especially Brennan, a man barely alive to the ball. He seemed to sleep through most of the second half.

Almost, almost - that word that should precede any description of Town football, for there were several moments when Town outnumbered Forest. But one loose pass, or failure to look up, and the moment was lost. Mansaram was almost through on goal, but Ward raced off his line to pick the ball up on the edge of the area. Lovely first-time pass from Oster, mind. Oster broke down the right and seemed to try an audacious clipped, curling shot into the bottom left-hand corner as Ward came off his line anticipating a crossfield pass to the unmarked Pouton. Or was it Mansaram, or was it both? Best of all was when Groves advanced down the middle and pinged a low shot from about 20 yards, which fizzed across the turf towards the bottom right corner. Ward plunged and saved at full stretch, comfortably, but well.

The geographically confused Forest fans attempted to taunt the small knot of Townites "Stand up if you hate Yorkies." No trouble with that one down at our end. "Stand up if you hate Torquay!" Errr, why? Or did they mean Derby? Or Torbay? After all, Torquay, Torbay, what's the difference?

Still Forest rattled the loose-fitting cage. Santos boomed headers away, one so thudding that it went from the six-yard box to the centre circle before bouncing. I think we'll claim that as a shot, shall we? Santos also used his big manly chest to cut out a cross. Harewood twice bundled and barged his way through from an inside left position. First Santos used all his limbs, and important parts of his personality, to wrestle massive Marlon away; then a little later Harewood got to within six or seven yards of goal, but a combination of McDermott and Gallimore swiped the ball off his toes at the last minute.

All Forest, everyone down at the other end, corners, crosses, all fizzing through the area, with a monochrome foot, knee, head or bottom getting in the way. A cross from their left to the far post and, oh no, here it is - no! Harewood glanced a header a few inches wide of Coyne's left post, the ball rippling along the side netting, confusing many. But still Town hung on, hung on, the pressure incessant, hordes of red streaming towards goal, the ball constantly whacked in, little subtlety, much desperate defending. Coyne leaping around punching, blocking, catching and, just once or twice, saving. Huckerby flashed a drive from the edge of the area straight through a gaggle of Grimbarians into Coyne's midriff. Hughes stretched, Groves strained, Santos headed, Ford flicked, Pouton flung himself everywhere, sometimes near the ball too. Mansaram, limping for most of the second half, was almost substituted with about 20 minutes left, with Livingstone ready, but he stayed on after a dangerous run down the right brought a corner.

With five minutes left Pouton and Mansaram were replaced by Barnard and Livingstone. Campbell trotted over to Pouton's position on the right of the middle three, with Barnard as the auxiliary left back. In their time on the pitch Livingstone got near the ball and Barnard sliced a clearance up the touchline; apart from that I didn't see them touch the ball. They may have done, they may have been involved in the series of goalmouth scrambles up the other end, but it was impossible to tell. It was all a jumble of black, white and red as Johnson flung in huge flat zooming throw-ins from both sides.

More corners. More crosses. The clocked ticked down. It was here, 90 minutes up, just injury time. Surely that was it: Town wouldn't do it again, would they? As the Town fans were standing up preparing to celebrate, it happened. It? Yes, it. A cross was half cleared beyond the far post, high towards Oster near the corner of the penalty area. The ball dropped and a couple of Forest players raced forward, with Oster directly under the ball. Oster attempted to jump but fell, certainly trying to win a free kick. The ball was headed forward behind the defence for Harewood, who bullied his way towards the by-line, sucked in a couple of Town defenders and crossed into the centre of the area. WILLIAMS, somewhere close to where Groves had scored, slid forward and brought that empty desolation to the hearts of the few.

Again, yet again, points tossed aside like they were loose pennies to the Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo. This was Ipswich all over again: solid, fine, a plan going to plan, but carelessness at the end will cost jobs in two months' time.

In the three minutes of added time Forest pressed for a winner, with Town just, just holding out, despite more of the same high-pressure, route one football. The Town end was silent, hollow-eyed and ashen-cheeked. Lady Bracknell was not around, and didn't need to be. But the game ended. The Town fans were stunned, applauding the players more out of a Pavlovian response than a conscious thought. We looked on the pitch and saw not Forest, but Swindon, Chesterfield, Notts County. We saw next year. We turned to look but the first division was gone. We cannot put our finger on it now; the dream has gone.

Individually, collectively, there wasn't that much wrong with Town. But it is what individuals do on the pitch under pressure that makes or breaks, and some wrong decisions are made at crucial times. If Pouton had stood six inches to the left he wouldn't have deflected the ball in; if several players at the end had stood still they would have cut out the cross. Small things have big consequences. So another draw that feels like a defeat. It would be much easier for the travelling support if they played rubbish and lost 5-0. It's that flippin' tantalising, fleeting sight of distant hope. If April is the cruellest month, Town are the cruellest team.

"If", "almost": they sum up the lot of a Town supporter. Now we're almost in the second division. There's always next year.

Nicko's man of the match

Such a difficult one, but Nicko, viewing comfortably at home, would surprise even himself by giving it to Groves for his goal and his intelligent use of the ball; retaining possession, setting up passing movements. Only Pouton was a little below par, but even he did something, if you count a goal as something.

Official warning
S G Tomlin

A few small things that could have gone Town's way, but he wasn't that bad. Pity about the free kick that led to the first goal. Overall no complaints. A score of at least 6.9746 is the only score possible.