Return of the prodigal son

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Tony Butcher

2 November 2002

Grimsby Town 1 Long Ball Gillingham 1

An overcast but warm afternoon, with about 250 Men (and women) of Kent shuffling about uneasily in the Osmond Stand. Or are they Kentish Men? Anyway, they are on the cusp of the great divide, so we'll let them decide exactly what they are. The attempts to whip the crowd into a frenzy dribbled away into something, well, a bit lame. The introduction of Oster - "Welcome home!" - was fine (the emphasis was correctly placed upon the word home), and the reception appropriately warm. He needs some time with his footballing family. The pleading to Kabba to stay was a little too desperate, but the worst, the very worst thing was the Mighty Mariner. Billed as a world exclusive and for the first and only time, the foam-filled fool led the crowd in a rendition of the Town version of Annie's Song. It successfully dampened down the crowd's enthusiasm. Those not laughing down their sleeves were hiding in the toilets in embarrassment. Think of a tuneless teenager attempting to impersonate his grandfather crooning to his hamster.

Town continued with the new, improved warm-up routine of four piggies in the middle; and the Town fans were quite heartened by the sight of McDermott (hurrah), Oster (hurrah, hurrah) and Gavin, who is, at least, tall. So who plays where? Well, Town lined up in the usual 4-4-2 formation as follows: Coyne, McDermott, Ford, Gavin, Gallimore, Oster, Coldicott, Pouton, Campbell, Livingstone and Kabba. The substitutes were Allaway, Ward, Cooke, Barnard and Mansaram. Oster has, physically, filled out a bit, no longer the spindly 14-year-old with a pudding basin haircut, and he played on the right, with Campbell on the left. Otherwise everyone was in their 'usual' position.

Casting an eye upon the Gillingham players, one was struck by their chunkiness and how tall their strikers were, especially Sidibe. In contrast their keeper is still the tiny Jason Brown: big hands, big feet and big attitude. More on that later. The ball was yellow.

First half

Gillingham kicked off, wearing an all-red kit for some unexplained reason, towards the Pontoon. Kicked out of play almost immediately, of course. The first thrusts of the day were made by Gillingham with, typically, chips down the channels for the 'big men' to chase. From the first Town won a free kick as Gavin ensured his slight misreading of the bounce of the ball was misread by the referee as a push by Sidibe. The second 'channel chip' saw Ford race over and swipe Ipoua and the ball out of play for a throw-in. So far, so anticlimactic. Town had done nothing exceptional, barely anything adequate, with a couple of long punts forward by Gallimore resulting in highly threatening moments of danger for Gillingham. Also known as goal kicks.

But the first flickers of fantasy came in the third minute. Kabba muscled down the left on a counterattack, drifted, danced and turned to play a short pass down the touchline to Campbell. The little scamp dribbled through two defenders, cutting outside to drift past another, to cross into the near post, where the keeper plunged low to scoop the ball up off the ground near the foot of the post. Mmmm, quite interesting; pace, power, passing and movement. Nice.

Oh, here we go - the sucker punch. Gillingham broke away down their left after the goalkeeper had fly-kicked away as McDermott chased a pass over the top of their defence. They had two players roaming the badlands below the Stones/Smiths/Findus with just Ford to disturb their plans for world domination. Sidibe clipped a floated cross from about 25 yards out towards the far post and Shaw ran forward, backed off, allowed the ball to go across his body and, from the edge of the six-yard box, hit a first-time left-footed volley a foot over the bar. Gallimore was stood next to him, but barely moved a muscle.

For the rest of the half, with just occasional moments when Gillingham counterattacked, Town were dominant and superb, the like of which we have not seen for many a year. Passing, movement and, above all, pace. Gillingham were ripped apart at times. Free-flowing one-touch football, principally down the right, invariably involving Kabba and Oster. It was fantastic, it was wondrous, it was purrable. It was occasionally brilliant, in the truest sense of the word. In the 11th minute Town moved magically down the right, with McDermott surging forward, exchanging passes with a fellow striped raider, before crossing low, at pace from outside the penalty area. Livingstone stepped over the cross and Kabba swept a right-footed shot from around a dozen or so yards onto the outside of the post.

A couple of minutes later another blur of passes by Oster and Kabba down the Town right, sending the Gillingham defenders into a collective fainting fit, saw Oster free inside the area. Brown sprinted off his line and managed to block Oster's attempted clip from way out near the left corner of his box. A couple of minutes after that it was McDermott's turn to swing forward, exchange passes with Kabba and whip in a terrific low cross to the near post. Campbell (yeah, Campbell) dived forward and managed to get only the merest of hairs on the ball, with it arcing crazily through the penalty area and out for a throw-in. So it was a strong hair, with much gel on it, I presume.

The game was quite excellent, with Gillingham clearly a highly organised and effective unit, looking very dangerous on the break, especially through Shaw. But Town, mostly, coped well, with Ford and Gavin being very calm and solid. After a Town free kick was bumbled forward, with Kabba heading softly to the keeper from way out, Gillingham broke away at pace, in numbers, and looked menacing. Fortunately the cross was diverted for a corner on their right, from which Hope, about a dozen yards out and on the centre right of the Town area, headed down firmly, the ball bouncing up high and almost, almost over Coyne, who tipped the ball over the bar for another corner. And from this we suffered the trauma of seeing Shaw collide with the referee as he was about to shoot. We got over this trauma pretty quickly, without the aid of any counselling. No need to rent space in a local church hall and talk ourselves down.

You know, we are only halfway through the first half and the quality was high, the chances frequent. Campbell dribbled inside from the left and dinked a short pass behind the centre-back for Kabba, just in the Gillingham area on their left. Brown sprinted off his line and blocked Kabba's attempted shot, with the ball squirming out towards the corner flag. Campbell had continued his diagonal run and chipped the ball back into the heart of the penalty area. Livingstone, about 10 yards out at the near post, glided effortlessly across his marker and volleyed towards the near post. Brown instinctively stuck out his left hand and managed to parry and pluck. We were beginning to curse the keeper, who was playing exceptionally well.

There then followed a short period of non-excitement, while both teams had a short rest. But still Town piled forward down the right, with Oster becoming more and more dominant, toying, teasing and tremendous. With about 10 minutes left he was set free down the right touchline at high speed, following a one-two with Kabba. Oster swept a super first-time cross from near the touchline into the near post towards Livingstone. Livvo either missed it or dummied, who knows, and the ball travelled on to the far post, to the unmarked Kabba, perhaps eight or nine yards out. The ball hit Kabba's left thigh, was juggled towards goal and Kabba stuck out his right boot to divert the ball towards the keeper's left corner. Brown, despite flying to his right, managed to stick out his left hand and save, the ball being flapped away for a corner.

The corner was hung deep; a scramble ensued and the ball fell to Livingstone, whose shot scurried away to the right of the area off a defender's legs. Pouton's attempted crashing drive was seemingly goalbound, but ricocheted away from near the line, straight back to Livvo, who leant back and swiped the ball into Neville Street.

And I haven't even mentioned Coldicott's flashing drive, following a surge down the left and pull-back to the unmarked Mekon Man, 25 yards out on the centre left. Coldicott, much to the surprise of his sternest critic, wellied a superb right-footed drive just a foot or so wide of the post.

This was all a little too much excitement for one day. No goals, but verve, vim, zest and no little skills from Town. And it's not over yet. Perhaps the best chance of the half was again created by Oster, curling a sublime pass down the touchline from just inside the Town half for Kabba to sprint onto. The pass was absolutely perfect, matching Kabba's run and allowing him to burst forward unmolested. Kabba waited for the defender and dinked left, then right, before dumping the centre-back on the turf. He was alone and free, just inside the area, with just the keeper to beat. Brown raced off his line. Kabba swayed right to go past him. But Brown followed, dived and managed to save the shot. The ball bounced back off Kabba into Brown's hands.

A most exhilarating, but ultimately frustrating, half drew to a close with Gillingham almost sneaking in a goal. A break down their right, a cross to the far post and, fortunately, Ipoua and Sidibe collided with each other, and Coyne easily caught the attempt at goal. Oh, and another long shot from a Gillingham player, which hit the roof of the Pontoon.

So there we are: scoreless at half time, but no-one quite knew how. Gillingham had been no pushover, displaying no little skill and threat, one of the better teams to visit Blundell Park. But Town had been awesome, much, much better than on Tuesday night, and if wasn't for that pesky Gillingham goalkeeper Town would have scored at least four. Town were given a standing ovation as they walked off, and the crowd were just lapping up the memories of Kabba and Oster together. In defence Ford and Gavin had been unassumingly effective, barely noticeable, not through lack of opportunity to shine, but they just did their job - no thrills, no wild, desperate tackles to save the day. They never put themselves in a position to have to do Lever-like heroics. Oh, and Macca was back too.

And still 45 more minutes to come, What value for money.

Stu's half-time toilet talk

"This is rubbish. I haven't got anything to moan about."
"One day that jumper will be reunited with those trousers and there will be peace in our time."
"Ward's good, but Macca's Macca. That's just the way it is."
"Do you think we can adopt little Johnnie Oster? You mean foster Oster."
"I could have stayed at home and raked some leaves."

Second half

It started to rain, a drizzly, mizzly, thin, soaking rain.

No changes were made by either team at half time, and the game started with a whimper, as Town played some old-style religion, hoofing up the touchline for goal kicks. A couple of minutes into the half, as the ball was down near the Pontoon, a firework was lobbed over the top of the open corner between the Osmond Stand and Findus/Stones/Smith Stand, presumably from the house that had been the venue of the free fireworks display at half time. This multi-exploding air banger (air bomb repeater, I think you'll find - Ed.) landed inside the penalty area, about a dozen yards out near the edge of the area and sent Coyne scurrying for cover. After a few seconds the referee stopped play, wandered down to the Osmond End and some stewards belatedly ran up the steps to the back of the temporary seating to 'have a word'.

Gradually Town started to assert themselves, down the right, of course, through Oster, even more of course. The ball started to flow from Town foot to Town foot, with Livingstone now flagging but just about keeping up with play. About five minutes into the half Kabba was sent free down the right touchline; but the left-back, Perpetuini, placed an arm gently across Kabba's back, then tugged the flapping shirt. Kabba fell spectacularly and a yellow card was waved at the Gillingham player. I can't remember what happened from the free kick, so nothing interesting, obviously.

The next Town break was again through Kabba, this time down the left. After barging his way down the line, attracting three unsuitable suitors in red, and drifting into the penalty area, Kabba looked up and rolled a perfect pass into the path of Campbell, 20 yards out, right in the centre. Campbell pointed his boot at the ball and it just about made contact, for the ball dribbled two yards wide, very, very slowly. His head was in his hands before the ball crossed the line, even before the first groan from the Pontoon. The Town players were even doing disappointment at speed.

I haven't described any efforts on goal from Gillingham yet. Well, I can't describe what didn't happen. You'll have to wait a while longer for them to get in the Town area. The game was still all Town, with waves of attacks flowing across the savannah like wildebeest in Torbay. Oster, shimmied, shammied, rippled his shoulders and gracefully glided past the left-back, sending Perpetuini back towards the Medway. Oster was free, inside the area, but right on the by-line. He looked up, saw just one Town player in the penalty area and caressed a cross over Brown, the ball landing on Pouton's shins four yards beyond the far post. Not an unusual occurrence that, the Pouton shin/ball clash. Whatever; the ball bounced off Pouton, on to Nosworthy and back to Brown.

Pouton partly redeemed himself a couple of minutes later with a surge down the left and - wait for it, wait for it - a left-footed cross. Not just any old left-footed cross; this one was any good. In fact, quite superb. From a very narrow angle, about a dozen yards wide of goal, Pouton crossed low through the six-yard box. The ball travelled great distance and had many adventures before passing the far post. Kabba arrived by first-class post, just in front of the surly postman on his bike, sliding forward; and from about six yards out, and a similar distance beyond the post, he hooked a shot towards the bottom left corner of the goal. Brown zipped across his goal-line and managed to block with his right forearm, clutching the rebound as it was about to roll over the line for a corner. Another excellent save by Brown, who had to be reminded that we hadn't come to watch him play well. Flippin' jobsworth!

Another couple of minutes, another chance. Oster, on the break, turned and flipped a defence-splitting pass with the outside of his right boot, sending Kabba free, about 25 yards out. Kabba fended off his marker and, from about the edge of the area, to the left of goal, clipped a shot a yard over the bar as Brown hared out of his goal.

Around this time Gillingham managed to get a cross into the Town penalty area. Nothing happened of any great concern. And still more Town raiding: this time McDermott, after a bit of passing, passion, possession and triangles down the Town right, burst forward, drifted past two defenders and completely mis-hit a shot from 25 yards out. The ball rolled out of play just the three yards wide of goal. Would we ever score? Well, Livvo wouldn't, for he was replaced after 67 minutes by Mansaram. In truth, Livvo had shot his bolt by the end of the first half, and the substitution was well timed.

Still the attacks flowed towards the Pontoon, like eager shoppers in Asda on a trolley dash. Kabba collected his trolley on the halfway line and ran off down the aisle sweeping up fruit, vegetables, cat food, tins of condensed soup, all with the shop assistants frantically following with a stopwatch. Just as he reached the wine and spirits section his time was up, for he dragged a shot wide of the right post, when a pass to the unmarked Mansaram or Oster would have been much, much wiser.

Five minutes after the Town substitution Gillingham took off Ipoua and Shaw, who had both shrivelled into the woodwork during the second half. But Town still had the momentum, with Mansaram adding some fluidity of movement the attack, as his arms and legs were here, there and everywhere.

Ah, here we go - we knew this would happen. Gillingham got a corner with about 15 minutes left. All the big defenders went up, to go with their big midfielders and huge strikers. Bound to score, aren't they. The corner was curled into the near post from their right, but Coldicott leapt forward and magnificently cleared with a diving header. The ball travelled 30 yards out towards the touchline, under the Findus/Smiths/Stones Stand, where Kabba raced on to it, turned his marker and rumbustuously harrumphed his way up the touchline.

The crowd rose; the noise level rose higher; Kabba got near and nearer the goal, looked up and spotted Oster preparing to make a diagonal run behind the covering defender. Kabba curled a pass round the defender into the empty space about 25 yards out, on the right of the Gillingham goal. Oster sprinted forward and was alone inside the area. Brown raced off his line while Oster controlled the ball and dropped his shoulder to get Brown to dive. Brown stayed upright. Oster raised his left foot to feign a shot. Brown stayed upright, Oster swayed to his left, Brown dived, OSTER went further wide, making Brown crumple to the ground, and clipped a shot into the roof of the net. The crowd roared, the roof raised, the Town team descended upon Oster and smothered him in collective joy. Welcome home indeed, young man. Brown had simply been mesmerised by the Lorelei, the unwary keeper lured to the ground with the rattle of Oster's hips. And frankly it needed something exceptional to get past Brown, who had had a staggering game.

And Brown's behaviour after this was staggering too. He'd reacted to the Pontoon barracking - which stated their belief that he, a young man, was available for short-term hire - and started to make some gestures of disgust towards the crowd. Someone threw what looked like a Trebor mint at him, which he complained about. He wasn't very effective, as the referee's back was turned when he made a point of picking up a small white thing. He mouthed at the teenagers aggressively, which just encouraged them to keep on questioning his current market value for short-term letting.

The goal made Gillingham try just that little bit harder, but still nothing particularly frightening happened. Coyne had to make a save when Saunders hooked a low shot in from the left edge of the penalty area, clutching the ball at the second attempt. Coyne punched a cross away. Erm, let me think. That's just about it really.

Town continued to haunt Gillingham on the break, with Kabba and Oster getting a bit too cocky at times, showing off some extravagant flicks and tricks, such as the big one-two they performed near the managers' dug-outs, with Kabba doing a back-flick and Oster a weak shot from 25 yards. Around the time of the goal there was a Town break down the right which resulted in Mansaram drifting into the penalty area and cutting a cross back just behind the other strikers (yes, I'm classing Oster as a striker too). Mansaram is more and more resembling the echo of a distant time, Keith Alexander, with his ungainly lope, and deceptive speed. Is he fast or slow?

With just a couple of minutes to go, Town broke up a Gillingham attack and zipped the ball forward on the right. Mansaram readied to burst free as Oster diverted the ball forward. And there he was free, down the right. No, the linesman, belatedly and seemingly incorrectly, flagged him offside. It looked to those in the Pontoon that Mansaram had been behind a red shirt.

Brown took the free kick from within five yards of the right place, an uncharacteristic display of leniency by the pedantic linesman and referee. The ball was pumped forward, half cleared and knocked out wide to the Gillingham left. Johnson made as if to burst down the touchline, but turned back inside and clipped a cross towards the far post. SAUNDERS outjumped a Town defender and, from a centre-left position, somewhere in the middle of the area, powerfully headed back across Coyne and into the top right of the goal.

Brown turned round and taunted the teenagers, which meant he got another Trebor mint for his troubles as he exchanged unpleasantries with someone a decade his junior.

Gillingham seemingly looked confident of victory, piling forward, but it was Town who came nearest to scoring again. In added time, after a spell of Town pressure and a breakaway down the right, the ball was crossed towards the unmarked Campbell on the left edge of the Gillingham area. Campbell stretched for the ball, but fell under a challenge. Some hopeful Pontoonites muttered "penalty," but with no conviction, and Gillingham broke away. The referee stopped play as Gillingham crossed the halfway line and ran over to the linesman who was patrolling the Stone/Smiths/Findus side. Pouton leapt about; the crowd in the lower section started to cheer; the referee pointed towards the goal. Then they all leapt about in disappointment. The referee awarded Town a free kick a yard outside the area, level with the corner of the penalty box. Puzzling, to say the least, for if Campbell had been fouled it was a couple of yards inside the area.

Oster took the free kick. There were crosses, half clearances and a corner, and Pouton glanced the corner over the bar from inside the six-yard box. Then it was over.

A cracking game, with two good sides playing well. But Town were magnificent at times, and Gillingham have their goalkeeper to thank for the avoidance of a drubbing. Were it not for him Town would have scored at least five, and it would have been deserved too. The interesting aspect to Town's play was the way the ball was switched across the pitch at pace, and forward. Kabba and Oster look galaxies beyond anything we've had for a long, long time. They had an instant rapport, each thinking and moving at high speed. Campbell was rarely seen, not because he was hiding, but because virtually everything filtered down the right, where Macca and Oster were awesome.

In defence there were no problems at all. Quiet, efficient, some height, some strength, and some pace, Ford and Gavin looked an excellent partnership. Apart from the first minute there were no confusions at all. Ford, marginally, was the more impressive of the two, but that's very marginal.

All in all Town looked like a top 10 side, with pretentions of a play-off place. And so did Gillingham. Make no mistake about it, this was a top-class first division game. The result was, ultimately, disappointing, but the performance gave every Town fan present a safe, warm, proud feeling. This was football, Jim, exactly as we want it.

Nicko's man of the match

It really is choosing from a high base line. Ford was super, Macca great, Kabba, apart from his shooting, incredible. The sponsors' Kabba of the match was Kabba, but Nicko plumps for the return of the prodigal son, JOHN OSTER, and not just for sentimental reasons. The boy was magnificent; fit, fast, free-roaming, free-thinking, with defensive discipline. Ooh, he had everything, and a goal too.

Official warning

Ray Olivier

A little man who seemed to get smaller as the game progressed, the incredible shrinking referee seemed to have a bit of a Napoleon complex, being extra-pedantic. The booking of Livingstone was daft, as the ref had insisted that every free kick be taken from exactly the right spot, so Livvo kicked the ball three yards to the right place, only to be booked and the ball walked forward 10 yards. The non-penalty decision at the end was bizarre, but overall he wasn't that bad; we are quibbling about minor matters. 6.892 -he lost some for the oddness of this decision.