Taxi for Mr Groves

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Tony Butcher

18 January 2003

Grimsby Town 0 Millwall 2

An afternoon of sunshine and grey, cold with a swirling chill wind battering the ears. Around 150-200 Millwallians lounged louchely around the Osmond Stand, with great big bare patches in the Town stands, and I'm not referring to the hairstyles of the rich and famous. There was no buzz of anticipation in the ground, with the atmosphere akin to the Burnley game; it was flatter than the pitch, which had a big bare, sandy patch below the Findus/Smiths/Stones stand. The more world-weary Townites were already contemplating writing to the Football League requesting a replay of the game should Town lose. How can we be expected to play football on that!

Or should that be "with that"? Town lined up in a 4-4-2 formation as follows: Coyne, McDermott, Ford, Chettle, Gallimore, Cooke, Groves, Campbell, Barnard, Livingstone and Boulding. The substitutes were Allaway, Ward, Bolder, Soames and Mansaram. Boulding was given the reception he, and you, would expect. Hail the return of another prodigal son. A lot stronger than the ramshackle outfit that trotted out at Turf Moor, the team looked potentially capable, which is rather like a description of Hull City: "We aspire to be adequate."

During the warm-up Santos and Croudson wandered across the pitch towards the Main Stand dressed in civvies. Santos wore narrow-framed specs and a big duffel coat, taking all the terror from his aura; it's a good job he doesn't play in it, as he looked like a sociology student who caught the wrong bus. At 32 you'd expect a little less concern for the coat du jour, which would look rather silly on the Côte d'Azure. But enough cod psychology (the only sort to be found in Grimsby, of course): the big news that spread through the Pontoon was that he told the autograph hunters he'd be back next week.

And Town had the smallest matchday mascot ever, smaller than the ball, but determined in the tackle, as the Mighty Mariner found out. A midfield Chihuahua for the future...i.e. next week.

First half

Millwall kicked off towards the Pontoon with a false start, as Ifill sneaked down the touchline 20 yards before the ball had been touched. Start again. Disappointingly, they didn't kick it out of play, but to Town, which is always a dangerous tactic.

But Town didn't waste it, for football followed, in brief spurts, like a faulty pump. Within the first minute Town got a series of corners, the first of which was curled out from the left by Barnard, cleared back to him and whipped back in again. Some head tennis followed inside the Millwall area and finally Groves soared and headed firmly towards the top-centre-left of the goal. Warner rose a couple of inches and comfortably tipped the ball over the bar for another corner. Again, the corner was half cleared and Ford – yes, Ford – from 20 yards out curled a shot towards the bottom left corner. Warner shuffled across and plopped on the ball, again with little fuss. Two decent efforts on goal – neither of which should have gone past a competent keeper – but, still, it's a start.

Millwall roamed with hints of danger, but nothing of consequence. Claridge twisted, turned, ran around, a constant pest, but he spent the first 20 minutes doing a fine footballing impression of old man Steptoe, gnarled facial expressions and frustrated with life. The only moment that caused any worry was after about a dozen minutes when an attempted clearance up the right touchline rebounded off an attacker's backside and squirmed out back across the face of the penalty area: Coyne had to sprint off his line to fly-kick clear as Old Man Steptoe coaxed his ageing limbs into action. Anyone but Claridge would have got there first. Apart from Livvo. And Chettle. And Barnard. And Groves. Well, any opponent then.

The game was, so far, not bad, just very mediocre, with Town firmly in the ascendancy. The Town machine was spluttering forward with, well, spluttering forwards. Boulding was, as against the Milton Keynes Mercenaries, like the little boy that Santa Claus forgot. He didn't have the turbo charger plugged in, and he just bounced off defenders. Some young men with binoculars and obtrusive headwear, high in the Upper Smiths/Stones/Findus Stand, later claimed to have sighted the duck-billed Livvopus. Such a shy creature too.

Town continued to pootle forward, with Campbell and Cooke causing considerable anxiety to Millwall. Campbell received a pass inside the Town half, spun around twice and caused Wise to fall on his bottom, causing much pleasure to all right-thinking people. I said right-thinking? I meant thinking people. Campbell had a huge space in front of him, so he carried on, and on, and on, with a defender finally standing his ground on the edge of the penalty area. Campbell drifted slightly to his right and then dragged a shot across the face of goal, the ball dribbling a couple of yards wide. Worth an "ooh", so we "ooh”-ed. Cooke was perky and brought the unwary to their feet with a zip and a zap down the right, taking on his full-back and knocking the ball past him on the very edge of the area. The defender legged him up; Cooke was flattened; the referee gave a free kick a foot outside the area and didn't appear to book the alliterative Robbie Ryan. The free kick didn't bring any joy and happiness to mankind.

A few more minor moments of Town interest, with a couple more long-range efforts from Campbell, one slowly curling past the post (not even a moment of hope it would go in) and another that bombled along the mud straight into Warner's ample chest. And Warner had an ample chest, being, as Kevin Keegan once said, as big as those chests that pirates used to store gold in. He didn't wear a huge earring though.

A-ha – some fine football, with a bit of thought too. Town were given a free kick way out on the left. Barnard and Cooke stood over the ball, then Cooke suddenly raised both arms and sprinted away in the area. Barnard curled the free kick beyond the far post to the now unmarked Campbell, who had peeled away as everyone else had rushed into the centre. Campbell controlled the ball on his chest and, from about 10 yards out and a similar distance wide, whacked a half-volley into the centre of the six-yard box. The ball went past the goalkeeper and was wellied clear by a defender from near the line. Now that was worthy of an "ooh" and an "ahh" and a clap and a stamp.

After 20 or so minutes, the tide was turning. Town lost some of their grip on the game, with Millwall clearly changing their tactics. Their midfield roughed it up a bit, disgracefully tackling! That's almost cheating, isn't it? They'd be actually trying to score next. The ball was in the air more and, unfortunately, Town contributed to this loss of power by starting to hit longer and higher ‘passes’ from the back. Claridge had been, finally, recognised by the frog chorus in the Pontoon. It took them so long because Millwall just hadn't been anywhere near Coyne, so they couldn't read the name on the back of the shirt. They soon did, as Claridge received much verbal attention, his physical resemblance to German centre-forward Carsten Jancker being relayed to him in urgent tones.

Hitherto ineffective, Old Man Diver was spurred on and began to be a thorn in our side. After about 22 minutes, a quick Millwall break saw Claridge released behind the Town defence, with just Coyne to beat. Claridge shot from six yards out, to the left of goal, but Coyne managed to block with a fleshy part of his anatomy, and Chettle cleared the rebound. Yes, yes, Jancker, Jancker, we know. Claridge indulged in a bit of crowd baiting, ‘chatting’ to the massed ranks of parkas and Burberry caps. A couple of minutes later a corner from their left was swung beyond the far post and Claridge, four yards out, headed firmly but straight at Coyne, who caught the ball with his feet behind the line. More back-chat.

Ten minutes of terminal dross followed. Swipes, slaps, hooks and shanks: barely a player capable of kicking straight. The ball was frequently out of play. Unless you find throw-ins fascinating, it was bad, man. Sporadic moments transcended the tedium, with the emphasis on the tedium. Cooke curled a cross to the far post with Groves, in a throwback to 1994, making a late run into the penalty area. Unmarked, but behind a defender and an unknown Town player, he side-footed a yard wide.

The deteriorating standard of football got the crowd into default mode. The grumbles started: low, barely audible at first, but as each pass went astray, the momentum grew. Frustration was teetering on the edge, it wouldn't take much to go to a full-blown angry heckle. A typical moment of refereeing daftness diverted the crowd. Wise spun past Campbell in midfield, falling pathetically, obviously, with a rotten dive. The referee immediately gave a free kick, 25 yards out, just to the right of centre. Which is a lot closer to the goal than where Wise dived. The straw bales that formed the Town wall served as little protection. Wise tapped the ball sideways and Reid’s drive slapped off someone's thigh and onto the post. Would this be the little bit of luck that Town have been waiting for?

No. As the game petered towards a pitiful break, the bells started to toll. Groves made a bit of a hash of a clearance on the right touchline, the ball flying sideways. He chased the ball and upended Wise, about 25 yards out, level with the edge of the penalty area. The free kick was curled beyond the far post; so far, so humdrum. Ah, what a shame, Barnard had left Wise alone, preferring to perambulate with Mr Livingstone, catching some bracing sea air. From the edge of the six-yard box Wise volleyed a shot across Coyne, who stuck out an arm and diverted the ball into the middle. The ball looped up, bounced high and just behind Ford. CLARIDGE bundled across and toe-poked the ball into the net from a couple of yards. Claridge and Wise stood in front of the Pontoon, cockily pointing out the name of the scorer. The Burberry boys insisted that it was pronounced differently.

Town's response was to zoom up the other end and win a corner. Groves headed powerfully towards the top left corner, but Warner clasped the ball to his body with little concern. In one minute of added time, nothing happened. A significant minority booed the team off – slightly unfair, given that Millwall aren't that bad and Town had been adequate for most of the half. But only slightly. Claridge had caused all sorts of problems with his movement and perception; perhaps it wasn't wise for the Pontoon to start taunting him, as it woke him up. The two Millwall wingers had not really hurt Town, but their presence had forced McDermott and Gallimore to remain in defence, rather than helping out in attack. The biggest problems for Town were the strikers (non-existent) and the misfiring midfield, where Groves was ailing and Barnard failing. Town were half a team; certainly they were half the team they used to be.

The game wasn't lost yet. There had been sparks of hope, but something had to change to ruffle the Millwall feathers.

Stu's half-time toilet talk

"Groves is like a traction engine without any steam."
"Campbell's had a storming half."
"You talk posh – are you a Millwall supporter?"
"My socks are too big for my shoes."
"What Town need is for the ref to go bonkers – it'll take the crowd's mind off the players."
"Perhaps Livvo and Boulding have been practicing knitting patterns."

Second half

It started. It eventually finished and between the two never a Town player would meet. There was no change of personnel at halftime by either team, but Millwall came flying out, racing into tackles, harrying, hassling and generally stopping Town getting any sort of passing rhythm going. We shall never know if Town would have been capable of passing to each other anyway.

The second half was an absolute disaster as far as Town were concerned. Everything went wrong. Passes were not made, clearances were muffed, and crosses crazily skewed anywhere but towards goal. It was a shocker. Perhaps not quite as shocking as the Reading game, for the Town players were at least trying today, but they were just incapable. That is probably more worrying in the long run.

The crowd sensed this early on, and it is almost at breaking point. It was not a happy, or pleasant, place to be during the second half, unless you were from sarf Landon. With Coldicott absent, Groves has taken over as the focal point of disenchantment. His performance didn't cause anyone to stop heckling, and it is rather sad to see him bowing out in such fashion. This is no dignified exit from a professional playing career.

You will have noticed that there has, so far, been no description of ‘events’ in the second half. There were none of note for a Town fan. A balloon didn't descend from the sky delivering Oster and Todd to us, as angels in our hour of need. The floodlights didn't fail; a fog didn't helpfully roll in from the Humber; the fire alarms resolutely failed to ring. The police stayed inside their little brick hut and refused to call the game off on the grounds of public safety.

Briefly, in the 48th minute, a fleeting moment which might have raised and roused the crowd. Boulding turned in the centre circle and dribbled at speed towards the Millwall goal. He knocked the ball past one defender, who grabbed him around the waist, then neck, before stumbling and leaving last season's hero a clear sight of goal. Boulding tried to outpace the final defender, but bounced off him, falling to the ground clutching his face. No free kick given; the crowd briefly apoplectic. It didn't last: a couple of misplaced passes and that was that.

It isn't possible to grasp the mind-numbing awfulness of the second half without having been there. Not only Town, but Millwall too, were constantly slicing the ball up in the air, out of play, over the stands. Somewhere around the 55th minute, or it may have been later (the game was an indefinable stodgy porridge where time was an abstract concept) Town strung at least three passes together, resulting in Groves, from the edge of the penalty area, dragging a shot a yard or two wide. [The porridge is my bloody metaphor, Butcher! – Ed.] A few minutes later Town had an appeal for a penalty turned down. A cross, a bundle of players, a rebound, a poked shot and a claimed handball near the penalty spot. That was it until the last minute or so. Town never got near the goal. Terrible, isn't it.

Millwall concentrated on stopping Town for great swathes of the half, even resorting to blatant time-wasting from a very early stage. They had more faith in Town than we did. Claridge, meanwhile, continued to torment his tormentors with his all-action performance. In the middle of the half, Millwall suddenly decided to attack, which was a bit much really; a second goal was hardly needed and would just rub salt into some very deep wounds. Some rather ordinary play down the Millwall left was transformed by Claridge suddenly leaping up and hooking a bicycle kick from the right corner of the penalty area. The ball raced towards the top right hand corner and hit something hard – either Coyne's hand or, more likely, the post. The ball bounced back into the middle of the penalty area and was scrambled away, more through luck than judgement.

A few minutes later Reid dribbled past a couple of Town defenders, on a straight line from touchline to penalty area, before shooting across Coyne and just wide of the post for a corner. So I presume Coyne saved it. Ifill, on the left, managed to dribble past many and cross out for a throw-in. Claridge toe-poked a first-time shot at Coyne from a dozen yards, after a clearance was lumped back over the defence. The ball, again, lolloped around the middle of the penalty area for aeons, as the goal was open, before someone bothered to clear.

There were more Millwall attacks, which brought dread to the dwindling diehard: crosses, shots, nearly this, nearly that. It seemed only a matter of time before a second goal arrived. I have a vague memory of Coyne nearly allowing a weak long shot through his arms, over his shoulder and through his legs. Well, two of the three, anyway.

The restless natives began chanting for Mansaram, and finally they got their way, with just less than 20 minutes left. Soames and Mansaram replaced Boulding and Cooke in a straight swap, Soames going to the right wing. The crowd's reaction was exactly as you would expect. They booed and they hooed, for they wanted Groves and someone else, as yet unidentified, off. The replacement of Boulding was expected, as he is not yet the man who left us. Cooke, on the other hand, was at least trying to do something positive, and appeared the only Town player capable of prising open the blue wall. Who said “Stuart Campbell”? More like “where was Stuart Campbell?” Perhaps the Livvopus had eaten him at half time? Perhaps aliens had abducted him? The man was not visible, for McGhee realised that Campbell had been the principal threat in the first half and ensured that his players allowed the urban spaceman no more freedom. I'm not even certain that he touched the ball in the second half; but then I can't recall Barnard either, except the occasional glimpse of his shirt flapping as he trundled away from the Pontoon when Millwall broke away.

Any more? Well, they scored again. With just over five minutes left Claridge, on the right edge of the Town area with his back to goal, back-heeled the ball behind McDermott. Reid ran in, dribbled toward goal at speed and McDermott followed in his wake. Reid fell, McDermott flapped his arms, and the referee gave a penalty. No-one complained much. Well, not at the decision. The seats started to tip up in readiness for an early exit. The throng of frustration gathered in front of the Pontoon waiting to see if Danny could save the day again. He couldn't. CLARIDGE placed the ball to Coyne's left as the grey goose dived right. The howling started; the arguments started; the brittleness in the team was matched by the support.

In the last minute, Mansaram was free inside the area on the left, having run past the full-back onto a chipped pass. He cut inside and, from 10 yards out, carefully passed the ball into Warner's hands.

Let's hope this is as bad as it gets. There are no straws to clutch here. The first half was almost adequate, the second abysmal. The players and crowd looked thoroughly deflated, dispirited and defeated. There was nothing to get the fans behind the players, nor did the crowd seek to galvanise the team. The mid-winter blues have returned, with an uncanny echo of last year – two rank performances in the cup followed by a shocker in the league. Never were Pouton and Santos so sorely missed. I suppose we'll have to be patient with Boulding too. The days are dark again.

But Town aren't yet in the relegation spots. Next week, oh next week – that could well be the season maker or breaker. Are all your fingers crossed?

Nicko's man of the match

No-one covered themselves in glory. Campbell had a very good first half, but after substituting himself for a mannequin at half time, the shirt disappeared from view. Chettle was largely adequate, mostly, but he always does something to get the crowd a-barracking. If pushed, only Danny Coyne emerged with any reason to feel close to content with his efforts.

Official warning

Mr E Ilderton

Started all right, but slowly, slowly, fell for the cheeky cockernee charms of Mr Wise. So a bit like Town – average in the first half, poor in the second. The only score likely to satisfy no-one is 5.697, so that's what he gets.