Do you want to know a secret?

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Tony Butcher

1 August 2003

Grimsby Town 2 Middlesbrough 1

Only if you promise not to tell, as it was after all a "behind a very open back door" friendly with Middlesbrough's reserves. The scoreboard briefly flickered into life, but didn't reel off the two teams, so it was guesswork for the Boroboys. Or a quick scan of their official site, to reveal their squad as: Crossley, Russell, Davies, Gulliver, Queudrue, Morrison, Smith, Downing, Johnston, Marinelli, Cade, Close and Wilson. But their official site didn't reveal the hair, for there is clearly a hirsutical hierarchy. Those who haven't been in the first team: shaven-headed. Those who have sat on the first-team coach: bearded. Those who have actually, factually played in the Premiership: the 'tip a plate of spaghetti over my head' look. Highlights-a-go-go. Mmm, the two beards looked like they should be sat in a glass booth in The Hague.

And I haven't got to describing the big centre-back. At first, as the scintillatingly sizzling sun sparkled off his locks, it seemed he'd stolen Colin Hendry's hair from 1989. Then it struck, like an arrow through the forehead. It was a cross between the famous Futcher feathercut circa 1976 and a Midwich cuckoo. Magnificent, and the season hasn't even started yet.

Town lined up in a 4-4-2 formation as follows: Pettinger, Crowe, Crane, Ford, Barnard, Campbell, Hamilton, Bolder, Anderson, Ten Heuvel and Boulding. The substitutes were Hughes, Ward, Hildred, Wheeler (all unused), Mansaram, Young, Rowan, Edwards and Hockless. Paul Groves spent the first half sat alone in the middle of the Main Stand with a little piece of paper and a pen, making gnomic notes, or perhaps a series of questions to be answered. "Can Crowe defend?"; "is Boulding getting fitter?"; "who is that young man sat to my right wearing a Town kit?". The answer to that final question, my fine feathered friend, is Phil Jevons, who was slumped next to Davison and McDermott in the press box.

A couple of the Middlesbrough reserves were confused by a mobile phone. It rang, they stared at it, they held it, they continued to stare at it until an old geezer walked up and pointed to the big button on the top.

First half

Middlesbrough kicked off towards the Pontoon, and Town got the ball occasionally. For the first 20 minutes a footballing lesson was conducted, free of charge, by the visiting emeritus professors of pomp. Tip, tap, tip, tap, pass, move, spin, twist, flick and shoot. They may be reserves, but they had organisation and speed of foot and thought. They were simply two leagues better than the Town players and it was reminiscent of when English teams get flushed down the UEFA Cup toilet in September. We huff and puff gallantly, but they slickly make us sick with a blur of one-twos.

Within the first 10 minutes Town should have been at least three down. Firstly the goal, though, after a just a few minutes. Anderson, on the Town left, was dispossessed just inside the Boro half; and they broke forward in numbers, driving towards the centre, exchanging passes and tapping the ball through the centre-backs for a striker to run on to. He controlled the ball and, as Pettinger half came out, rolled it sideways to another unknown footsoldier on their left, who calmly stroked the ball into the empty goal from just inside the penalty area. The Town defence had been shredded, with Crowe perhaps the furthest out of position, not knowing whether to come across to cover the centre-backs or mark his winger. In the end he was just standing around looking lost.

Another couple of minutes of Middlesbrough possession ended up with another shot, this time Marinelli, just outside the penalty area on the centre left, thwacked a thumping great drive against the underside of the crossbar. Phew, what a scorcher! And again, a few minutes later, a quick break, some exquisite one-touch flicks and tricks and suddenly a striker was inside the area alone, with just Pettinger to beat. Out came the blue-clad youngster and the ball ricocheted away off his shins. A good block from the previously startled rabbit.

Take as read that Middlesbrough had more shots, which went close, after marvellous interchanging. Most went wide, just. A few were on target but Pettinger began to grow, literally. It must have been all that fertiliser in the goalmouth. Doesn't the pitch look good! Where previously he seemed to shrivel as they approached, he began to fill the goal with his super-wide arms. He made a couple of excellent plunging, plucking saves and was well positioned at free kicks such that the ball came straight to him.

Bolder and Hamilton were very cumbersome in the centre, for Middlesbrough just played around and between them. Neither were capable of running as quickly as the red menacers, and so the defence faced waves of Boroboys flowing towards them like rain into a paper cup, straight down the centre. Every Middlesbrough player moved when they attacked. Now that's something Town won't face in the second division. Hamilton looked very sluggish to start with, having one pace and a need to wind himself up, like a tuppenny toy, before he moved. But when he does move he's a bit like an oil tanker; mayhem ensues when he collides with rocks and smaller shipping. Anderson was almost invisible, spending his time betwixt and between defence and attack, seemingly more concerned with covering for Barnard when our slimline tonic at left-back stormed down the wing, overlapping at will. A sight not seen at Blundell Park for decades, a free roaming, rampaging left-back.

Town had sporadic attacks, with the best move being a surge down the right and a rolling pass from Campbell into Ten Heuvel's feet, about 10 yards out wide of goal. The Dutchman held the ball up and the defender off, and caressed it inside to the unmarked Boulding, who mis-hit the shot into the side netting. Campbell, again conspicuous by his attendance, smacked a shot wide from 20 yards, dribbled one straight to Crossley and was generally a busy little bee, prompting, probing and pulling some finely made strings.

Now Ten Heuvel had a harder time than against Boston, but still managed to produce moments of hope with post-Woodsian rolling flicks and intelligent use of his chest. There is the merest hint of the Island of Dr Moreau about him with his long neck and De Boer brothers forehead. But so what? It's not a beauty pageant, it's football - but not as we know it, for two strikers striking make five gold rings. Boulding/Ten Heuvel is certainly a work in progress, with an understanding starting to emerge.

And the half ended, but not before some excitement. Middlesbrough had long since started a continental drift towards a cup of tea, with Town grinding forward, finding little holes in the Boro fence. Groves suddenly shouted: "C'mon Barney - clock," which must be a contender for first toilet talk of the season. And Barnard duly obliged by running down the touchline. His first cross was blocked but the ball rebounded to him. He spun and clipped a lovely, low, curling cross into the very heart of the six-yard box. Crossley flapped on his line and Boulding threw himself at the ball and produced a flicking, rolling, tumbling header into the centre left of the goal. Groves leapt up, punched the air and exclaimed: "Yes!" Yes indeed.

From the restart, Middlesbrough rolled the ball back and a centre-back knocked a slow pass across the face of the penalty area, between Crossley and the left-back. Campbell ran on and mis-hit a cross-shot from eight yards out.

And that was the first half. A salutary lesson for 20 minutes, and then gradually Town got the ball and were able to create a few moments of danger. The defence looked very vulnerable to fast breaks and especially players carrying the ball towards them. Ford seemed to have woken up half an hour after everyone else, for Simon the Somnambulist dreamed his way through the first 30 minutes, then he woke up, the sun was shining, he was among friends. Crowe has no idea where to stand, nor how to tackle, his method being to collide with the nearest opponent. He'd be the fifth best right-back at Town were he to be signed. He did make a couple of decent forays upfield though, and produced two very dangerous crosses, dipping in low to the near post.

Second half

Neither team made any changes at half time, though Groves moved down to dictate from the touchline and bark out instructions to each and every player. You will be happy to know that they all did what they were told.

Now this was a lot better, for Town dominated from the start, with the opposition happy to stroll around and have a couple of breakaways now and again. Or, in the case of Queudrue, practise kicking the opposition. Hamilton started to show off a couple of tricks, which were based around not touching the ball with his feet (a good idea as he sometimes has the touch of a clumsy mule). Disco Desmond left his barrel in the marketplace, dropping his shoulders to perform some nifty dummies, which started a couple of attacks off nicely.

Crowe, after a mazy run down the touchline and then infield, smacked a left-footed drive straight to Crossley from the edge of the penalty area. A couple of minutes later a super Town move began as the ball was shuffled down the left. Anderson stepped inside and clipped a delicate chip over the defence to Ten Heuvel, beyond the far post and half a dozen yards out. Ten Heuvel let the ball roll down his chest and wellied a half volley just over the crossbar. Should have scored really, but what a lovely move. And again, another move down the Town left with Anderson dribbling to the by-line and dinking a cross beyond the far post to the unmarked Crowe, about three yards out, who headed firmly across goal. The ball hit Ten Heuvel - who was standing virtually on the goal line - on the back of the neck and was cleared. Hey, wow, like, cool, man. Twice in one game a Town player had drifted into space at the far post. That's something that is usually done to us.

After about an hour, Bolder was replaced by Edwards, who went to right-back. Crowe moved up to right midfield and Campbell took over in the centre. A well-chosen phrase, that, for Campbell controlled the game for half an hour, being the fulcrum of every bit of Town magic. He passed, he tackled, he ran - just about everything you need from a central midfielder. Except the pointing, which Hamilton did a lot. As well as squealing like a Premiership pig, for when touched he yelped and won free kicks, just like the spaghetti heads.

Middlesbrough were not moribund as an attacking force, for Pettinger was required to make a diving flip away from his far post following a flicked header and a couple of brave blocks at the feet of onrushing midfielders. Nor forgetting (as I almost did) a very good plunge to his left to claw away a curling cross-shot. It wasn't until the very end that our very reserved opponents put any concerted pressure on the Town goal, with a series of corners, all of which were curled into the middle of the area and were all bundled away by Crane, Ford and Hamilton.

Edwards started a bit ropily, but improved, doing the sensible thing of simply standing near his opponent. He looked a decent utility defender, nothing fancy, someone making the most of his abilities. Not a first teamer, but an occasional emergency player. One should always have a band aid in the first aid kit. Crane got over his awkward fall in the first half, and didn't seem unduly perturbed. He is not silent either, being a big shouter, telling off many of his more senior colleagues for loose passing or lack of concentration.

Ah, the second goal. You want to know about that, don't you. Marvellous magic meanderings through the centre. Town won possession and tapped the ball through the middle, where Campbell played a perfect pass through the centre-backs. Crowe belted in from the wing, reaching the ball before the goalkeeper, and from the centre right of the penalty area poked the shot low into the bottom right corner. A very un-Town-like goal in its execution. What did I hear you say? "A second goal is un-Town like, no matter how it's scored."

Town made a bunch of substitutions in the last quarter of an hour with Crowe, Ford, Boulding and Ten Heuvel being replaced by Young, Mansaram, Rowan and Hockless. It didn't stop Town's ascendancy, with Mansaram instantly confusing them with his party piece - the Human Octopus. Limbs everywhere and the ball suddenly near goal. Panic and only the plunging goalkeeping stopped the ball trickling in at the near post. Town even indulged in some one-touch mickey taking, ending with Disco Des's shinned chip up the wing. He contributed a one-word comment just prior to the ball exiting the ground. No-one disagreed with his summary, which was more accurate than his pass. Hey, at least he's honest.

The game ended with some Middlesbrough pressure, but no substance. In the end a deserved win - but those first 20 minutes or so really showed up the gulf in ability between a Premiership reserve team and a second division squad. There were a lot of good things to see: Ten Heuvel's flicking; Boulding's 1,000 per cent improvement from Boston (he was competitive and fighting for everything); Campbell's omnipresence; Barnard's overlapping; Crane's height; Pettinger's increasing confidence. Anderson did very little and Hamilton is clearly not yet fit. Big Des did enough to be interesting, with the jury half way out, but not minded to convict. Crowe is the tricky one, for he showed some pace when playing as a right winger and scored a very good goal, but nothing else much. He doesn't seem to have any tricks, nor any notion of defending. If we just want a fast right winger we already have Cas, who is taller and seems to be a better defender too.

So in all in all it was another brick in Groves' wall. The thumbs are up, we have a better squad than this time last year.

Nick0's man of the match

Stuart Campbell it just has to be, especially in the centre. The competition for places in midfield has certainly concentrated his mind wonderfully.