Cod Almighty | Article
by Pat Bell
15 December 2008
Part 1: The cults of Chima, Ivano and the Golden Dude
7 October 1995. Town supporters are walking to the Valley, contemplating without enthusiasm the prospect of a midfield in which Dave Gilbert had not long been replaced by Nicky Southall. Pausing to buy a programme, we scan the familiar names on the team sheet, then stop. "Hang on, who's this Bonetti?"
"This Bonetti" was slightly bow-legged, with straggling, dark hair. He revelled in the free role he was given by Brian Laws and the freedom of the pitch afforded by Charlton. Thirteen years on, just one moment remains in the mind, but it was the decisive one: after 29 minutes, Ivano Bonetti, just inside the Charlton half, hooks a ball over his shoulder beyond the defence, where Paul Jewell is running into the open space for the only goal of the game.
Thereafter, Charlton were held at bay. Bonetti, a quick-witted array of tricks and flicks, prevented them throwing too many men forward. By full time, the away following had somehow grown, from a straggle of bystanders into a bank of support, player-manager Brian Laws grinning below us like a boy who'd scrumped the plums. Bonetti, pale with fatigue, started to trudge down the tunnel, but the chants of "Ivano" could not be ignored. One of the players nudged him and gestured towards us, and he turned and clapped his arms above his head: both accepting and returning the applause.
Ivano Bonetti was not the first player from outside the British Isles to represent the Mariners. From 1911, Max Paul Seeburg, born in Leipzig, made 20 appearances for Grimsby before moving to Reading. He had lived in England since he was two, although he was still interned briefly on the outbreak of the First World War. Billy Andrews, born in Kansas City, although he was raised in and played for Ireland, made 105 appearances for Town between 1912 and 1914. On 16 December 1946, the Mariners gave a game to a Danish amateur outside-left, Edwin Hansen. Douglas Lamming skewered his performance with deadly politeness in A Who's Who of Grimsby Town: "Hansen was somewhat out of his depth in an English first division match." In 1954, we even came close to having a Hungarian coach, as Rob Briggs described in Sing When We're Fishing.
Any cosmopolitan reputation Grimsby might have enjoyed had long been lost by the 1990s, the Mariners remaining aloof as overseas players ceased to be a novelty elsewhere in England. Alan Buckley was certainly not going to be dazzled by a foreign passport, saying of one trialist: "Just because he's Brazilian, it doesn't mean he's good." The exception was most exotic, however. Chima Okorie of Nigeria had been an architecture student in Calcutta when he took up the game, scoring 200 goals in 250 appearances in Indian club football. In 1993, after trials at several English clubs, Buckley offered him a six-month contract.
Following his debut as a substitute in a draw with Sunderland, his appearance on the bench for a League Cup tie at Tranmere was enough to engender cries of "Chee-ma, Chee-ma!", cries that became more feverish as Grimsby, playing with the ponderousness characteristic of a Buckley side short on form and confidence, found themselves 4-0 down. Finally coming on, in injury time he took possession, advanced on the Tranmere penalty area, shot, and scored. It was the birth of a cult. As SWWF editor Steve Plowes wrote: "That goal, classic in its simplicity and effectiveness, appealed straight to the simple hearts of Mariner fans, impatient with the apparently aimless fripperies they had become used to."
The suspicion was that Alan Buckley did not like cults in his team but after Okorie impressed in a defeat at Crystal Palace, he was as keen as the rest of us: "Chima is exciting and different - but a little raw." Whether Buckley could have found a framework for this unorthodox talent was never discovered: after one more substitute appearance, Okorie broke his leg.
By the time he returned, the club had moved on. His last match for Town was back at Prenton Park. When Town went a goal down, one or two fans did try to start the "Chee-ma" chant, but when he came on, Town were manfully defending a 2-1 lead. He had one run, collecting the ball at the byline, grinning as he jinked past one defender before he was crowded out. The heroes of the day were at the other end, his appearance an irrelevant cameo. Released soon after, he made a brief impact at Torquay and tried his luck in Scandinavia before returning to India.
However ephemeral his impact on the field, Okorie's brief Grimsby career, lighting up a subdued start to the season, threw into relief the apathy, shading into antipathy, that existed between the club, and its manager, and the community. Sing When We're Fishing highlighted not Buckley's enthusiasm but his caution that Chima was "not Superman". The Haddocks came out rarely by then, under-inflated and limp, the double promotion forgotten, the excellence of countless cheap signings - Mendonca, Gilbert, Childs, Futcher, and the rest - somehow outweighed by the occasional failure of a Murray Jones or Rhys Wilmot. Seven months after Okorie's release, Alan Buckley had himself departed for West Bromwich Albion.
People are people, and players are players, the world over, so it is no surprise that Grimsby managers' successes and failures with foreign signings reflect their overall careers. Those who want to will find in the Chima affair ammunition for their belief either that Buckley was treated unfairly by the Mariners' support, or that his ego stood in the way of allowing talent to prosper. What no-one will question, however, is that his first successor, Brian Laws, was a very lucky young man. For his first manager's post, he inherited a settled and effective squad, within reach of the play-off places but with no particular expectations. Ivano Bonetti's arrival, a year later, was a further piece of tremendous fortune.
Laws had gone to watch a reserve match at Villa Park, scouting another player, when he found himself standing next to Bonetti, who was marking time, waiting for the start of the Japanese league season and hoping to keep himself fit. Laws suggested he visit Blundell Park.
Between the revelation at the Valley and the end of November, when Bonetti scored the only goal at Tranmere, Grimsby rose from 14th to second in the second division. Apotheosis had come along the way when more than 8,000 filled Blundell Park to watch Ivano slide in the winning goal - a tap-in which nevertheless deserved a lap of honour - against Buckley's Baggies.
The run of form was only part of the picture: this was not just sport, but romance also. Ivano's registration was held by a non-FIFA-approved agency; the club was not allowed to pay the £100,000 transfer fee required to sign him. Town supporters raised half the money, Bonetti touring the pubs and clubs to raffle shirts, and the other half Bonetti paid himself: "Is no problem. I am very fond of Grimsby and Grimsby is very fond of me." Italian tricolours were raised in honour. Suddenly, Grimsby Town were the story, not the incidental opponents of some other club, as the national media relished Ivano's self-deprecating accounts of his attempts to keep warm and to seduce the female population of North East Lincolnshire.
Brian Laws basked. Where once he had acknowledged the foundations already in place, he now painted dark pictures of the situation he had inherited, claiming players had lacked work-rate and determination before he arrived, to throw in to greater relief his triumph in curing 'the Grimsby mentality': "The only way we will fall back is through injury," he claimed.
The injury came by his own hand. Grimsby, as had become their wont since November, had slipped to defeat despite having led. Jamie Forrester had been substituted despite scoring twice, as had become his destiny. With the dubious Vance Warner at the heart of our defence, we lost 3-2 against Luton - a side at the bottom of the second division who we had beaten 7-1 a few weeks previously.
Squint, and you could imagined it was a blip: we had slipped in the league, but were still within sight of the play-offs; we had an FA Cup replay against West Ham to look forward to and Ivano Bonetti was staying to the end of the season - except that by then Ivano had no choice but to squint. His cheekbone had been broken by a plate of chicken sandwiches thrown in the dressing room by the man whose hopes of being the 'bright young manager' who took Grimsby to the top flight after an absence of almost 50 years were being inexorably frustrated.
It was the end of the affair, but the separation was protracted and forgettable. A patched-up reconciliation for the crowd was belied by the threat of legal action against club as well as manager. The FA Cup win over West Ham failed to mask poor league form that made relegation a real possibility. The Italian flavour lingered - Enzo Gambarro flittered ineffectually down the right wing in a 2-1 defeat at Leicester and Bonetti even made two more appearances - but it was not the same. Ivano had briefly masked the fact that Laws had weakened, not strengthened, the Town squad; even before Luton, we were being found out. Grimsby's miserable form continued into next season, and soon Laws had followed Bonetti out of Town, his luck having long since run out.
We never forgot the excitement of those first two months, though, as the home-grown excitements of 1998 gave way to a side that was just, but only just, good enough for the second flight, and which Alan Buckley showed no signs of rejuvenating. When Robin 'Lennie' Lawrence arrived, boasting of his international contacts, we all imagined another Ivano. Lawrence's first signing promised as much, like Bonetti supplying the winning goal against West Brom: a powerful scissor-kick celebrated with a back-flip. Buckley, on punditry duty for Sky, pointed out that the game had been won with ten players he had signed - but the eleventh, David Nielsen, from FC Copenhagen, the 'Golden Dude', fast, strong, direct and confident, provided exactly the cutting edge his side had been lacking. Lennie Lawrence definitely had some useful European contacts.
Then came Knut Anders Fostervold, from the Norwegian club Molde, a central defender played at left-back where he made us long for the safe return of Tony Gallimore. With him came the Dutchman, Menno Willems, a central defender played in midfield where his ball control was less 'total football', more total garbage. Lennie Lawrence was very pleased with his contacts, but maybe they weren't very pleased with him. In the meantime, where Bonetti, running down his career, had accepted our adulation as part payment on his worth, the ambitious young Nielsen mopped it all up and factored it into his contract negotiations. Having failed to agree terms, he signed for Wimbledon, claiming their passing game would suit him better.
Undaunted, Lawrence continued his efforts to take Grimsby into the new commercial age, signing the Chinese international defender Xhang Enhua, in the fond belief that it would have kids in Beijing flocking to wear Grimsby replica shirts, and that there was a huge Chinese population in Grimsby awaiting the spur to visit Blundell Park. Enhua, it must be admitted, scored a few useful goals in another relegation fight, but he was slow and uncertain in defence, his positioning often awry, and his presence meant dropping Peter Handyside as he was returning to fitness and showing a semblance of his ability. We lost both Handyside and Enhua - we could not afford to keep him - at the end of the season.
Lawrence, in thrall to his financial dealings and his penchant for playing people out of position, continued to make his contribution to Grimsby's bankruptcy until he was sacked in December 2001. His successor, Paul Groves, diplomatically, said Lawrence had "brought good things to the club", but, diplomatically, was never pressed to say what they were.