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Keith Alexander, 1956–2010
4 March 2010
I can't quite believe Keith Alexander is dead. I can't quite believe he's watched his last football match. And that happened not half a mile from where I'm sitting writing this. I can't quite believe it all.
Often, deaths in football pass me by, with a perhaps too nonchalant shrug of the shoulders. Sure, it's terrible when an old player dies, but unless you're of a certain age and of a certain persuasion, then it's no more horrific than when anyone else dies.
But Big Keith's passing is personal to me. It's hit me harder than any other football-related death that I can think of. And why? Because, like most Town fans my age, we still cling to those magical three seasons of football when Alan Buckley came to Blundell Park and transformed the team into something to be proud of. And Keith Alexander was part of that. And so this is personal.
Whenever there's been a false dawn – a decent result amid all the gloom – over the past few seasons, I always think back to when Town beat Wolves 1-0 in the first round of the FA Cup in 1988. A goal, straight from a corner, and a Town team struggling to find its feet under Buckley in the wrong half of the fourth division would go on a dizzy cup run that would reach its zenith at Plough Lane, when, halfway through the first half, Keith Alexander would head in the opening goal and send 7,000 Town fans crackers.
Alexander was brought to Blundell Park by Alan Buckley from Barnet. As a player he'd been around the non-League scene for years, starting off at Notts County before moving around the midlands leagues for years without much success. Buckley had him for two seasons at Kettering in the mid-1980s before he moved to Barnet, and Buckley, in those days, rarely forgot a decent player.
Big Keith moved to Grimsby at the start of the 1988 season and, while Town struggled to string two wins together until around March time, Alexander prospered under Buckley's playing style. Alexander might not have been the quickest, but he was strong and, while he never really gave you the impression he had a clue what was going to happen five seconds hence, the ball seemed to stick to his feet. He must've been a bugger to play against.
After Christmas in that '88-89 season Town eventually found their feet, but the cup run, combined with a sticky start, meant that they just fell short of the play-off places, finishing ninth, with a 5-0 thrashing at Leyton Orient on April Fool's Day finally ending any chance of sneaking into the top seven.
Me and my mate Dave had started going to see Town regularly the season before, during the torrid Bobby Roberts reign, and so the '88-89 season will always stay with me as one of hope. We had new heroes, and Big Keith was one of them. Often he was funny – sometimes unintentionally so – but he knew his limits, and if one of his trademark 'Bambi on ice' runs fizzled out with him in a heap, the Pontoon would still cheer his name, and he'd still give us the thumbs up, smiling.
The 1989-90 season will live forever in my memory as my favourite Town season of all time. We were simply brilliant that year, and although Keith was being used more and more as a substitute, he still gave his all for the team. You'll have to forgive me if some of the details are sketchy – or just plain wrong – because finding information on the internet on football from that era is tricky, but I remember Keith scoring a terrific goal against Doncaster from the edge of the 18-yard box. Even he looked surprised.
There were those who said he couldn't head a ball, but they were wrong. Keith came off the bench once at Maidstone when Town were 2-1 down after a missed Gary Childs penalty, and he nodded in a late goal to give us a point.
Promotion to the third division at the end of the glorious '89-90 season meant that Buckley needed better players, and I think even Keith would've admitted that, as he approached his mid-30s, he probably wasn't up to the job. Buckley sold him to Stockport County, but what we wouldn't give now for a striker with as much heart, and, let's not forget, skill. And, to get right down to brass tacks – what we wouldn't give for a striker who could score 26 goals in two seasons of the best football I've seen at Blundell Park.
I never fell in love with Buckley's second great Town side the way I did with the first one. Maybe that was something to do with age, maybe it was something to do with the fact that we weren't starting from such a low base second time around. Or maybe it was something to do with players like Keith Alexander: players you thought you almost knew, and who you could trust to do their best for you every Saturday afternoon. They're so few and far between nowadays.
So, Keith, goodbye. And thank you for the two of the best seasons of football any teenage Town fan will ever have the privilege to have witnessed. We miss you already.
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