Fight club

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

24 July 2004

It is rare for Town's supporters and managers to see eye to eye, and it's not all sweetness and light in the Blundell Park dressing room either. The hoo-hah in 2002-03 between Paul Groves and Marcel Cas was only the latest instalment in a long-running series of GTFC barneys that make the conflict in the Middle East look like a badly sequenced bus queue. Cod Almighty's newly appointed battle historian Pat Bell looks back on a few notable skirmishes from days gone by: only a few, but enough to make a team...

Goalkeeper: Paul Reece v Alan Buckley

Towards the end of the 1991-92 season, Paul Reece emerged from three seasons in Steve Sherwood's shadow, establishing himself as Town's number one number one with a series of brave displays in a successful battle to avoid relegation. Certainly he established himself with the Pontoon for his surprising command of the penalty area, given his relatively short stature. However, Alan Buckley looked less favourably on his lapses in concentration. With both Reece and Sherwood out of contract, Buckley told them he would be looking elsewhere for a new first-choice keeper, but one contract was available for a reserve. Sherwood - by then a veteran - naturally jumped at this, while Reece hesitated and lost out, to the outrage of several Sing When We're Fishing contributors.

The controversy wouldn't go away. The new goalkeeper, Rhys Wilmot, had been well regarded at Plymouth but played much of his first season at Blundell Park with a back injury. Weak on crosses, though an occasionally excellent shot stopper, he was unable to win round those who blamed him for not being Paul Reece (or Dave Beasant, for that matter). The SWWF campaign against Wilmot led Alan Buckley to suggest that it would be better if some supporters stayed away.

History probably vindicated Buckley. Reece had short spells at a few clubs without ever establishing himself. Even Buckley re-signed him, for West Brom, suggesting that most of the heat had been on the terraces rather than the dressing room.

The story has a sad postscript. In 1995, Paul Reece, by then with Notts County, faced Town at Meadow Lane. He ran out for the second half to a warm reception, clearly looking forward to playing in front of the Town support, but promptly slipped under a harmless cross and somehow deflected the ball over his shoulder and into the goal. He spent the rest of the match as far away from us as he could physically manage.

Verdict: Buckley, by a knockout

Right-back: Tony Ford, or Grimsby Town v multiculturalism

There is nothing controversial about Tony Ford himself, but after he left for a player-coach role at Scunthorpe in 1994 Town had a few seasons as one of the only teams in the League without a black player in our first-team squad. His departure followed the arguably premature releases of Keith Alexander and Roger 'Harry' Willis, soon after Peter Furneaux, during a GTFC charity fashion parade, asked him what he did for a living. It all left a nagging feeling that someone at the club was not happy employing black players, exacerbated by the supporters who still indulged in monkey chants.

This one may never be resolved. All those departures can be justified on footballing grounds. Roger Willis' career consisted of following Barry Fry around, leading to him being described as "the worst footballer in the history of Birmingham City". Alexander went out of his way to praise the club when he left, having fallen down the pecking order. At the time, it seemed reasonable to suppose that Tony Ford was nearing the end of his playing career.

Verdict: Not proven

Left-back: Tony Gallimore

Like a pub league team, we tend to reserve the left-back slot for a player who doesn't quite fit: a ringer who is too good (Croft) or not interested (Barnard), or someone who is regarded as the worst player at the club. Hence the position frequently goes hand-in-hand with the role of supporters' official scapegoat. Kevin Jobling was a good midfielder who never consistently showed he had fully adapted to the role, and then there is Gallimore. Not much dispute really, except that while he slipped comfortably into his scapegoat niche in the minds of most supporters, a succession of managers persevered with him. It is even possible that Lennie Lawrence brought in Knut Anders Fostervold just to remind us that it is better the devil you know.

Verdict: Guilty, but given a suspended sentence

Central defender: Mark Lever v Alan Buckley

Mark Lever's career at Town overlapped almost entirely with Alan Buckley's. This is odd, as Lever would often regale the Pier with tales of how, once you fell out with Buckley, there was no way back. In the end, it was a tumble over the Reichenbach Falls for them both.

The day after Buckley left for West Brom in 1994, Lever signed a new contract, condemning him to take his part in the previously well-organised defence that became a post-Futcher shambles. The return of Buckley helped him to a Wembley man of the match award, capping a record number of clean sheets in a season.

The enthusiasm generated by the Wembley trips seeped away, and the 1999-2000 season was a grim one. The players we relied on to create goals lost form or fitness or were sold. None were replaced as the board prepared to pull the rug from under Buckley's feet. What we did still have was a rather good defence, which kept us out of serious relegation trouble. Mark Lever was at the heart of that defence, but also in the last year of his contract. He wanted a two-year contract (and Buckley out), while the club would only offer one. At the player of the year awards ceremony, he won a series of trophies to fans' chants of "sign him up". We didn't. He went off to Bristol City and got injured. We signed Paul Raven, a defender of a similar age to Lever, on terms similar to those Town had refused him. Coming from West Brom, Raven could have played like Beckenbauer on his debut and he'd still have had a hard time winning the Pontoon round. As it was, he had a stinker, and Buckley was sacked one game later.

Verdict: Mutual destruction

Central defender: Paul Futcher

By the time Futcher came to Blundell Park, he knew his own mind. He had his moments under Buckley, such as the time he was picked for a first division XI despite not being in the Town XI at the time, but generally his enduring excellence ensured survival in the first team. When Buckley left, Futcher formed a temporary managerial duo with John Cockerill, and for a month the excellent players Buckley had assembled played as though they had been released from a straitjacket. Brian Laws, a couple of years younger than Futcher, took over, and seemed to decide pretty quickly that the Town ain't big enough for the both of them. Futcher was dropped for a while, then publicly criticised for one poor performance when he was recalled. Futcher went off for a disastrous spell as manager of Darlington. Laws had a rather more violent argument with another player with a big reputation.

Verdict: No-one could ever award against Futcher

Left wing: Ivano Bonetti v Brian Laws

For a few months, Ivano Bonetti provided the spark to a Town side that was gradually being stripped of its creative players (and largely reassembled at the Hawthorns). For a heady 24 hours, we were second in the first division. The truth is that we had already passed a peak by the time Laws chose to express his frustration at losing 3-2 to a Luton side we had beaten 7-1 a few weeks before by throwing a plate of chicken sandwiches at Bonetti. However, there are Town fans who will go to their grave believing we'd have been in the Premiership but for that particular moment of madness. Laws' managership limped on for a few more months. Bonetti, after unsuccessful spells at Tranmere and Crystal Palace, became a regular source of fevered speculation for Town fans.

Verdict: Laws sentenced to managing Scunthorpe

Right wing: Tommy Watson

Tommy Watson divided opinion. He was a trier with some skill and a sharp shot, but he was brushed off the ball a bit too easily. What really earns him his place in the side is the night he and Tony Rees were sent off, for arguing with each other. Unfortunately, it was a midweek match, away from home in the Auto Windscreen Trophy, a tournament that in those days we regarded as beneath us, so the number of people who can claim to know what really happened is limited. They were both around for a good few more years, so perhaps they patched things up.

Verdict: Drawn

Holding midfielder: Bobby Mitchell/Stacy Coldicott

The same entry covers both. Town fans divide between those who regard them as good, unselfish team players who allow others to shine, or drones who contribute nothing and are carried by others.

Verdict: Voted numbers 47 and 49 in Channel 4's 'Top 100 lower-league holding midfielders'

Creative midfielder: Danny Butterfield, or Lennie Lawrence v civilisation

Town got off to a literally unbelievable start to the 2001-02 season. One heady day in October, we beat Barnsley to go top of the first division, and England beat Germany 5-1. The more perceptive among us realised this was down to the excellent form of Danny Coyne, some determined last-ditch defending and a lot of luck. A few people chose to think that in Jonny Rowan and Phil Jevons, we had uncovered a new Wilkinson and Lund partnership. No-one with half an ounce of footballing knowledge, however, thought the good start was down to our midfield, the fulcrum of which was, allegedly, Danny Butterfield. Unfortunately, the one man watching who really did think that was the one man selecting the team, boasting that he had found Butterfield's true position and that he would never again play anywhere else.

This is not so much a huge row as a giant collective scratching of heads. It did lead to a few little rows on the pitch, and the occasional mutiny, as Alan Pouton and Stacy Coldicott tried to adjust to the bewildering permutations Lawrence would conjure up to avoid playing Butterfield wide.

Sadly, Lawrence took Butterfield down with him on this one. He was sacked to the strains of roosting chickens and Butterfield's reputation at Blundell Park was shattered.

Verdict: Lawrence guilty, but not of sound mind

Striker: Alan Buckley v any striker who didn't remind him of himself

Tony Rees could easily take this slot, not only for his row with Tommy Watson, but for the fevered dispute he provoked in the pages of SWWF. The king of the backheel inspired one contributor to take out his calculator and work out to two decimal places the average number of goals we scored with him in or out of the side. He never really won people round at the time, but history has been kind to him and, like Gary Childs and Neil Woods, he is one of those players whose reputation has grown since he left. Perhaps we now tend to remember the days the flicks came off, or perhaps we now compare him to Mickael Antoine-Curier.

However, now is the time to note the huge number of strikers who fell out with Buckley, perhaps for not being short and bald enough. Lee Ashcroft was once seen with his hands around Buckley's neck, but was still picked for the next match. After another row, he was transfer-listed, reinstated, then transfer-listed again - this time not because of any row with Buckley (oh no) but to return to his north-western roots. Neil Woods left after a row with Buckley. Daryl Clare had a row with Buckley in the Blundell Park car park. It has to be said that most of these rows seemed to have a lot to do with the strikers not being picked, and that there were grounds for not picking them.

Verdict: Released with a caution

Striker: Chima Okorie

1993. Amid a scoring drought, Alan Buckley takes Chima Okorie on trial. We are getting thrashed in a League Cup tie at Tranmere when Okorie comes on and scores a wonder goal (we still got thrashed, but at least we scored). The Guardian gives his name as O'Korie - a new signing from the League of Ireland, perhaps? SWWF acts as though we've uncovered the new Pele. Five more sub appearances (but no more goals) follow, as does an injury. Buckley lets him go and is accused of not wanting anyone else to be the star in "his" team. When he is picked up by Torquay and makes a good start there, this is taken as proof Buckley made a major error. Okorie did indeed become a superstar: in India.

Verdict: Perhaps 10,000 lemmings (or at least a fair few League managers) can't be wrong after all

Has Pat got it spot on, or can you think of a scrap or two that he might have overlooked? Use the Cod Almighty feedback page to tell us.