Slow recovery: the lessons of Town's 1988-89 FA Cup adventure

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

9 November 2011

A new manager. A young, inconsistent team, near the foot of the fourth division table. They go into the first round of the FA Cup as underdogs. Just for today, let's imagine we might enjoy another cup run like 1988-89.

Pride comes before a fall, the saying goes. This is the story of a team and a town regaining their pride after the fall.

It ends... no, the end of the beginning... no, not even that. We can only say that 5 February 1989 - with 7,000 Grimsby Town fans, hundreds bringing inflatable fish, on their way to a fifth round FA Cup tie at Plough Lane against Wimbledon - was important. It was the culmination of a cup run that had beginnings, endings and milestones. Even better days were to follow, but nor did it banish the bad ones. For that, and other reasons, to look back is not only an exercise of nostalgia. There are lessons to learn.

The 1987-88 season had finished with Grimsby relegated for a second successive season, a million pounds in debt and with a playing squad you could take to matches in a minibus. When the board appointed a manager from non-League football, it was not promising. When Alan Buckley started to rebuild the squad with players recruited from Barnet, Kettering and Stafford Rangers, the jibes about preparing the club for the Conference came easily.

Early results did nothing to reassure. Just two wins and some ugly scorelines - 4-1 on the opening day at Cambridge, 0-4 and 1-3 at home to Rotherham and Rochdale - left the Mariners 22nd in the league after ten matches. The derision these performances provoked at Blundell Park was palpable. Performances were erratic, between matches, within matches. At Cambridge, for instance, the Mariners responded to conceding an early goal with football of touch, intelligence and imagination that left the home defence standing and us gaping. At its fulcrum was Richard O'Kelly, the first in a line of Buckley forwards with no obvious physical advantages and no great eye for goal but with an intelligence and technique that invited the midfield into the attack.

Unfortunately, it was the lack of a goalscoring touch that made itself felt that day; that and a callow defence. Finally equalising late in the first half after passing up chance after chance, Town immediately fell behind again. Cambridge attacks remained rare in the second half, but they scored from two of them.

This leaky defence? By mid-October, we were putting out a back four of John McDermott, Andy Tillson, Mark Lever and Paul Agnew. Apart from Kevin Jobling, who was still playing in midfield, this was the same back four that in two seasons' time would prove among the very tightest in the League. No protection from midfield, maybe? That would be down to Shaun Cunnington and John Cockerill. The duo that would be broken up only by a career-ending injury to Cockerill and the sale of Cunnington to Sunderland for a record £650,000 fee, after both had helped re-establish us in the second flight.

Fine players in the making, but the average age of that back four was 19. They were players making the transition from reserve or non-League football, as part of an entirely new set-up. And besides, if we remember them, do we remember other players who Buckley sifted through - Andy Dixon, Tony Caldwell, Steve Stoutt, Dale Banton, Chris Grocock, Tom Williams - as he tried to build a squad? Alan Buckley was no doubt not the first manager - he certainly hasn't been the last - to plead: "What we need is time."

Round 1: Wolves (h)

By the end of October, points away from home were still rare, but three consecutive home wins meant that when Wolves came to Blundell Park for the first round of the FA Cup, there were faint grounds for optimism. The victory that followed has never quite entered Mariners lore. It was, though, a remarkable win. Wolves were the biggest team in the draw, already five points clear at the top of the third division. In Andy Mutch and Steve Bull they had a strike partnership that was the envy of sides in higher divisions, and yet our youthful defence kept a clean sheet.

When people talk of filling the side with local players, players who will at least play for the badge, it is someone like John Cockerill they have in mind

The only goal was scored directly from a corner kick - by a man born in Grimsby but signed from Stafford, in his first season as a full-time professional at the age of 27. When people talk of filling the side with local players, players who will at least play for the badge, it is someone like John Cockerill they have in mind. At the sharp end of the 1990-91 season, when a second promotion hung in the balance, it would be his hard-driving determination, elbows and knees pumping like Desperate Dan, that would get Town over the line. For Cockerill, this was a beginning - his free kicks and corners an important component of setting that ball rolling.

Round 2: Rotherham (h)

If the victory over Wolves is unjustly neglected, then it still overshadows our second-round victory - yet at the time, it was a significant measure of our progress. That the draw matched us with Rotherham provoked a groan. We had lost to them three times in 19 days, in the league and the League Cup, at the start of the season. Now we faced the fourth division leaders twice more, taking encouragement from a 1-0 win in the Associate Members' Cup 12 days before we secured our place in the next round of the FA Cup with a 3-2 win.

Round 3: Middlesbrough (a)

The third round took us to Ayresome Park, where Middlebrough - 76 league places above us - had, the week before, beaten Manchester United. Nowadays there are many ways of following a game, and they bleed into each other; the supporter following the game on a laptop or mobile has a choice of radio or text commentary, supplemented by tweets and texts from those who are there. On 7 January 1989, different audiences could compare notes only afterwards. If you didn't live in Humberside, you had to content yourself with score updates on Radio 2 (this was even before the wall-to-wall sports coverage of Radio 5).

Thus, sitting at home, we got the bare fact, shortly before half time, that Bernie Slaven had put Middlesbrough 1-0 up. Meanwhile, Sing When We're Fishing reported, those at the ground were discussing among themselves how "at half-time, we knew we would not be believed when we told people back home how well Town had played".

The Mariners' defence had coped comfortably enough until the goal, when a moment's inattention by Agnew allowed Slaven a free header six yards out. Paul Reece had not had a save to make until the 20th minute, and Cunnington had had the best chance of the first half. Initially, the frustration only increased after the break, with Steve Pears in the Middlesbrough goal saving from O'Kelly and Keith Alexander shooting over.

But with 25 minutes remaining, Town won a throw-in midway inside Middlesbrough's half on the right. Before it was taken, O'Kelly was replaced by Marc North. Jobling took the throw long towards the penalty spot, where Alexander beat Gary Pallister to head the ball further towards goal. North's first touch of the match was to control the ball on the volley as he turned towards goal; his second was to drive the ball low into the net and bring the scores level.

The same three players combined again with three minutes remaining. Jobling picked up a loose ball, took it right and made just enough space for a looping cross, which fell short of the near post where Alexander was waiting, his back to goal. There should have been little threat, but Pears rushed impetuously to meet the cross, so Alexander's back header lobbed over him. North reacted quickest, diving past sets of legs to head the ball into an empty net.

For all his many achievements at Grimsby, Alan Buckley has developed an austere reputation, a suggestion that he was over-controlling of his players. Perhaps the reputation is not deserved, or perhaps he was still young in 1989. His instructions to North had been simply "run around and score some goals".

It was an occasion that did everyone, that did the sport, proud. The Grimsby players were applauded off by the Middlesbrough supporters, as Buckley was quick to acknowledge. For Marc North, though, it was the beginning of the end. He had been our prize asset the previous season, but admitted his poor form left him little room for complaint that he had started on the subs' bench. The cup run raised his profile once more and two months later he was sold to Leicester for £100,000.

Round 4: Reading (h)

The fourth round brought a different kind of test, at home to third division Reading in a game that, such had expectations risen, we were more than half expected to win. The press cuttings tell the story of this one: "Reading relieved", "Royals on the rocks", "Reading in royal reprieve". O'Kelly twice hit the crossbar and two chances were cleared off the line. Our only goal was scored by North but the limelight belonged to another player for whom this Cup run was the start of a farewell.

Saunders' transformation was such that Sing When We're Fishing speculated he'd been swapped for a lookalike

Steve Saunders, with his Eddie the Eagle looks and his awful finishing, had previously been a figure of fun at Blundell Park. But this season he had scored nine goals since mid-October. And in this match, despite an own goal that gave Reading the lead - a volley past Paul Reece, with a suggestion he had been pushed by a Reading player as he made contact with the ball - he was man of the match. His transformation had been such that Sing When We're Fishing speculated he'd been swapped for a lookalike, but it was still goodbye.

Buckley proved over the years that he was adept at finding the players he needed to perform at one level, then finding better ones. Steve Saunders was much improved, but he was no match for the man who would replace him, Dave Gilbert.

Round 4, replay: Reading (a)

The replay was no place for heart patients. Grimsby dominated the first half without scoring. Early in the second, Shaun Cunnington slipped inside his defender and shot past the Reading goalkeeper from the edge of the penalty area. Then Michael Gilkes took over. Left out of the original tie, now he ran again and again at Kevin Jobling, brought on as a makeshift right-back after an injury to John McDermott. Town's defending was desperate, but somehow it seemed we had withstood all and were reaching towards safety. Then, with seven minutes to play, Steve Moran equalised, the goal coming not from our right, where Gilkes had been rampant, but the left.

Could we, watching, have stood extra time? We never found out. Michael Gilkes, having wrought havoc in our defence, now left his own beleaguered. With four minutes to play, he tried to pass back to his goalkeeper from halfway. The ball rolled almost to a halt. After the torrid half hour he had suffered, the tables were turned as Jobling rushed past Gilkes on to the ball, taking it with complete assurance to his left to round the keeper and side-foot into the empty goal. Those of us in the away end didn't need to see it hit the net - we were a jumping, seething, swirling knot of joy.

The BBC showed the goals from the game on the breakfast news next day, the newsreader ending her talk-over, with clipped understatement: "... to the considerable excitement of the Grimsby support", the BBC's famed objectivity meeting the crazed subjectivity of hopes rising and falling, seemingly dashed then thrillingly revived, almost at the last.

Round 5: Wimbledon (a)

And so to Wimbledon, for a match laden with symbolism. Wimbledon had risen in the space of nine seasons from the Southern League to winning the FA Cup. They were held as an exemplar of what was possible for any lower-league club, but with a proviso that Alan Buckley was intent on disproving. This was that any team could be like Wimbledon, so long as they adopted Wimbledon's tactics. A combination of long balls into the opposition area and a fierce struggle for possession which tested the referee's boundaries. Vinnie Jones, suspended for the Grimsby clash, and John Fashanu were especially reviled.

There was snobbery in this, a suggestion that a passing game was the entitlement of a privileged few, and that those few were also entitled to the game's major honours. Media coverage of the Reading match had spoken not of the chance to play the cup holders, but the dubious reward of an encounter with Wimbledon. Coverage of our cup run had been muted until then, the defeat of Middlesbrough trumped by Sutton United beating Coventry. Now, though, we were the smallest team left in the competition, Wimbledon's reputation giving us slightly more than just the share of neutral support that goes to the underdog.

That much was about Wimbledon. The more important part was about Grimsby, and Grimsby Town. Three years of boardroom manoeuvring and the execrable reign of Mike Lyons had left the town apathetic as the Mariners drooped down two divisions. Suddenly people cared again. Town fans did not start the brief craze for taking inflatables to matches, but when the Grimsby Evening Telegraph caught the mood by marketing Harry the Haddocks, it created the most enduring of those toys. The fish are, of course, really rainbow trout; like the rainbow, they were a kind of covenant between the team and the town.

The game itself played up to the occasion, a huge bank of Town support on an open terrace behind one goal, inflatable haddocks, interspersed with the odd banana and a blow-up doll, jutting up into the sky. A strong wind blew into our faces and the pitch was heavy; both factors that, against the stereotype of a cup tie between teams three divisions apart, favoured Wimbledon. After 15 minutes, Grimsby, playing with that wind in the first half, won a series of corners and with one, John Cockerill's kick found Keith Alexander rising above the Wimbledon defence to head the ball down and into the Wimbledon goal.

If the 1988-89 cup run is remembered for any one player, it is remembered for Keith Alexander. But that was his first Cup goal. Three years later, a Middlesbrough-supporting colleague, seeing my Grimsby Town mug, would ask after the tall black player he saw only once, "giving Gary Pallister (one of the finest English defenders of his time) the runaround". The match reports on the first Reading game talk of his "brilliant approach work" (while also noting his fallible finishing) and in the replay his uncanny ability to bring both his gangling limbs and any ball under control, no matter how awkwardly placed, lit up the first half. Alexander played no more than 86 times for Grimsby, scoring 28 goals, but his emotional as much as his physical stature dwarfs many players who have followed. Like a long shadow in the early morning sun, he was the promise of a sunny day to come.

Fashanu slid and grappled at Steve Sherwood as he dived, finally crashing into the goalkeeper as the ball crossed the line

His goal must have sparked celebrations, but nothing like the euphoria following Jobling's winner at Reading. There was a sense instead of a storm coming. Before half time, Wimbledon had a header bounce off the crossbar and at half time we muttered about the threat they would pose, playing with the wind behind them.

The match turned on three minutes just before the hour. First a Dennis Wise shot deflected off Mark Lever and trickled towards the far post. Fashanu slid and grappled at Steve Sherwood as he dived, finally crashing into the goalkeeper as the ball crossed the line. There was that curious pause, one team celebrating, the other frozen, the away support stunned, questioning, looking to the referee. Afterwards, I remember someone suggested the referee had been waiting for a cue from the Town players so he could disallow the goal, but there was only that numb pause.

It was one of the incidents that the media, in their disdain for the Dons, tried to play up. Grimsby proved gracious in defeat. Rough tactics? "Not half as tough as Scarborough or Lincoln," Alexander replied. A foul on the goalkeeper? The ball had already crossed the line, Sherwood told the press. The second goal, minutes later, brooked no argument: a well-paced, well-placed cross from Wise which Terry Phelan dived to head home. Wimbledon could also play a bit.

One last time, Town poured forward, the expectation rising as Marc North moved from right-back to attack in search of an equalising goal. The ball held up on the heavy pitch but still we passed our way forwards. The action, at the far end of the ground from the Town support, was hard to discern, but almost on 90 minutes, after Hans Segers in the Wimbledon goal had made a couple of saves, we made out North shooting and the net rippling. Our cheers were checked by a flag for offside and from the restart the Dons broke upfield, Wise turning at close range to score the final goal.

And that was that? The team was in place, and our pride in it restored, and no-one looked back, all in the space of scarcely half a season? Not quite. A month or so later, we fell to our worst defeat in a season that had started with bad defeats: 5-0 at Orient. Two sides were vying to avoid the one relegation slot into the Conference: Darlington and Colchester. Grimsby did not register a single win against either, letting slip a 2-0 lead at home to Colchester.

Ah yes, but there was momentum, and with the club moving in the right direction, wasn't it easier to recruit better players like Gilbert, Garry Birtles and Gary Childs? Up to a point. But in early November the following season, our league position was 17th, little better than it had been when the cup run began. By the end of January, we were still only 12th, just one of many teams with a vague aspiration to a place in the play-offs.

Time truncates time, the troughs hidden by the peaks. The 1988-89 FA Cup run will remain among the fondest memories of all of us who lived it, and in part because it did lead on to even better things. But do not for a moment imagine that this was a smooth and steady ascent. Even in our rising pride, there were falls. Even in our greatest times, there was frustration and disappointment. Even in the most dramatic of turnarounds, we needed patience and forebearance.

What are your memories of the '88-89 cup run? What does it suggest about Town's current situation? Use the Cod Almighty feedback form to tell us.