The making of a Mariner

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

12 August 2010

"Who will you support if Grimsby get relegated?" The question from my concerned family seemed to recur, an unfailing portent of spring, with slightly greater insistence each year. The answer was always clear, of course. The difficulty is in explaining the very impossibility of the question, why the thing we are meant to do for fun can turn a Saturday afternoon into a torment, unable either to enjoy or to ignore the game. You have to look back to work out how you got here, acutely over-sensitive to the noises of the crowd coming out of your radio.

A fan is made of memories, their own and other people's, that have entered deep into their being. Unravel them, and you begin to understand the compulsion that takes you to matches - relegation six-pointers between two sides of little skill and less nerve - with no prospect of pleasure.

Initiation: Grimsby 1 Darlington 1, 10 April 1971

Deep in the recesses of my seven-year-old brain, this felt like the real thing.

The date and Darlington are guesses: it was a draw, and it would have been at Christmas or Easter. What I remember is the scene: the bright green of the pitch framed in the gloom of the low roof of the stand, the stanchions and the grey and brown clothes of the crowd, all imbued with the to me exotic scent of decades of cigarette smoke. The other side equalised late in the game, and I must have wanted Grimsby to win, although it would be a few years before they became my team, as it is the emotion that has stayed with me: the disappointment and the hope that we could score again choked when the match ended straight after the restart. The player who had kicked off shrugged aside the man he'd passed to, stooped to gather the ball and punted it in a high parabola into the depths of the crowd. Even a seven-year-old could see the gesture was borne entirely out of frustration, not at all of celebration.

It was far from being my first game, but the experience of mucking around on the grass banks behind the goals of Aberystwyth's Park Avenue, paying occasional attention to the game, was too far removed from the football highlights I saw on television to count. It was not even my first league game. Our mother (no kind of a football follower) had taken us with her sister's family to watch a high-scoring Hull game. Football to a boy in the early 70s was a very male thing. The trip to Boothferry Park felt like a family outing; going to a game with my grandfather and father, both Grimsby supporters, and two older brothers was a rite of passage.

Triumph: Grimsby 5 Charlton 0, 12 April 1974

We had friends from London who had taken us to the Valley, so when our Easter trip to Cleethorpes coincided with the visit of Charlton it gave an extra edge to the outcome. Five-nil flattered us - three goals came in a rush early in the second half after we'd been clinging to a 1-0 lead. I was old enough for some of the players to have their own identities within the team. Jimmy Lumby scored from a rebound, a few yards from goal, and Frank Barton finally scored from distance, after he'd sent a couple of earlier attempts cannoning off the roof of the Osmond stand. (The geography of the ground was also beginning to take shape.)

Soon after, my older brother suggested we start supporting Grimsby - we'd been following Liverpool up until then. Town were on the up, a good third division side, where four years before we'd been battling re-election. It almost felt like glory hunting. Somewhere along the way, to get you started, there does have to be the knowledge that supporting a team can end happily. As the McMenemy revival faded, this win had to serve for several seasons.

"People began to realise I was serious when I started buying newspapers just because they had match reports from our 1979 League Cup run"

Identity: Chelsea 3 Grimsby 0, 11 October 1980

My school mates in Aber supported the teams they saw on television. The kids who weren't interested in sport would, when football was mentioned, loudly claim support for Rochdale. If you didn't support a first division team, it was assumed you didn't like football and were just taking the piss. People began to realise I was serious when I started buying newspapers just because they had match reports from our 1979 League Cup run.

One day in October a boy I scarcely knew noted with a wry smile that his team, Chelsea, were playing Grimsby on Saturday. For him, it was a sad acceptance of Chelsea's new low status - my first exposure to the sentiment behind "the likes of Grimsby". For me, it was an acknowledgement that I really did support Town, that it was part of my identity. From then on, there was no turning back.

He didn't bother to tease me about it when we lost 3-0, mind.

Rationale: Grimsby 1 Manchester City 1, 4 February 1984

The early 1980s pretty much passed me by as university and socialist politics took a hold of my life, but one Saturday I was wondering how to spend the evening when the conviction gripped me that the Mariners would be on Match of the Day.

I'd not seen the score, so I exclaimed at every chance Town had to equalise, my landlord's girlfriend watching with amused detachment. This was not at all my serious-minded, young adult self, and my behaviour needed rationalising. I knew very little about City, but when I'd followed these things they'd been a big club, and rich, surely.

"This represents the class struggle, you know," I told Faye. "Grimsby are the proletariat, Manchester City the bourgeoisie." I think she thought I was joking; I probably thought I was. Paul Wilkinson was no doubt a subconscious Marxist - he secured a 1-1 draw.

To many, supporting your home town team must be reason enough. And when I went back to Cleethorpes for the first time in a decade a few years later, I had the same sense of homecoming excitement, the same swelling in my heart, the same impulse to stand up before a carriage load of strangers and call out: "This is my home, and I'm proud of it" that I had felt before only when returning to Aberystwyth. But Grimsby is almost two generations removed from being my home town. Instead, the sense of being a small team, battling the odds, is a large part of the emotional appeal that binds me to the Mariners. The craftsmanship of the first Buckley side, with its emphasis on teamwork over star names, would prove ideal to burnish the sentiment.

Community: 2 February 1988, Gillingham 1 Grimsby 1

Across the ground, on an open corner, an enthusiastic cheer went up from a knot of people as the Town side ran on to the pitch. I realised I was in the wrong place.

I had been late arriving for this evening game and had hurried through the first turnstile I came to, prepared to stand amicably amid the home support as I had done at Aldershot two months before - the first Town game I'd attended in the 1980s. The cheer told me that the full experience of watching Grimsby depended on me standing amid my own kind. I had to be part of what I had come to observe.

"On the best days, players and supporters are united, and the experience becomes more than just a game: it becomes an expression of community"

A steward good-naturedly escorted two of us around the ground, bringing the away contingent, the police took great delight in saying, to 26. I eavesdropped on Town conversations, joined in with them and continued them travelling back on the train to London, sharing my meagre store of reminiscences from games I'd seen in the seventies.

Twenty-six people at Gillingham committing to the same cause was just a less spectacular manifestation of the phenomenon that saw, a year later, almost 100 times more people waving inflatable fish at Plough Lane. And, a decade later, more than 1,000 times more people at Wembley. It is not just about numbers: it is about shared chants and songs, shared memories of players and matches good and bad. It is how we save and shape and build our heritage. You bond not only with a team but with the people who follow the team, part of something bigger than yourself, and on the best days, players and supporters are united, and the experience becomes more than just a game: it becomes an expression of community.

One more silver lining: 5 April 2010: Accrington 2 Grimsby 3

Grimsby were two goals down and we were watching our League existence gently subside. I had forgotten the standby I've had to bring out all too often over the last 40 years; to fight the flatness that comes of watching Town let in a second goal, I'd say to myself: "It's my ambition to watch Town win from 2-0 down." It had never worked before, but now, before one goal had time to seem like a cruel toying with our hopes, a second and a third followed, and we won quite comfortably. The win proved to be part only of a larger, crueller toying with our hopes, but it was a wonderful day; an awful season but a wonderful day.

In the absence of triumph, there are small moments of pleasure, before, during or after the game, on or off the pitch, that you can retrieve against an advancing tide. It was almost worth the winless run we endured in 2008 to be there with my son, his eyes shining, when it ended at Bury, a moment of true community. The gifted but cynical Michael Reddy was a perfect symbol of the Russell Slade side, and the game we drew at Rochdale, after holding up play in the corners instead of seeking a third goal, a symbol of why it fell short. Even so, the Cruyff turn with which Reddy set up our second goal lives on beyond the disappointment of two dropped points.

Not long after Brian Laws had broken Ivano Bonetti's cheekbone, we found ourselves at Selhurst Park, five down with 45 minutes to play. I remember nothing of that first half: what I remember is the chanting and the dancing as we drew the second half nil-nil. And, as I listened to John Tondeur pronouncing the last rites on our League existence at Burton, I could hear behind him Town voices singing out their enduring love for the club.

There are few rights for a Town supporter, whatever I thought in the afterglow of that 5-0 win against Charlton. to be identified with Grimsby can feel like shouldering a responsibility. Too many of us have been spoilt by two decades of outstanding achievement. The dignity in defeat of the voices that sang their way into the Conference at Burton was lost in the self-pitying sense of entitlement that manifested itself in the ugly behaviour that followed. Few rights, but the responsibility brings surprising rewards. Old triumphs can make the present taste sour, but the silver linings, the moments of surprising pleasure, endure and enrich. To turn your back on your team is to deny yourself the pleasure you take in calling them to mind, to turn your back on friends and forebears, to give in to a view of the game that reduces the supporter to the role of consumer. To stop supporting Grimsby would be to turn my back on myself.

Now if that doesn't strengthen your spirits ahead of Town's exile in the wilderness, we don't know what will. If you'd like to comment on Pat's article please use the Cod Almighty feedback form.