Failed in Wales: Cheltenham (play-off final)

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Tony Butcher

28 May 2006

Grimsby Town 0 Cheltenham Town (accidental) 1

We weren't even supposed to be here today.

A bright, breezy afternoon in a land far, far away, in a stadium far, far away from the heritage wood and wicker man contraptions we know and love. Oooh, look at the plastic! Oooh, look at the clean stairs! Oooh, look at all those lonely people - where do they all come from? Thirty thousand souls swimming in a fishbowl: dwarfed by the monstrous Millennium Stadium, awed by the awnings and the awful anticipation of disappointment.

Town lined up in a 4-4-2 formation as follows: Mildenhall, Croft, Whittle, Jones the Stick of Rock, Newey, Mendes, Bolland, Woodhouse, Parkinson, Reddy and Jones the chief Umpa-Lumpa. The substitutes were Jean-Paul Kamugettinouttahere, Futcher, Cohen, Toner and Goodfellow. Mendes started on the right wing with Parkinson on the left. Ah, such attacking intent: Russ's wingful wonders to use the whole wide world of the Millennium pitch.

Pitch? Did I hear you say "pitch"? Is there an embarrassing double booking? Have they arranged the Mad May Monster Truckfest by mistake? Or maybe Farmstock '06? I can see the farmyard dogs trailing their chains in the mud. Nope, my mistake, it's two dozen young men in tight shorts having a gay old time romping around the pitch with flags. They weren't quite whipping each other with towels for our pre-match entertainment: that'd give Mighty Mariner too much material for next year's routines.

The side with the TV cameras was populated by a thin strip of Mariners in the cheap seats, while the media rattled their jewellery in splendid isolation, 50 feet above. Let's hope wee Georgie Kerr had a safety rope. It's not a tent George!

Cheltenham played in their usual shirts accompanied by a white shorts and sock ensemble, ideal for frolicking through the Cotswolds to the sound of von Holst on a summer's eve. P is for players; they had some, in a 4-4-2 formation dance. Play that fiddle, Grandpappy.

Deep beneath the rolling waves of Town support was a single tubby ball boy, standing directly above a high-voltage electricity cable. It's the only explanation I can find for his hair: it's electrifying!

Mr Russell Slade, the man presently employed to manage Grimsby Town Football Club, wore a pale suit and even paler tie. Would Town be a pale imitation too?

Hang on - it's a bank holiday, isn't it. B&Q are having a half-price sale: it's only £2.49 for a roll of turf. You'd have thought they'd have nipped down the Tiger Bay Retail Park to snap up those bargain sods. Have I mentioned that the pitch was rubbish?

Yes, yes, yes: fireworks and loud music as the players came out. Get on with it.

First half
Cheltenham kicked off towards the Town fans. After several minutes Town managed to kick the ball into the Cheltenham half. That was, all agreed, a successful second and well worth the journey and expense. Things were looking up. Well, we were actually looking down, but we're talking metaphorically, not literally.

Within the first minute Town were threatened by shadows in the light, being exposed on the right. Mendes positioned himself perfectly to be mumbled past and Wilson went on a surfin' safari before wimpling a long cross over and through the area. Mildenhall watched, Stick and Whit botched, and the ball drifted a foot or so beyond some kind of Cheltenham foot.

Hoof it, hump it, clump it, dump it into the stands. The single ball boy went in search of the lost treasure, disappearing under vast swathes of empty polystyrene. You'd have though they'd have employed more than one ball boy. Double rates on Sunday though, I suppose. Gotta keep the costs down, gotta give value for money, gotta keep the customer satisfied. Hear that last bit, Town?

A few minutes in, a Cheltenhamite wellied a slashing clearance forward from somewhere in his own half. The Stick of Rock waited in the centre as the ball bazoombled off the mudslide and Gillespie ran across, noodling it off Jones's head and into a huge space between Mildenhall and humanity. Off Gillespie streaked, the ball skipping off the sodden cowfield and into the area. Mildenhall rushed off his line, throwing himself forward, and Gillespie toe-poked a shot against the Big M's chest. Rolling, rocking, riding out along the bay, the ball rippled along the side of the net for a corner. Phew, phew and thrice phew.

A couple of minutes later a Cheltenhamite wellied a slashing clearance forward from somewhere in his own half. The Rickety Sock waited in the centre as the ball dropped and bounced high. Higher still rose the Jones, who looped a soft header back towards Mildenhall. Err, that's if the pitch had been 20 yards shorter. Guinan bounded free, unburdened by human contact; bouncing once, bouncing twice and with the net waiting to the seduced, a rubbish volley looped straight at Mildenhall's chin. He, the lordly keeper of the flame-grilled clean sheet, caught it with the disdainful air of a sommelier who'd been asked for two lager tops and a Babycham, one with a cherry, one without.

A vague, faint, almost imperceptible whimper was heard way off in the distance. If the Cheltenham supporters could hear us they would be no match for our untamed wit.

I'm still waiting for something to happen inside the Cheltenham half. Town ceded the wings and the Robins twittered from branch to branch, nibbling on Town's discarded nuts. It would have been nice if the groundsman had seeded the wings, but that's a meteorological story. I did say the pitch was poor, didn't I? How can Town be expected to aimlessly whack the ball into the air on a pitch like that?

Is Bolland playing? Is Woodhouse playing for them? Have Town passed the ball yet? Oooh, look - another Cheltenham shot, deflecting wide, and another spinning wildly wide like a turnip on a string. Wasn't that a Eurovision winner in 1967? This Town are just like a merry-go-round with all the fun in the air. Are they leading us on?

As the game disintegrated the hooter levels rose exponentially. These irritating cheap hooters are the equivalent of methadone: substituting pure, unadulterated groans for Sky-friendly honks. Ban them, ban them all to Hell! Do professional footballers get stimulated by the sound of geese? Premiership excepted, of course.

And so it came to pass. To Parkinson. Nudged on by Reddy, Parky tickled the ball infield to Woodhouse, unmarked 20 yards out in the centre. The Mudmouse lazily lashed his left foot towards the on-coming airbag and wastefully wafted the ball way over the bar. A minute later Woodhouse wastefully wafted a free kick into the Cheltenham fans.

Shocking, positively shocking.

After about 25 minutes Reddy headed Armstrong inside the Cheltenham penalty area. Both stayed down, both came off, both were substituted after a long delay, with Reddy being taken directly to the Luton & Dunstable Hospital, his local. I don't care who came on for them, but Cohen came on for Town. Mendes stayed on the wing, so it was a straight swap.

Gradually Town improved, attaining a state of passable inadequacy. Cohen moved quickly and that flustered Cheltenham for a while. It was still a rotten game, with Cheltenham constantly exposing Town's flanks, but shinning a succession of crosses straight out for goal kicks.

What was that?

Parkinson fiddled about on the left, dribbling past one defender, then another, and deep into the penalty area. Caines poked out his right leg, then withdrew it. Parkinson fell over and the referee awarded a… goal kick. Ah yes, the referee: it's him, isn't it. The diabolical dullard from Dertfordshire: he never gives us anything. So if it wasn't a penalty why didn't he book Parkinson for diving?

Minutes trickled past and the attempts at creating a football atmosphere were defeated by the yawning chasm before us. The decibels were defeated by an open roof, sucking out the life from the Cyberdome.

At last! Town have an effort on goal. Some passing, some movement, some crossing and the Lump stooped to steer queerly wide. It only took 38 minutes to drop by Mr Higgs' bungalow for a cup of tea and a natter. Was it about now that Bolland finally won a tackle, dispossessing a little man of no fixed hairstyle and articulating his way forward? Twenty-five yards out he steadied himself to mis-hit a rubbish shot against a defender's ankles. The ball rebounded back and Bolland repeated his faux pas for the watching millions in this, the final curtain of the football season; I'm sure he has a few regrets about those shots.

Parky was perky, the only Town player threatening, but he kept scurrying up cul-de-sacs with his head-down dribbling. Surrounded by half a dozen red shirts, he kept clipping crosses against defenders. Mendes seemed to be wearing one black boot and one white boot. That's an irrelevance, as was his existence. He did provide some comic interludes, a bit like those clowns that are employed in baseball; all we needed was a mad organist to complete the blanding of this so-called great occasion. Oh, come on - you must have chuckled when he completely missed the ball when trying to cross. Everyone else did.

There were oodles of added time and Town decided to send us to the toilet with happy memories of derring-do. Bolland tribbled forward and Parky snickled the ball infield to Cohen, who glided across the face of the penalty area and squished a low skimming drive towards the bottom right corner of goal. Higgs was poked in the side by a broomstick and awoke to see the ball flying towards him. He swayed to his right and firmly parried it away from the foot of the post. The ball was half cleared and Bolland headed it back to Parkinson, about 25 yards out on the centre-left. The Scouse scamperer sizzled infield, twizzled past a defender and looped a right-footed shot over Higgs and… just over the crossbar.

A minute later Lump carefully canoodled a header back to the unmarked Bolland, on the edge of the penalty area on the centre-right. The Bradford battleship bundled along, chesting the ball forward and scraping a useless left-footed shot way wide.

Wait, there's more. Perky Parky pickled and pestered the perplexed poltroons, swiping a low cross through the area. The ball ping-ponged off socks with Cohen lurking but a Cheltenhamite swooped and swallowed danger, punting it back upfield.

And that was the first half. Isolated moments of hope bobbing in a sea of dispiriting awfulness. Cling on to the lifeboat - we only have enough food to last another 45 minutes. If a ship don't come we start eating the players.

Stu's half-time toilet talk
"When I was three Chris Hargreaves broke my toy helicopter."
"Where would we be without Junior Mendes?"
"Watch out for the toilets with no toilets in."
"This is like the rest of the season, but in Wales."
"You get a great view of nothing wherever you sit. That's the future."

Second half
Neither team made any changes at half time, though Mendes did cease doing a passable impression of Tommy Widdrington: he stopped pointing and started playing.

From the off Town withered again. It was "them", the "others", who surged forward with purpose and power, forcing Town to concede a corner. Whipped into the near post, Caines flicked and Mildenhall plucked the ball and his eyebrows underneath the crossbar. Beware of uncontrolled eyebrow plucking: you may end up like Neil Warnock. Remember a psychopath ain't a professional and psychopaths don't have eyebrows. It's a well-known fact.

A little later, as Mendes contemplated the shelf life of Sainsbury's own-brand macaroons, Vincent trundled down their left and pinged a perfect cross to the far post. Two red stripes awaited, but the Stick stuck to his script and grazed the ball away for a throw-in. In the South Stand weathered faces lined in pain, imploring the men in the Town masks to rise to the occasion. They're not list'ning still, perhaps they never will.

Town had some pressure, some charades masquerading as passing: that's all. There ain't nothing goin' on, baby. Newey walloped a free kick from the halfway line to the back of the penalty area. Cohen cushioned and rolled around his marker and looped a loopy cross to the back post. Mendes awaited as Higgs scrabbled along the goal line with the goal a-gaping. This was to be Mendes's moment. It wasn't, for Gill mcdermotted Mendes away, nodding the ball back to Higgs. What were we thinking of, standing up and all that?

Around the hour Gillespie wobbled off, with O'Jaywhatsit sweet-sweet-soul-musicing his way on to the pitch. Within a minute Town let this train keep on riding, riding on through the middle with O'Jay nodding on a huge punt into the penalty area. Mildenhall crept out, Croft crept back, and the cat crept in. Mildenhall punched the ball away as Wilson's foot had an airing near his chest. Don't panic, Sergeant Whittle is there to hoof-hook the ball straight to Vincent 30 yards out on their right. Do panic. Vincent tapped the ball to the unmarked Guinan, who turned and kicked it against Newey's shins. The ball rebounded and Newey stood off, allowing this damp squib to roll into the area and curdle a dinky cross in to the middle. The cross was duly dinkled and three Cheltenham players rushed at Mildenhall. Everyone missed the ball and it rolled slowly, apologetically and rather pathetically into the bottom right corner. All Gloucestershire raced to hail Guinan, the accidental scorist. Grimsby tutted in unison: typical Town.

Newey took a corner. Whittle headed it over. That was Town's response. Not much, was it.

From the goal kick Town crumpled again. Newey was assaulted on the touchline but the referee saw no evil and Curtis Woodlouse fumbled in midfield. Off the little Chelties went, with McCann twerping a simple pass straight down the middle to the unmarked O'Jaywhatsmahoozit. McCann ran on, no-one followed and there he was, alone in the middle, running on, on, on towards the exposed Mildenhall. McCann swerved to his right, Mildo plunged and failed, and the goal was empty: a goal certain. Woodhouse arrived to 'accidentally' clip and trip McCann. A penalty, clearly, and obviously; Woodhouse wasn't even booked. McCann waited, Mildenhall glowered and swept to his right to push aside the penalty. Marvellously Mildenhallian in its execution: the save was never in doubt.

Bolland collected the rebound and immediately released Cohen, who surged and surged, urged on by the roaring Mariners. But he stopped, the momentum lost, the chance to strike when the moment was right without thinking dissipated through dithering.

A couple of minutes later Cheltenham ripped Town apart again, with O'Jay's love train steaming through the Town station. Past one, two, three and four, he tickled the ball infield to McCann, about 25 yards out in the centre-ish. With one simple swish the ball arced goalwards, sailing majestically, gracefully over the motionless Mildenhall and onto the crossbar. The crossbar shuddered and the ball boinged upwards with Wilson haring in unmolested just a couple of yards out. Mildenhall scurried back, flung himself across the line and magnificently blocked the header. They should be several up by now, shouldn't they. But they aren't. C'mon Town, you can still do this…

Ah, hmmmm, er, how shall I put this? How shall I break the news to you? By use of metaphor, simile allusion and euphemism? Or just give you the bald facts and let you spin on your own pin? With quarter of an hour left Futcher replaced Croft. He played as a centre-forward. There you are: just the basic facts. Can you show me where it hurts?

Now Town's formation… do you play sudoku? Possibly it involved three defenders, with some in midfield-ish, with more, or maybe less standing further forward. Further forward? That can't be right. Forward further? Mendes was definitely out on the right wing, with Parkinson on the left. So that means Futcher and Lump in the middle? Yeah, let's, for the sake of argument, say it was that. Now can you guess what tactics Town used? Ouch, my neck hurts.

It was horrible to watch, sort of occasionally dangerous, but generally no-one knew where to stand, how to play standing still, route one, percentages football. Hoof and chase - yes; but hit and hope - no idea.

Bolland bundled into the area, releasing Parkinson, who drivelled a low shot straight at Higgs. Cohen ran out of ideas and decided to knock a coconut off its shy at the local funfair. Town were pressing, Cheltenham were not messing about: standing firm, standing still, watching the wheels go round and round.

With ten minutes left Futcher finally won a header, nodding a long ball down the right touchline. Mendes squirreled past his marker, flicking the ball back over his head. Bolland sprinted into the area and ladled the ball back to Mendes, who superbly bossa-nova'd to the bye-line and cracked a fantastic cross into the centre. Fourteen thousand Grimbarians rose as they saw the Lumpaldinho twitch, then explode into space, hurling himself at the missile as it zithered across. Six yards out at the near post, the Lump thundered a diving header goalwards. Higgs swooped to his left and instinctively raised his arms to protect his honour, miraculously, magnificently parrying aside. The save that saved their season.

O'Jay was sent free behind the defence and Mildenhall, again, slid out to block. A minute or so later Spencer (oh yes, they brought him on sometime) sneaked around the back and was almost one-on-one with Mildenhall, who again slid out to block, receiving a studded shoulder as a small memento of his visit to Cardiff's allotments.

With about eight minutes left Goodfellow replaced Mendes. I have absolutely no idea what formation Town played and, frankly, neither did the players. We had some upfield and less near the halfway line whacking the ball forward. Lumpy glided and glanced and a defender hooked clear straight to Cohen mid-way inside the half. Cohen za-zoomed forward, sweetly leaping over a challenge, setting himself for a shot, then poking the ball to the unmarked Goodfellow. As he played the pass Cohen was clattered. The referee allowed play to continue as Goodfellow stumbled the ball across the face of goal. Lump bowed his head, the ball missing by millimetres. Futcher wandered into space at the far post, but watched the ball go by, head in hands. Chance gone, no free kick given.

Cheltenham had breakaways but kept messing them up, seemingly unsure whether to end our pain or simply stretch out the minutes with noodling near the corner flags. Newey twice bamboozled opponents with swishing and swaying, anticipating some dancing in the streets, then bamboozled himself by standing on the ball, allowing O'Jaythingy to race off towards Mildenhall. Nothing happened but it was very Neweyian: he trips over the ball once a game.

There were five minutes of added time.

A long whack forward from Whittle was thumped back by a Cheltenham head. Woodhouse rushed forward, chested the ball on and from about 40 yards out surged down the centre-right. One, two, three defenders sucked into his vortex, he dribbled into the penalty area. Bell put out an arm and gave Woodhouse a little nudge and he hit the canvas like a good 'un. No penalty given - would we expect anything else from this referee?

More Town pressing; flicks and nicks, all gobbled up by Caines, who just took a step back and waited for the ball to come to daddy. Corner, and another, the time almost gone, the last, last chance for Town and Whittle looped a header softly over the angle of post and bar.

So this is where the story ends. All season Town were workin' their jobs, collecting their pay, believing they were gliding down the promotion highway. In fact they were slip-sliding away. How many times was destiny in their own hands? And every time they blew it. We successfully avoided a promotion party despite the invitations rolling in week after week throughout the year.

But we had one more chance. And we blew that too, with just about the worst performance this season. We could blame the pitch, we could blame the referee, but we've only ourselves to blame, haven't we. The least worst team on the day won the right to be relegated next year.

Lincoln, Leeds and now Grimsby Town… all failed in Wales.

Nicko's man of the match
The best anyone did was to be all right. Parkinson was particularly prominent in the allrightness stakes, but overall it has to be Mildenhall for the number of stops and blocks.

Marky's un-man of the match
Take your pick: Woodhouse was infuriatingly determined to hog the limelight but kept giving the ball away; Bolland was a headless chicken without legs. The defence wibbled and wobbled collectively and individually, but because he resorted to the embarrassing 'if all else fails put the big man up front' tactic, it's Mr Russell Slade. It's up to him to prepare the team and to change things. The buck stops somewhere, and it is the man in the light suit.

Official warning
I refuse to give Mr P Taylor any points at all because we lost, so there.