The road to nowhere

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

4 October 2014

Town's recent mediocre form has brought a moment of clarity. We mustn't let a crisis go to waste.

The road to nowhereThe depressing thing about the Southport defeat, and the messy draw we scrambled with Dartford, is that, deep down, we all expected it. As Steve Bierley's article makes clear, we have become inured to mediocrity, unable to break past the excuses for failure to plan properly for success.

The lack of a strategy means that seemingly contradictory attitudes – "We should be beating this lot 6-0" and "The Conference is a hard league to get out of" – are actually both so much escapism. The Southport match seems to have provided all of us with what addicts call a moment of clarity. Me too, by the way. I've preached patience often enough, but patience is just cowardice if there is no long-term plan for improvement.

We seem to have been sleepwalking...

January 1990: The introduction of all-seater stadiums

The 1990s was almost certainly the most successful decade in Grimsby's post-war history, on the pitch. Off it, the Taylor Report into Hillsborough, published in January 1990, led to the requirement for all-seater stadiums in the top two divisions.

Almost a quarter of a century has gone by. So far, we have managed to convert some parts of Blundell Park to seating areas, and to rip out the old corner terraces. The ground's capacity has been cut to around 9,000. Successive boards appear to have decided that the challenges of redeveloping the ground were too great, but none has yet delivered an alternative.

No-one is saying either developing Blundell Park or finding and funding a site for a new ground is easy (see Mike Worden's recent article on this). But 24 years is a long time, and other clubs have come to terms with the requirement. Scunthorpe, remember, moved into Glanford Park in 1988 and are now planning a further relocation.

August 2000: Alan Buckley sacked two games into the season

For those expecting another Cod Almighty rhapsody, unsheathe your claws. This is not about Alan Buckley. Can we at least agree that no board working with the best interests of the club at its heart would sack a manager two games (one loss, one draw) into a season?

The policies Lawrence was appointed to pursue left the club badly exposed when the funding from ITV Digital collapsed

The decision was taken during a period of particular boardroom instability when Bill Carr was ousted by a group of which Bryan Huxford was the most prominent spokesman. In fact, they only lasted about 18 months, but their ethos was captured in an article Steve Bierley wrote for the Guardian:

"For all [Buckley's] achievements, he was a backwoods-man and at the beginning of last season he was sacked and Lawrence appointed.

"Suddenly Grimsby were in the news. Notably Lawrence captured the Chinese international Zhang Enhua on loan. Bryan Huxford, the club's vice-chairman, who brought Lawrence in, promised an influx of 'European money' and urged the club not to be parochial. But a further spate of regulation board in-fighting saw him and his chairman resign in May. It later transpired the club was £2.5m in debt."

Just as this isn't about Alan Buckley, nor is it about Lennie Lawrence. Let's just say that the policies he was appointed to pursue left the club badly exposed when the funding from ITV Digital collapsed. We were in need of, and at the mercy of, a rich saviour.

March 2004: The appointment of Nicky Law

In February 2004, following a 6-0 defeat at Oldham and a run of ten games without a win, Paul Groves was sacked. His temporary replacement Graham Rodger – using the squad he had inherited plus Isaiah Rankin – won three out of six games and we climbed three places up the table.

In March, Rodger was removed from the job. He had been at the club since 1992, serving loyally in several capacities, but for no known reason was unpopular with a vociferous minority of Town fans. He was replaced by Nicky Law, who brought in a truck-load of players available only because no-one else wanted them. We won three more games, out of 12, all season and were relegated at Tranmere on the final day.

Law's appointment was the first in which John Fenty, who became chairman the following July, had a significant role. You do not have to believe that decisions are made with bad intent to believe that those decisions are nevertheless mistaken.

May 2006: Russell Slade leaves

On 22 May, six days before the play-off final, it was announced that Russell Slade would be signing a new contract at the end-of-season awards. He didn't. Contract negotiations went on for another nine days, during which we were beaten by Cheltenham at the Millennium Stadium, denying Town a return to the third flight. On 31 May, it was finally announced that the talks had failed. Slade left for Yeovil and a career more successful than anything we have seen since.

Fenty's failed game of brinkmanship with Slade seems to have cast a shadow over the next three or four managerial appointments

This is not about Slade. It is about entering into a game of brinkmanship with the only manager who had brought us within sniffing distance of a promotion since 1998.

It also seems to have cast a shadow over the next three or four managerial appointments. Graham Rodger was appointed from within. He lasted 20 games. Sacking him, Fenty cited only Rodger's unpopularity and the negative atmosphere it had created during matches. Alan Buckley was brought back after almost three years out of the game. Mike Newell was brought in after a year out of the game, the perception being that Newell's outspoken comments about agents had made him unemployable. That's three managers who might feel themselves particularly dependent on the goodwill of the board and its chairman.

(The circumstances about both the appointment and departure of Neil Woods are remarkably similar to Rodger's tenure, but as Fenty claims he'd wanted to reappoint Slade but was outvoted by other board members, we'll let it go.)

August 2007: Compass FM given broadcast rights

For the 2007-08 season, Compass FM – a station that could scarcely be heard outside the immediate area of Grimsby and Cleethorpes – was given the rights to cover Grimsby matches. It had no background in sports journalism. Perhaps that was the point.

Some clubs are national, or even international, brands. Others survive only because they represent a community. If people want only to watch technically proficient football, they can stay at home and watch telly, or get into arguments about the relative value for money of a match ticket on different sides of the Humber. It is because of the stake we feel we have in 'our' club that thousands of us still ignore competing attractions.

Having that stake, though, means feeling that you have the right to say what you think, to ask awkward questions, and to expect journalists to ask those questions on our behalf. The Grimsby Telegraph long since seems to have given up on that duty. Radio Humberside has not, and has been rewarded with a number of petty and unseemly snubs as a result.

March 2011: The poaching of Scott and Hurst

In March 2011, Rob Scott and Paul Hurst were appointed as dual managers of Grimsby. The club refused to pay compensation to Boston, their previous employers, arguing on the basis of a website article that the Pilgrims had accepted their resignation. The issue went to court, the judge finding in favour of Boston. Negotiating with Boston properly would have been an act of sensible good neighbourliness that would have incurred a modest cost. The court case cost us around £50,000 in cash and a lot more in reputation.

There is a saying 'penny wise, pound foolish'. Sometimes it seems to be the club motto.

March 2012: The trust reinforces Fenty's control

Another wealthy local business figure, Mike Parker, bought a substantial block of shares in around 2010, took up a vice-chairman role, and all looked rosy. For reasons still not fully explained, it all fell apart

Fenty warned that the club was running out of money but he was willing to invest more, as long as the trust handed over those shares

Even when resigning from the board, Parker was still pledging further investment, with a stated intention to take his shareholding around £1million in total. Eventually, after what appeared to be some kind of dispute with Fenty, Parker pulled out, donating his shares in the club to the Mariners Trust.

At this point, Fenty warned that the club was running out of money but he was willing to invest more, as long as the trust handed over control of those shares to him. He argued that he could not be expected to invest unless he had complete control of the club.

Members of the trust – all of us, people who love the club – voted overwhelmingly to give Fenty the control he demanded. (Whatever criticisms you may have of that decision, or any others taken by the trust, the answer surely is to play as full a part in its affairs as you can.)

What next?

Just as the state of the club is not about the wrongs and rights of the various managers we have appointed or sacked, nor is it entirely about the current major shareholder (if it were, this article would make use of a lot more material). Successive boards have been making successive decisions – occasionally good, occasionally appalling – throughout our history. It is not about John Fenty. It is about the kind of club that we want Grimsby to be.

Yes, there is a model by which we can be a rich man's plaything and just be grateful we are not now called the Grimsby Mariners (or, still worse, the MK Mariners) and that we don't play in green. Indeed, we can be grateful that Fenty did make good on the promises he made for trust representation during that vote. Perhaps, though, there are other, better models out there?

Cod Almighty is preparing a 'State of the Town' Postbag special for later this week. Send us your feedback on this article, Steve Bierley's and the club in general.