What if... John Newman had acted like a modern manager?

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

15 August 2017

This article was first published in the Sunday Chronicle on 19 April 1998

Forgotten football clubs no 7: Grimsby Town

Grimsby Town are playing Barrow in the Northern Premier League, before a gate of perhaps 700 people scattered around three sides of Blundell Park. There is a knot of fans behind the goal that Grimsby hope to attack, but most sit or stand wistfully in the Main Stand that separates Blundell Park from the railway, and then the sea. With Barrow top of the table, only their supporters, congregated in the Osmond stand, are giving the game all their attention.

The fourth side of the ground has been levelled (see picture below), leaving it open to the wide Lincolnshire sky. It is deserted but for a group of small children who soon tired of the Mariners' attempts to muscle their way past the Barrow defence and started up their own game instead. Their parents now and again give them half a glance. They will remember when the Barrett stand stood where their children now play. They may even have been among the number who perched on its roof to watch Lawrie McMenemy's side clinch the fourth division title with a 4-0 win over Exeter in 1972, Grimsby's last sustained taste of success.

Three-sided Blundell Park

As for the children's grandparents, they might have watched Grimsby in the top flight. As late as 1948, the Mariners were in the old first division. In 1984 they were kicked out of the League, the last club to be voted out before automatic relegation was introduced. Such was the rate of Grimsby's fall from grace: from the top flight to non-League in 36 years. No wonder so many of those at Blundell Park today look as though they wish they were somewhere else, in time if not in place.

After relegation from Division One, Grimsby yo-yoed between the second and third tiers through the 1950s. The 1960s brought the abolition of the maximum wage and fourth division football to Blundell Park. After three consecutive seasons in the bottom third of the table, McMenemy, extraordinarily, took the squad he had inherited and turned them into champions.

Any hope that this was a permanent revival of Grimsby's fortunes faded as the fishing fleets shrank and died. McMenemy left for Southampton and his successor, Ron Ashman, had to manage an ageing team. Tommy Casey replaced Ashman and had no choice but to fill his squad with schoolboys and discards from other clubs. When Casey was sacked in 1976, relegation was written on the wall.

Among the long list of players released in 1977 were two names familiar to this day: the future Arsenal and Ireland captain Joe Waters and the Ryder Cup golfer Kevin Moore

Casey's successor, Maurice Bigg, was quick to distance himself from all blame: "That wasn't my team. Judge me in two years when I've got the players I want," he told the local paper. The list of players to be retained in May 1977 was short; among the long list of players released were two names familiar to this day: the future Arsenal and Ireland captain Joe Waters and the Ryder Cup golfer Kevin Moore.

Perhaps because it contained so many local players, or perhaps just because success has been a stranger for so long, Casey's team is remembered to this day. As teenage goalkeeper Steve Croudson keeps the Mariners in today's game, I overhear an argument about another teen, from the 1970s. Tony Ford, Grimsby's first black player, was just 16 when he made his debut in 1975. By the time of his 18th birthday, after just 21 appearances, his career was over.

"Ford? Fast, I'll give you, but he couldn't hit a cross to save his life. He'd never have made it."

"He was only young, remember. Besides, what was the point of hitting a decent cross if he only had Malcolm bloody Partridge to aim for."

Bigg's new team never showed any sign of gelling. Judged on his two years, he was shown the door with the Mariners dangerously close to the bottom of Division Four. Another new manager, Ross Sweet, brought in another set of new players, no better than the ones they replaced.

The death knell for the Mariners' professional status sounded in 1981 when the Barrett stand was condemned. With gates seldom reaching 2,000, there was no prospect of replacing it. The club survived re-election by just two votes in 1983 but it was only a stay of execution. In 1983-84, there would be no escape.

Strangely, the season started reasonably well. Two young, local strikers scored 13 goals between them in the first half of the season and a mid-table finish was within reach. But with finances strained Gary Lund was sold to Notts County, and Paul Wilkinson's ankle was broken in a ruthless tackle. The goals dried up, and seven consecutive defeats left Grimsby bottom of the Football League. Ironically, the player who finished Wilkinson's career was a former Mariner – a victim of Bigg's cull – Chesterfield's Bobby Cumming.

1983-84 fourth division table showing GTFC in bottom place

After relegation, Grimsby survived for three seasons in the Alliance Premier League (later renamed the Conference) before dropping again into the Northern Premier League. In 1990-91, they enjoyed a brief taste of success: promotion and an FA Cup victory over third division Walsall. The goalscorer that day, Chris Hargreaves, left for Walsall at the end of the season and Town's stay in the Conference was brief.

Nowadays, ex-Grimsby player Dave Moore – brother of Kevin – doubles as club manager and physio. As his charges try to pull a goal back, he looks across the pitch with a stoical air, like a seafarer hoping but not expecting to see land. "Even when we were in the League, we were an outpost. We get some good youngsters, but we can't stand in their way if they get the chance to go full-time," he tells me. 

Despite Croudson's best efforts, the match ends in a 2-0 win for Barrow. I return to my car, parked just outside the ground and am soon on my way back home. Long gone are the days when full time brought gridlock to the roads around Blundell Park. The Bluebirds' win is another step for them towards promotion, one step in the long road to regaining the Football League status they lost in 1972. There is no sign that Grimsby will ever return.

The home page image is © copyright David P Howard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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