Great Football League Teams 14: Grimsby Town, 1997-8
We are especially thrilled to invite Pete Green for our fourteenth nostalgiafest. His Cod Almighty is the sine qua non of club websites, rightly recognised as such by When Saturday Comes, and the automatic first stop for anything to do with the Mariners, temporarily in exile in the Blue Square Premier. Here, Pete looks back to the second coming of Alan Buckley.
Staying up, staying up, staying up. In reality today Grimsby Town are a non-League football club. In our dreams, in our history, we’re in the Championship. Town have spent more seasons in the second flight than any other division – and more than nearly any other club. Even when we went down, we always came back.
And we’ve never sustained enough support to pay second division wages. We’ve never had any economic right to that status. All those years, we were defying gravity. Staying up like a levitating mystic. Those few of us who believed, it seemed purely that belief that kept us aloft.
Or belief and Alan Buckley. Buckley arrived as manager in 1988 after Town had suffered two straight relegations. In 1990 and 1991 he oversaw two straight promotions. We were back in the second flight again.
In most places this would see a surge in support for the local team. In Grimsby – thanks to a peculiarly bitter local mindset borne from the collapse of the fishing industry and plain, outright perversity – it meant the opposite. Quite reasonably, Buckley then wondered why fewer people were watching his team in the second division than had in the fourth. Not long later he left for West Brom, taking half the team with him.
Gravity came calling and Brian Laws cut his managerial teeth by taking us to the foot of the table. Over at the Hawthorns, Buckley’s slowly-but-surely approach to team building had gone down just as badly. In the summer of 1997, as Town looked to rebuild after relegation, our notable alumnus was available again, Albion having sacked him mid-season. His departure still rankled with many fans but his return was a no-brainer.
For once, there was some money to spend: Town had received £1.5million that summer from Everton for teenage wing sensation John Oster. Typically, Buckley’s two key signings came from his previous club. Kevin Donovan was a right-sided attacking midfielder, always a tidy player for the Baggies, but without ever setting the world alight. Midfielder Paul Groves was Buckley’s influential captain during his first spell at Grimsby, but was unloved in the Black Country and showed no hesitation in following the manager back to Blundell Park.
For all the careful rebuilding, the season began slowly. “Grimsby Town’s season is fast approaching desperation point,” reported the Grimsby Telegraph after a 0-0 draw with York. Six league games into the season, Town had yet to win. The early table placed us in its notional relegation zone. Some of the bloody-minded miseries in the stands were already wanting the manager sacked.
But Buckley’s players were starting to reproduce the fluent passing and movement that had won the club many admirers in his earlier tenure. A 5-0 League Cup romp over Oldham hinted at greater possibilities. Then as autumn drew in, the wins started to come. First away at Fulham and Bournemouth, then at home to Wigan and Northampton. When Buckley’s ambitious style of football failed to click, it could be maddening to watch, but when it worked it could be explosive. Town stuck five and four past Southend and Burnley in successive home games.
It was never the Buckley way to rely on a prolific centre-forward. His were teams without solo stars, and goals came from across the team. Donovan had the measure of this division though, scoring 21 times from the right of midfield. The mid-season arrival of Wayne Burnett from Huddersfield added guile and style to Groves’ graft in midfield. Up front cult hero Steve Livingstone roamed, never prolific, always strong, never giving in (for which, read: he could always wallop some bugger when occasion demanded).
Watford and Bristol City were running away with the league, but the play-offs were anyone’s. When a 4-0 thumping of Bristol Rovers propelled Town from 14th to seventh place, they became ours. If Town’s ascent of the table signalled redemption, so too did an emerging second narrative: progress in the Football League Trophy (then known as the Auto Windscreens Shield), with Grimsby’s first ever trip to Wembley the prize.
Town faced Burnley in the northern area final, and struggled to a 1-1 draw at home in the first leg. In the second they raised their game magnificently, drawing – in the way that marks out the great sides – on reserves of belief and inner strength. Lee Nogan’s head gave Town an early lead. A 25-yard volley from Donovan sealed the match. Attendances were still barely touching 5,000 at home, but 2,000 had travelled to east Lancashire. A kind of mania took hold in the away end at Turf Moor that night. Town fans who were there call it the greatest away trip of their lives. That belief was returning: we could fly again.
The final was all kinds of beautiful. Thirty thousand Grimbarians marching on the capital, fans for a day. Wembley freshened in gentle spring rain; pale sunshine flickering through it. Camaraderie between two groups of fans; two teams pleasing with terrific passing football. Town’s two subs turning the game round. One-all at full time. Finally, from a corner, Burnett flicking the ball expertly, almost from behind him, past Jimmy Glass for the decisive golden goal. Celebration that felt like it would never end.
Two days after the AWS final the Mariners were due to face Carlisle, and asked the Cumbrian club for a postponement. They said no: we beat them anyway. But the players were feeling the strain. Just three goals and one win came in the last eight league games, with successive home defeats by Luton, Bristol Rovers and Oldham. Third place was ours – albeit 13 points adrift of runners-up Bristol City.
Town’s first opponents in the play-offs were Fulham, promoted from the fourth division the year before. It was year zero for the Mohamed Al Fayed project. The sums spent were staggering for a third-flight club – including £1.1m on Paul Peschisolido and over £2m for Chris Coleman. Both legs were close and hard-fought, and both saw first-half sendings-off for Fulham: Paul Moody down in west London as the sides drew 1-1 in fierce heat, then Peschisolido for a shocking late lunge on Peter Handyside. Donovan netted with ten minutes left: Wembley beckoned again.
The season had seen some riveting sub-plots and individual dramas. The Mariners played 68 games in all – Groves starring in every one. Some capable young players had begun to emerge: Daryl Clare and Jack Lester up front, Danny Butterfield understudying the great John McDermott at right-back. In a thrilling League Cup run Town overcame two top-flight sides: Sheffield Wednesday and holders Leicester, managed by Martin O’Neill but undone by Buckley’s once-in-a-lifetime switch to ‘direct’ tactics, three up front, and a goal scored off Livingstone’s arse.
But it would all come down to 90 minutes against Northampton. Euphemistically described as a ‘pragmatic’ outfit, Ian Atkins’ side were a fierce bunch of hoofers who’d followed Fulham up through the play-offs the year before. The AWS final was a party, Bournemouth cherries on our cake. This was the very stuff of life: grim-faced, desperate, everything-rests-on-it football. Tension vibrated through the streets around the stadium and on to the pitch.
Donovan, inevitably, rounded Andy Woodman to put Town ahead on 19 minutes. The rest was hell. Beautiful game? This was football defined by neither aestheticism nor athleticism but by terror. Sons and fathers gripped each others’ shoulders. The match unwound forever like a strand of DNA.
With a quarter of an hour left Donovan missed a penalty. Groves hit the bar. Aidan Davison, unerring in goal all season, was clouted on the head and started dropping crosses. The referee, shatteringly, plucked six minutes of injury time from God knows where. Town clung on. You won’t find a Grimsby fan who can say they enjoyed the match. We felt as spent as the players. It wasn’t mayhem or joy among the ranks of black and white. It was sheer exhausted relief.
But we were back. Back where we somehow seemed to belong, despite Grimsby’s immunity to football fever. Sure enough, the town had reverted to type while the engine of the open-topped bus was still warm. Fewer than 3,000 home fans were inside Blundell Park when Preston visited for a League Cup tie a week or two into the new season.
For those charmed sunshine weeks in the spring of 1998, though, Grimsby Town Football Club was defined by greatness. The zeniths of Buckley’s and Groves’ careers had coincided. Above all, the fans believed, the players believed, and we were back home in the second flight, defying gravity again. It seemed purely that belief that kept us aloft.