So waay too late, I went to an Olympics. Or an Olympic stadium. Aeons after the world loved London, Ingerland – ten excruciating years, in fact, by my reckoning – I’m there.
Now, somewhere between dystopian weirdness and jarringly-immediate come-uppance – and shit, at the moment of writing! – the fat, privileged, idle, laughing-stock who has robbed us of our very authenticity, preened the very worst of our national prejudices and creamed-off much of our silver for his pals in Stockbrokerville has been presented with a significant hurdle. Come the end of the day he may be spent. And this may be a turning-point back towards a kind of general decency and respect: a kind of England most of us could sign up to *at some level*.
(Yes, friends, I live in Wales so yes there are a million sub-clauses and qualifications inferred here. Don’t be insulted if I fail to itemise them?)
Meanwhile, *switching*, West Ham – the football team – smacked of a kind of earthy loveliness long before the London Olympics changed their geography as well as their profile. They were Bonds and Hurst and Peters and Brooking and Clyde Best. Their whole spirit was somehow characterised by the rolled-down socks (but metaphorically rolled-up sleeves) of that first-named club icon. So they were liked.
It’s absurd in 2022 to use phrases like ‘attractive football’; worse still to associate that with abstracted, rose-tinted community goodness but as I look around the acres of ‘park’ now home to the Happy Hammers, the clash of values, vistas and jazzed-up-verbals is somewhat mind-blowing. The mind drifts. The New Universe is built of gravel and murals. A metallic bowl, in cream and concrete and claret; opened-out spaces to accommodate a world of visitors; the greyish hinterland of planned policing.
I get there early so as to find stuff: Stratford, the stadium and a pub in Hackney Wick. It’s quietly thrilling to see so many Town milling about, more than two hours before kick-off. Already clear Solihull Moors gonna be swamped, on the terraces – or, ahem, in the seats.
Yes. I’m Grimsby and I’m there because I’m Grimsby. Despite being in West Wales for the whole of my considerable adult life. (Hands up, schizophrenic don’t cover it: proud of family and mates but substantially estranged from Ingerland. Particularly now). A National League Play-off Final has drawn me to The Smoke, not the prospect of a Boris be-heading, or the Plat Joob – which I have openly unsubscribed from.
Don’t blame me if the kaleidscopic madness of everything is conspiring towards another action painting. Blame them murals.
22,000 in the ground and towards 15k of them are GTFC. (No kidding. This may merely mark the size and history of the respective clubs but it feels incontrovertibly good, as a Town fan, in the building). Solihull – fair play – make a nonsense of this by quietly massacring a limp Mariners side for twenty-five minutes. They do all the ‘playing out’. They do all the ‘ball possession’. All the stuff we’ve been demanding, over beer and fodder in the local hostelry, they do.
Town have a fella called Fox in central midfield. He gets his head up. He gathers and looks – more than almost anybody in the National League. He should be playing alongside Clifton and he/they should be getting the ball. Hurst, the Grimsby manager, lacks the game intelligence to see this. Solihull boss the game faaaar too easily and Fox falls back on the easy role of dogged interceptor and header of midfield bombs. Clifton has a mare throughout. He’s not the only one undermined by nerves, tiredness and/or poor strategy but it’s a particular shame in his case.
Moors nearly murder us (see what I did there?) in the opening half-hour. Instead the lead at the interval is a manageable 1-0 – the eight foot twelve striker Kyle Hudlin inevitably nodding home just as folks were beginning to slide off for pies and pees. It’s been mixed fayre – and it remains that way – with Town’s dominance off the park barely reflected in the relatively uninspired action on the pitch.
It’s the National League; I get that. Guys are nervous and in the Mariners’ case, entitled to be drained. (Already two EPIC knock-out games ticked off. Remarkable, exhausting games). But there is a lot of poor, wasteful play and percentage-wise, a fair lump of that comes from Sousa, who, despite being gifted, seems to specialise in infuriating profligacy and Smith, who cannot pass. Others under-achieve but if I were to brutally dissect… those two guys seem the obvious candidates for release*, before the deeep breath and go again thing, in League Two, next season.
*Fully understand that some Town fans will powerfully disagree with this. Sousa’s dancing and Smith’s resilience have made a contribution. But for me they aren’t players for the next step.
The Town Faithful, perhaps blithely confident that somehow the Mariners will find a way, make their presence felt, periodically. And periodically, McAtee, the Boy Most Likely to, looks likely. Then he scores.
Seventy minutes gone, with Town threatening in bursts. McAtee beginning to look a tad laboured – been playing hurt, I’m guessing. A threaded pass offers a yard. He nails it, calmly threading the angle across the keeper. A million agents make another note. The lad may be in the Championship promptly; cruel for Town but plainly on merit.
We get our third consecutive bout of extra-time. Their right-winger gets his eighty-fourth cross in, unopposed by Amos. There is space and Town have thrown on the alternative, pacy strike-force to snatch this before pens. Abrahams is racing lustily around, Dieseruvwe showing the occasional good touch. Hurst’s late positivity feels like a healthy gamble.
The trauma of pens is avoided in probably the most predictable of fashions. Even though National League defenders spend most of their professional life defending aerial threats, (my) recent experience has been that they ain’t that proficient at doing it. (Witness Wrexham, here… and everything). A long throw is piled in to the six-yard box, from somewhere east of Lowestoft. A yellow-shirted neck cranes cruelly but the ball glances dangerously on. Maguire-Drew launches and gets a nudge. 2-1 Town.
Us part-time supporters (and Englishmen) go ballistic. It’s a ver-ry special eruption of pride, defiance, community. THIS TEAM have really triumphed. THIS TEAM really did refuse to lie down – serially. McAtee, soon after, is talking about 11 months of non-stop graft. The lad’s exhausted but wonderfully free of the arrogance that might come once somebody gets in his ear ‘about his worth’. He’s loved this club and loved this moment. He’s seen what it means to ‘these fans’. This is legitimate joy.
Anybody casting an eye over the decent sports press will have seen the columns that Jason Stockwood has been filing. They’re a kind of Decent Capitalism-Plus. The chairman gets it: people; value; patience; belief. I can’t argue with his support for Hurst – though in strategic terms I think he gets things wrong. But what the hell? There is something profoundly right – though indescribable – about Grimsby Town battling/earning/enabling an immediate (but endless, agonising) return to full-time, professional football.
Let’s draw no daft equivalence between that wonderful storming and the one the bloody nation(s) need. Travelling back to Wales, the issues, the anger, the surrealities will only garishly multiply. My ears have popped, bursting out of some West Of Ingerland tunnel. Deep breath and I’ll be all over the news channels.