The universe conspired not only to keep me from this game… but keep me from watching it. No matter. The sound, holistic thrashing this very good Premiership team delivered to our allegedly ordinary League Two side has the ultimately reassuring ring of some Deep Natural Order about it. Rights righted: qualities writ large. But we were right to dream, and dance, and wave our daft fish about. We have qualities, too, from the wonderful, selfless loyalty of our travelling fans to the next-level, humane intelligence of some of our board. On the pitch, outclassed. Off it, as good as anybody. Hands raised in gratitude and pride: we are Town.
Yes we are. Though we moved away, we are still Town. Not unduly conflicted by living all my working life in Wales, boasting Welsh-speaking kids, working in *another sport*, having grown up not just Town but with Town blood on-board. (Mighty Vic Dodsworth, GTFC 1930-something. All-too-briefly, as it turned out, cos crocked. Wee underdogs Manchester United took a chance on him. But crocked). I can’t be the only one who grew up a Proud Something-or-Other and became a Proud Something-Else… as well?
So from my home hamlet in Welsh Wales I’m absolutely buzzing for my home town’s carnival day. Sure I’m medium-gutted I couldn’t get a ticket, and more devastated for soulbro’s who unquestionably deserved them more but still fell short. But all of us know that it’s dead right that season ticket holders and full members got in there first. (4,600 snaffled before you could say “E for B and Stuart Brace”). The club is doing lots of things right on and off the park; Jason Stockwood’s Administrative Army continue to play a blinder around the ethics and issues of running a football club.
You may have heard good things. My understanding is that Stockwood and the Corporate Posse behind the Mariners *really are* those rare beasts the conscious capitalists. They do not separate football activity and/or ‘success’ from work which supports the community and the environment – meaning the town, not just Town. Sure you’ll hear a few of those rather concerningly workshopped soundbites about ‘passionate’ this and that, but there is plainly a gritty commitment in the club hierarchy, as well as a smoothish patina. What the Guardian termed ‘social entrepreneurship’ does appear to have taken hold in a remarkably positive way: methinks those are not words that might traditionally have been associated with this club and this town.
Grimsby’s been a joke, we know that: one that our friend Sacha B-C tried to turn into something. The stereotype of an ugly, dated, litter-strewn, beery, ‘tough’ Northern coastal town will be hard to shift, partly, of course, because these slanders all hold a little truth. The docks did kinda die, waaay back then, after the Cod War. The ‘flyover’/Cleethorpes Road quarter still speaks to the era of closure and hardship and booze and anger on the streets. Much of the walk in to Blundell Park still feels like the scene for a progressive documentary on football hooliganism. But Stockwood and co are smart, willing and aligned against old failings and lingering prejudice. They want better for the town and understand something about the conjoined powers of sport and identity.
You don’t have to be a football historian to be aware of the ridicu-season that GTFC enjoyed, last year. (Whether you are or no, go dig out the record-books, and look at the journey to promotion). The series of extra-time wins to get to the play-off final was extreme sport: thrilling; shocking; unbloodyprecedented – or it felt that way. I was at West Ham (the London Stadium) to see the Mariners splutter to a win. It felt destined; or like one of those few things that really deserve to happen.
For Town to be in another football epic, so soon after, is both fabulous and bewildering. But it also figures. There is a vibe around the place. They have players. The manager is maybe flawed (this is my own view, from a distance, of his tactical vulnerabilities… but I say similar about Gareth Southgate) and yet also wonderfully true and consistent and even-tempered. Philosophical, one might say – like the hierarchy, perhaps? Things have been directed or they have conspired but in short it feels good to support Grimsby Town. They present, in the modern, media-conscious parlance, like a good outfit. In interview, footballers toe the party line, to the point of vacuity, generally. Town players seem to mean this stuff about loving the club.
But Brighton loometh and Brighton are cute. They’ve played more fine footie than most in the division, this year. And yes, that would be the Premier League. (I’m not a subscriber to the view, by the way, that the Prem is that great: it’s surely more that there are great players than any depth of brilliant teams. Tottenham, for the top four? They’ve been shite, for months!) Brighton are bright and well-coached. They have a compelling (and possibly worrying) combination of pace and imagination. They play with both control and urgency. The gaffer may be at Real Madrid (or Liverpool?!?) before you know it. Southampton, they are not.
In that previous round most Town fans concede that though it was one of The Great Days, Town were poor. The God Of Doughtiness that is Waterfall was strangely subdued and the defence porous or even ragged. The Talent that is McAtee was flat. Even Holohan – who gathered himself admirably to convert the two pens – was unable to do that precious, beat-establishing water-carrying thing. One of the Great Wins was also a weird under-achievement.
In one sense this might augur well. Us glass half-fullers will be thinking there’s so-o much more to come from the Mariners that Brighton better look out. Waterfall really is one of the lower-league gods – absolutely no disrespect intended, he’s well-capable of winning any game, at either end of the park. The keeper, crucially perhaps, is generally solid. Town can play, in and through midfield. McAtee has a wonder goal in him. Plus it’s the cup, the Town fans will be Really Quite Something and let’s face it, it’s a free hit: the fella Hurst is already, if metaphorically, holding the trophy.
The reality and even the coverage will be all about the support. Masses of grinning Grimbarians wielding inflatable fish; for the second time in the campaign, on the South Coast. Heavy mileage, who cares? The overwhelming majority of those in the away end love their home and their club deeply. They are Town.
But look there’s no time for or value in existential guilt about who’s real and legitimate: zillions of us aren’t or can’t be full-on authentic supporters. I follow on the Twitters but rarely get to games because of the 340 miles twixt venues. I’ll be coaching cricket, believe it or not, whilst the game’s on(!) You, meanwhile, wherever you are, could get behind The Grimsby for one day and join in with that woolly stuff. The romance. The feeling that Town can register something beyond football. Go with the daft magic about Harry the Haddock and Harry Clifton (one of our own). Tell your mates that them bloody fish were rainbow trout, first time around. Raise a glass, maybe. The Lads may need us.