BY PAUL SAVAGE
It’s September 1st 2001 and Michael Owen and Emile Heskey have just put Germany to the sword, thrashing them 5-1 in their own backyard. It was part of that euphoric time before the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea when the ‘golden generation’ were meant to bring home the trophy. Hopes were high with Rio, Frank and David Beckham in the prime of their careers.
It was also a golden time for Grimsby Town. Just as England had kicked off that game at the Olympiastadion in Munich, the Mariners sat proudly at the top of the Championship (then known as Division One) thanks to a 1-0 win over Barnsley. Phil Jevons – signed the previous summer from Everton for £250,000 – had scored his first league goal in a black and white shirt to fire the Mariners to the league’s summit. The Premier League beckoned.
Fast forward to Saturday, 8 May 2010. A Shaun Harrad double fired Burton Albion to a 3-0 victory over the Mariners which relegated them out of the Football League and into the non-league abyss. In less than 10 years, Town had gone from dreaming of the promised land – they beat Liverpool at Anfield in 2001 – to defeats against Bath City and Braintree. The collapse of ITV Digital and the missing millions hindered dozens of clubs who suffered financial problems and even went into administration (Premier League champions Leicester City being one of them). But it hit Grimsby Town worse than everyone else. Competing against the likes of Manchester City, West Bromwich Albion, QPR and Burnley on average attendances of less than 5,000, the start of ITV Digital meant the Mariners could flash the cash, spending money on a succession of foreign imports like David Nielsen, Menno Willems and Knut Anders Fostervold. They even signed then Chinese international captain Zheng Enhua on a reported five-figure a week wage.
When ITV Digital went bang, so did Grimsby Town. Relegation to Division Two followed in 2002-3 and then again into the newly re-branded League Two the following season. The rot had set in and only Luton Town’s enormous points deduction saved them from demotion to the Conference in 2008/9. A succession of journeyman footballers, with the slate wiped clean every season as a new manager took control, eventually took its toll. In May 2010 the Mariners were relegated amongst violent scenes at the Pirelli Stadium. Grimsby Town were down and out.
Neil Woods, a former Grimsby striker, was given the chance to lead the Mariners back into the Football League at the first time of asking but he was sacked before the first season even finished. Successive 11th place finishes had the natives restless, before Paul Hurst took sole control of the side and the club finally started to turn the corner. Play-off semi-final defeats at Newport and Gateshead saw the club go close. They got even closer in 2014/15 when they lost in the final to Bristol Rovers on penalties.
Most supporters would have given up there and then, but not Grimsby Town fans. On the coach journey home from Wembley just over a year ago, fans’ group the Mariners Trust plotted Operation Promotion – a plan to raise £20,000 in two months to give Paul Hurst extra cash to buy one new player. The plan aimed to give Town’s boss the funds to bring in a player who could make a difference. Fans were asked to donate money for the fund using a crowdfunding website with various rewards available – from t-shirts and mugs to a place in the playing squad – dependent on the size of the pledge.
Operation Promotion was a spectacular success. The £20,000 target was smashed within the first 24 hours and news of the scheme was broadcast in local, regional and national media. Extra rewards were needed to keep up with demand as over 2,000 individual supporters made pledges for the Mariners to boost their transfer kitty. Thanks to fan donations, £110,000 was raised last summer to bring in new faces – an incredible sum of money for a non-league side in a part of the world ravaged by Tory government cuts.
The cash enabled Paul Hurst to retain almost all the squad which had taken the club to within one penalty kick of League 2. A specialist goalkeeper coach was brought in, as was striker Padraig Amond. But the biggest chunk of cash was spent on a fee for Solihull Moors striker Omar Bogle who had been prolific in the lower leagues.
The season itself was a rollercoaster. Amond and Bogle struck a lethal partnership up front with the pair netting over 50 goals between them over the course of the campaign. Amond alone scored 36 goals across all competitions. But league success remained elusive – Forest Green Rovers won their first nine league games of the season and Cheltenham kept on winning too. It meant the Mariners would stay in touch with the top two, but never get close enough for a sustained promotion challenge. With expectations heightened by Operation Promotion, some of the natives got restless. And as the play-offs were guaranteed, Town’s form languished. Defeats and draws meant they stuttered into the final stages of the season – promotion didn’t look likely despite being the bookies’ favourites.
Braintree, who pipped Grimsby into third in the league, compounded their misery by winning the first leg 1-0 at Blundell Park, leaving the Mariners with an uphill battle. And with over an hour gone in the second leg, it looked for all the world that Operation Promotion would flatline. But up stepped Amond and Bogle – the first firing in a penalty, the latter a powerful header – and everything changed. The Mariners were at Wembley again.
It’s now Sunday, 15 May 2016 and the Mariners have their shot at redemption, with big spenders Forest Green Rovers standing in their way. The Gloucestershire club were heavily outnumbered with the Mariners out-selling their opponents by five-to-one at a sparse Wembley. But whereas Town fans dared to dream a year earlier against Bristol Rovers, this time it’s an all-together different feeling. There’s belief. There’s a feeling we’re going to do this and make our return to where we belong. This is our time.
Grimsby Town were the better side for large portions of the game. Nathan Arnold hit the post before Omar Bogle – the man whose transfer fee was paid for by the fans – stepped up with two quick goals in the space of 90 seconds. The travelling Town fans were still celebrating his first goal, a header, when he fired in a rebound past the despairing Steve Arnold in the Forest Green goal. The Mariners were 45 minutes away from dreamland. The start of the second half saw Forest Green pile on the pressure and although Keanu Marsh-Brown scores a wonder goal from all of 30 yards, Grimsby Town are relatively comfortable. As time ticked away, the Mariners seal the victory as Nathan Arnold tucks the ball home for six yards and the 15,000 travelling Grimsby fans behind the goal go delirious. Six years of non-league hurt eradicated in an instant.
The Grimsby Town relegated in 2010 was rotten and ruined. Made up of mercenary footballers and in a downward spiral, perhaps relegation was the kick up the backside the club and community needed. The Mariners last tasted a promotion in 1998 – an entire generation of supporters had known nothing but defeat and relegation. There are people legally old enough to buy alcohol who had never witnessed their team win a promotion. But this spell out of the Football League, as agonising as it was with its twists and turns, means the club returns to ‘The 92’ in far better shape than it departed.
Six years languishing in non-league has been rehabilitating for the club and for the fans. Not so much a punishment, perhaps, but a spell in learning how to love the game again and to not take it all for granted. After all, Operation Promoted has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?