By Ian Grant
"...And a big BSaD hello to all you Mariners fans, especially the knucklehead who was so offended by Matt's
assertion that 'Grimsby are definitely a Good Thing' that he challenged the author to a scrap outside McDonalds.
Best of luck with the reading classes, mate...."
So, on the day that Fulham clinched promotion, we took another gigantic step towards mid-table obscurity. It
remains extraordinary how much the paths of the two clubs have diverged since November, how far we've fallen
since taking advantage of Grimsby's adventurous approach at the Vic all those months ago. Now, that same
adventurous approach - worth applauding again, simply because it contrasts so strongly with the lumpen
charmlessness of Town's competitors - has proved too much for us.
On Saturday, we completed the set. Of the bottom ten, we've lost to Tranmere, Palace, Huddersfield, Grimsby, Crewe,
Wednesday, and Norwich. We've dropped points to QPR, Portsmouth and Stockport. In total, we've taken twenty-eight
points from a possible fifty-seven in games against those struggling teams. It's a record that speaks for
itself. And, when it speaks, it doesn't say "promotion".
In the blustery wind and, later, the sweeping rain on Cleethorpes seafront, we fell apart again. We threw
away another lead, then showed no inkling of a sign of a hope of recovering the situation. We were sporadically
splendid, we were sporadically hideous, we were mostly very average. We were never cohesive, never an imposing unit. And, when it came
down to it, we were completely bloody spineless. Which makes a change, obviously.
To begin, a few changes to formation and personnel. Like a West End musical that's been running for years,
the cast comes and goes and the songs stay the same. On this occasion, GT recalled the thoroughly deserving
James Panayi to play alongside Robert Page and Darren Ward in a three-man defence, with Paul Robinson and
Paolo Vernazza taking wide roles. Panayi, as broad as he's tall, again put his case well and Vernazza was
our main creative influence. The rest, however, failed to combine into a trustworthy defensive force. Jobs
in the security industry do not await them when their careers are over.
In the first half, we did okay. No more, no less. Just okay. There were moments when the quality of
our football suggested that we might do enough to build a convincing victory, such as when a fine,
Vernazza-inspired move on the right let in Tommy Smith, his low cross was hit goalwards by Gifton Noel-Williams and, via a deflection, into
Coyne's hands. Equally, there were moments when our defending was so shambolic that one of those defeats
seemed inevitable, such as when Robinson's daydreaming allowed McDermott to sneak behind him and send the
ball bouncing through the six yard box.
That was the pattern, established in the first five minutes. Somehow, matches at Blundell Park always seem
drearier than they actually are, as if such a bleak setting couldn't possibly play host to anything other than
equally bleak football. In a brighter place, this probably would've come across as being rather a good and
entertaining, if thoroughly erratic, game.
There was Groves' slip as he collected Noel-Williams' mis-directed flick after eight minutes, allowing Tommy
Mooney to nip in and thump a half-volley wide from twenty-five yards. There was the complete lack of marking
from the Watford defence at a corner after ten, allowing Groves so much space to meet the cross at the
near post and divert it towards goal with his toe. A more decisive touch would've given the home side the lead; instead,
the ball bounced up and was headed away from the line by Mooney.
As at the Vic, then, this wasn't a contest destined to be dominated by defence. Nevertheless, and with
the benefit of hindsight, the signs of our impending doom were visible. While Grimsby managed to supply the
ball to their flank players and particularly to the lively Cornwall, we struggled to do the same. Partly because
our flank players were usually too deep, mainly because we couldn't get a grip on the midfield.
All very scrappy. All surprisingly inconsequential, bearing in mind the importance of the points for both
sides. Mooney headed wide from a Robinson free kick, Campbell headed weakly at Baardsen, Noel-Williams shot at
Coyne from a mile away. It started to feel cold. From Livingstone's knock-down, a combination of Page and
Cornwall shuffled the ball around the post, missing by a yard. Livingstone drifted a header wide from Gallimore's
cross; Baardsen fielded a free kick, curled over the wall by Gallimore.
Two things to bring the thing back into focus. First, Robinson clattered Donovan on the touchline, leaving
the Town player grounded and the crowd enraged. Mr Alcock missed it presumably, since he neither gave a
free kick nor produced a yellow card. Still, in the process, Robbo kicked the game up the arse as well as
the player. Then, as he cleared, Espen Baardsen slipped and pulled a muscle, lying in agony while play
continued. Not what we needed, obviously...but the arrival of Alec Chamberlain to save the day brought the
away fans to their feet.
Pouton hit a long-range half-volley well wide, before Coyne produced the game's first save. Nondescript attacking
and defending finally resulted in the ball bouncing through to Mooney on the left. His acrobatic volley brought
an equally athletic block from Coyne, who'd advanced decisively from his line to deal with the situation. Then Cornwall
cut in enthusiastically from the right wing, past Robinson and towards the area, ending with a rising drive
that cleared the bar. Whatever else Grimsby might lack, they have a certain likeable flair in their approach. Chamberlain
collected Livingstone's weak curler, before Vernazza was harshly booked for his minimal involvement in Campbell's
Plenty of chances, then. It took Tommy Mooney, the in-form striker, to make the difference. Just before half-time,
and Steve Palmer emerged victorious from a midfield scrap. Crucially, he kept his head as the defence backed off
in front of him, waiting for the moment to pick out Mooney's run. From the left of the area, the finish was clinical,
low past Coyne into the bottom corner. Celebrations, mixed with disbelief at something so decisive and out of keeping.
By the time that the teams emerged for the second half, spring had departed Cleethorpes. Rain swept sideways across
the ground, powered by fierce, gusting wind. From the rest of our performance, you could be forgiven for thinking
that we didn't fancy it. Whatever, Grimsby won the game simply by applying themselves with more urgency,
That said, they were fortunate to survive our best spell of the match. Immediately after the break, we appeared
enlivened by Mooney's earlier example and sought the second goal that would surely end the contest. Although Livingstone's
deflection of Pouton's drive nearly ended in disaster and was bravely claimed by Chamberlain from the
striker's lunging boots as it squirmed into the six yard box, we were to become the dominant side.
From Vernazza's swaying run, Smith's shot was blocked. Noel-Williams recovered possession on the edge of the
box, arguably with the aid of a foul, and turned to flash a drive just past the post. Then, one of those
pivotal moments. Terrible defending allowed Robinson's corner to bounce through the area to Mooney, inevitably
stationed at the far post. He met it with a firm downward header, we rose to rejoice, Coyne's arm darted out
through reflex and pushed it away. Brilliant, brilliant save.
It was crucial, simply because something so similar happened at the other end within minutes. After Donovan's darting
run from the right played in Livingstone, Alec Chamberlain made an equally outstanding save to deflect the
striker's angled shot around the post with his fingertips. The difference is that we didn't build from there. Two
corners later and nobody took charge of marking and clearing, allowing Handyside to level the scores
with a header from close range and render Chamberlain's magnificence irrelevant.
Downhill from there. Within a minute, we might've regained the lead as Vernazza managed to keep Noel-Williams'
cross in play with a superb, stretching volley that caught Coyne by surprise. The ball bounced out to Allan
Nielsen, who skied the chance onto the roof of the stand as the keeper flung himself out to compensate for his
error. The ball was returned to ground level by a gust of wind about twenty minutes later. By that time, we'd disintegrated entirely.
As a team, we don't have an Achilles heel. We have a glass jaw. We can't take punches. When setbacks are
encountered, the response is on an individual level - the pulsating rebellion of Tommy Mooney, the skill of
Paolo Vernazza. There is no collective response, no re-grouping of the troops. Not so very long ago, a Watford
side conceded a goal in the first five minutes of a playoff semi-final at St Andrews, when the roar of the
crowd felt like a punch in the guts. That side held out, taking the game to extra time and penalties. It would've
been impossible as a set of individuals, as people with selfish thoughts. I see none of that
collective strength now. None at all.
So, without retaining any dignity, we left Gifton Noel-Williams and Tommy Smith to inevitable capture. We relied on Vernazza
and Mooney to make something happen for us. We handed Grimsby the opportunity to win the game, which they deservedly took. And we
went home, defeated.
Forget everything else. Campbell's well-struck shot at Chamberlain, Vernazza's attempted curler at Coyne, Livingstone's
weak header after Chamberlain's poor clearance had given Donovan possession, Ward's near post touch wide from
Nielsen's cross. Forget them all. As previously noted, it's about decisive moments. It's about things like
Gallimore's run down the left, long of stride and full of purpose. It's about things like the bundle at the
near post from the resulting cross...or, more particularly, winning the bundle at the near post, leaving Coldicott to prod
home. It's about the stuff that wins points, and it doesn't include the kind of pathetic navel-contemplating that we're
so prone to.
Again, we lost a football match in our heads, apparently admitting defeat long before it appeared on the BBC's vidiprinter. From
the moment that Grimsby equalised, we were very visibly going through the motions. Where is the responsibility
to each other? Where is that collective will? Where is the leadership on the pitch? Where is the team?
A long journey home, delayed by a broken rail and surrounded by jubilant Fulham fans. As before, I very much hope
that Grimsby stay up, not least because it'd be at the expense of Crystal Palace. But that's no consolation, no
reason to feel contented. This was pathetic. F***ing spineless. The work of people for whom mid-table failure would offer
welcome anonymity, comfortable safety.
Any complaints, lads? Go on, then. Prove me wrong.
(The chips were nice, though.)