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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 10/02/02, 2.15pm
Grimsby Town
A strange week
By Matt Rowson

Well, here's a strange week and no mistake. Graham Taylor returns to football management at Villa Park against all expectation. Some Watford fans with the memories of (and a narrower sense of perspective than) goldfish speak of betrayal. Oh, my word. And my wife, the world's biggest fan of sleep, decides to set the alarm for 5.30am on the basis that she "fancies getting up to watch a bit of telly". What?

Having patiently tolerated all manner of tactical tinkering and any number of disappointing performances this season, Vicarage Road finally rebels in the face of an (albeit ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to play with that most Watford of formations, 4-4-2 with flying wingers.

On top of all of this, ITV decide that somebody somewhere wants to watch Watford versus Grimsby Town live on television on a Sunday lunchtime, thus contributing to a two month plus spell without a 3pm Saturday at the Vic. Duh.

Grimsby Town are going to be relegated. That's as complicated as the rest of their season gets, unfortunately; with an inexperienced manager, a limited squad and a forward line that has mustered only three goals in the last twelve away games, the writing's on the wall.

This, too, is almost as peculiar as it is undesirable. Grimsby have turned defying portents of relegation into a bit of an art form since they were promoted behind us in 1998. Far from being average Division One fodder, the Mariners have flickered between the equally endearing propositions of an easy three points and entertainingly competitive opposition without ever resorting to Pompeyesque drudgery.

As for Mariners fans, little clues have long since given away that the game is up. Such as when a rare surge of competitiveness at home to weak opposition coincides with a refereeing performance of staggering ineptitude. The Eletcronic Fishcake's report on Saturday's one-nil defeat to Bradford City is a study in glum resignation and, from this safe distance, a joy to behold.

Groves has switched between 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 this season, but chose the former for the Bradford tie. In goal for Town will be Danny Coyne, one of the better goalkeepers in the Division and called up to the Wales squad for next week's friendly with Argentina. His cover is Steve Croudson, who made one of his first starts for the Mariners in our 1-0 victory in this fixture three years ago, securing our play-off place.

At right-back veteran John McDermott is recently back from injury and should play. Tony Gallimore is dependably inconsistent at left-back. Cover in these positions comes from the once-rated Danny Butterfield on the right and from Ben Chapman on the left; both can also take midfield roles.

In the centre, manager Paul Groves should return from suspension to replace highly rated youngster Simon Ford who picked up a hip injury against Bradford. Groves is likely to be partnered by Paul Raven, who followed ex-manager Alan Buckley to Blundell Park from West Brom. Welshman Alan Nielson is also an option, but he hasn't featured since scoring the critical own goal in the FA Cup defeat to York City.

In midfield, some optimism has been regenerated by the renewal of the destructive central partnership of Stacey Coldicott and Alan Pouton, the latter recently returned from injury. Dutchman Menno Willems has been featuring on the left, whilst Stuart Campbell has had a particularly disappointing season on the right. Other midfield options include the talented but injury-prone Wayne Burnett and left-sided veteran David Smith.

Town's much-maligned forward line has recently been beefed up a little by the loan capture of Robert Taylor from Wolves. Taylor has done a decent job of filling the boots of the injured Steve Livingstone, but his dismissal last weekend means that this is likely to be his last game for Town; his loan spell expires before his suspension.

He could be partnered by former Mansfield man Michael Boulding, who is very quick but hasn't scored since November. Other options include youngster Jonathan Rowan, returning from injury, league cup hero Phil Jevons, the discontented Bradley Allen and the staggeringly unprolific Mike Jeffrey. An attempt to bring former favourite Clive Mendonca back to Blundell Park earlier in the season came to a conclusive halt when the Charlton forward finally retired from injury recently. It's been that sort of campaign for Town, really.

Grimsby's last away win was against Liverpool at Anfield in October, their last league win another month before that. Watford's wingplay of the first forty-five minutes on Wednesday should bear fruit against the Mariners - the prospect of Pennant versus Gallimore is a particularly attractive one. Should we make the mistake of ceding the first goal, however, Town's defensive belligerence, coupled with the current lack of patience of the Vicarage Road crowd, could be our undoing. Stranger things have most certainly happened.