An international masterclass
By Matt Rowson
"OK", said Tsega after no little deliberation. "I'll come to the game on Saturday. But don't expect me to cheer against Grimsby...they've got enough problems as it is !".
Leaving aside for a moment the fact that if my football-agnostic wife knows that Grimsby are up shit creek without a paddle they must be in serious trouble, why on earth would anyone not want to come to a Watford game at the moment ? In contrast to the trauma and uncertainty off the field, the performance on the pitch in recent weeks has been nothing short of inspiring. There's a breathless, single-minded urgency about the whole thing that's transmitting itself to the stands. Travelling fans tend to be more easily won over, of course... with them the team has the head start of the financial and emotional investment that has been made in travelling to an away game, the extra determination to have a good time.
But last Saturday versus Brighton... we made comparatively heavy weather of beating a side that was bottom and on a run of nine defeats on the hop. That Brighton didn't quite live down to their pre-match billing is beside the point... what would have happened last season? Or the season before? Would we have bludgeoned on and won the game? Well, perhaps. But I doubt it. More pertinently, would the crowd have stayed so buoyantly positively behind the team? The attitude of team and crowd are to some extent symbiotic... but "not a chance in hell" is the blunt answer. Quite honestly, if anyone can come up with a more fun way to spend £10 on a Saturday afternoon then I'd like to know about it.
This, of course, is the key factor differentiating the state of Grimsby Town from that of ourselves. Both clubs, like so many, are in financial shtuck but only one set of fans can find any salvation between 3pm and 5pm on a Saturday afternoon (or whenever) at the moment. Grimsby's start to the season has been quite dismal, characterised by a dreadful 0-3 reverse at home to Reading at the weekend which seems to have been every bit as bad as it sounds. Paul Groves dragged the side out from an almost impossible position last season but this seems only to have prolonged the agony if anything. With only one win (away at Brighton) to date, Groves is rumoured to have tendered his resignation at the weekend - and to have had the offer turned down flat, to mixed emotions amongst the support.
I should at this point perhaps draw you attention to the most recent match report offered by The Electronic Fishcake. It's very difficult to write any form of Grimsby preview without plagiarising from these colourful accounts. I still intend to do so, but owning up to it in advance feels slightly more honest...
In goal for the Mariners will be Danny Coyne, a Welsh International and one of the side's key assets. His cover is currently on-loan Leeds youngster Shaun Allaway; regular deputy Steve Croudson is out with a shoulder injury. Bradley Hughes, recruited in the summer from Watford ("snatched under the noses of several big clubs", says the Official site), is also injured.
In defence, Grimsby are in all sorts. Player-manager Groves missed his first game through injury in living memory at the weekend and his calf problem looks set to keep him out for Tuesday's game at home to Ipswich. Veteran Steve Chettle has a recurring back problem that is also keeping him out, so the willing but limited Paul Raven and youngster Simon Ford, rated but seemingly not a fan of physical contact, should team up again. On the right is the experienced John McDermott although he appeared to pick up a knock at the weekend. On the left Tony Gallimore, sent off in this fixture last year, misses out with another suspension this time. The solution against Reading was to drop Darren Barnard back from midfield but a shambolic performance that stood out from the crowd ("An international masterclass in avoiding physical contact" - TEF) may see a rethink and young midfielder Iain Ward introduced as a stopgap.
In midfield the woefully out of form Alan Pouton forms a folically challenged central pairing with Stacey Coldicott. The anonymous Stuart Campbell will play on the right unless Barnard continues his unhappy spell at left-back, in which case Campbell will switch and the tooth-gnashingly inconsistent Terry Cooke, one of the numerous flaky prototypes off the Old Trafford wingers production line, will continue on the right. Another option, most likely in midfield, is the gruesome Georges Santos. Santos, signed on a four month trial, was a key protagonist in the "Battle of Bramall Lane" last season and also played a central role in the less heralded but no less memorable bloodshed in our pivotal clash with Tranmere in 1999. True to form, Santos heralded his debut on Saturday with a shocking hack worthy of a red card. I'm sure his Mummy Troll loves him.
Grimsby's goalscoring record is poor, but this seems to be down as much to inept service as to underperforming forwards. Town are certainly missing the injured Steve Livingstone, whose experience and elbows would be a big plus... the two incumbents on Saturday were on-loan Palace man Steve Kabba ("all arms") and 18-year-old Darren Mansaram ("all legs"). Paul Robinson, still suffering from the delusions of grandeur that once being rated by Ruud Gullit will have proffered and Jonathan Rowan, who has no such excuse, are further options. Big lump Robert Taylor, signed on a four month trial according to the official site, is not in evidence whilst Phil Jevons is part of a small army on loan at Hull.
Masochistically enjoyable as the landmark trip to Blundell Park is every season, likeable as Grimsby are and generous as we have found them in recent games at the Vic, it's difficult not to consider their patchwork, injury-hit squad and smell the same smell that beset our doomed sides in 1996 and 2000. Watford miss Hyde and Robinson to one-match suspensions, and possibly further players to international duty at the weekend. You suspect that such restrictions could have fallen less kindly. For Grimsby's fans, already eloquent in the language of misery, the formation of what appears to be the 64th Supporters' Trust will hopefully offer motivating distraction.