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Matt Tees: The Second Coming

By: Gordon Wilson
Date: 23/01/2008 (Last updated: 03/03/2008)

THE Mariners’ multitude swelled from five to seven thousand to witness the return of Matt Tees to Blundell Park in November 1970. He fed them a 26th minute goal against Cambridge United that made it seem as if he had never been away. It was a goal that marked the beginning of a resurrection in the fortunes of Grimsby Town Football Club and a remarkable swansong in the career of one of the club’s greatest heroes.

The return of the Redeemer made Evening Telegraph front-page news on Bonfire Night 1970 and he was feted within days for his six-yard header. “YOU MUST BELIEVE IN FAIRY TALES AFTER THIS” cried the back page of Monday’s paper. A Mike Hickman nod from a Dave Boylen cross had created the opportunity. Within half an hour of his second Town debut, Tees was part of a combination that, including Stuart Brace, would become the stuff of legend.

“I was playing well when I left and I hope to be able to knock a few in,” he told the press on his return.

Chairman Paddy Hamilton said of Tees that the increased gate and the debut goal had recouped the £5,000 it cost to bring the popular Scot back from Luton Town. However exaggerated that compliment might have been, the fee was to prove both risky and inspired. Tees’ ten goals in 23 appearances were to mark him as the saviour of the fortunes of a club in trouble. The Mariners narrowly avoided a second application for re-election in two years before having to go publicly, and unsuccessfully, cap in hand to the local council for financial assistance during the close-season. And of the twenty four clubs that started the next season in Division Four, nine have since been relegated to non-league football, seven of them never to return.

The unassuming modesty of the softly spoken Scot prevents him from saying much about his part in the club’s salvation. Typically he has only this to say of his return:

“The Luton Chairman said to me ‘Grimsby have come in for you. They liked you up there didn’t they? Would you like to go back?’ I said I would. We’d always liked it up here, and the folk as well. We often used to visit friends when we played here so I was definitely interested in coming back.”

Lawrie McMenemy replaced player manager Bobby Kennedy and brought about a miracle with Tees at the heart of it. McMenemy has famously spoken of his misgivings on setting eyes on Tees in the dressing room after his first training session. “I looked around for potential trouble and my eyes fell on this fellow. He was older than the others. Ten stone wet through and smoking a pipe. He had legs like pipe-cleaners and didn’t look strong enough. He could hardly stand up.

Matt laughs this off to destroy the myth of that first meeting. “Ah that was just him having a joke. That’s just one of his cracks for his speeches. He’s a very funny man”.

But if he can deny that piece of folklore he could not do the same for the rest of The Big Man’s appreciation of Tees. “Matt was a bloody marvel, a great character that the crowd loved, and he repaid them in full.”

Indeed he did. Twenty-seven goals led the march to the Championship. Any initial doubts about the value of the slender Scot were dispelled as Matt spearheaded the Mariners attack in an August goal-scoring frenzy that began with a 7-1 friendly victory over Japan in which Tees bent his knees to head a low rebound off the keeper into the net. Then in the opening league encounter he scored a hat-trick in a 4-1 drubbing of local rivals and subsequent promotion partners Scunthorpe United. A close range header in the sixth minute and a flying header at the Osmond End set him on the way to be followed by an opportunistic snatch after another had been disallowed. Four days later his soaring header was one of four conceded by Doncaster in a seven-goal League Cup thriller. A sliding goal helped Town to another 4-3 win, this time at Exeter, before Tees scored Town’s only goal in a home draw with Workington. One month. 5 games. 20 goals. 7 from Tees. One of the most exciting seasons in the history of the club was underway.

Matt acknowledges the importance of McMenemy’s influence in generating excitement and interest in the club during that remarkable season. “ He brought a lot of people back to Blundell Park. Taking the team into the supporters’ own environment was a good thing. He would take us to supporters’ meetings as far away as Brigg and Skegness where we’d listen to the fans and talk about the game. They’d be over the moon.

“Going on to the docks and meeting folk at work was a great gesture. I wasn’t very happy at being there at six-o-clock in the morning, mind, but it was great public relations. He was much loved and deserved it.”

Matt does not recall any particular motivational qualities that McMenemy used on him other than an occasional reminder that he’d gone a few games without a goal. “And that wasn’t a problem really as we weren’t losing and others were scoring goals anyway, like Mike and Bracey.”

One such rare goal drought was the seven-match spell between Christmas and late February. Tees got back on target with Town’s fourth of the game against Northampton, but it is the third that bring laughter and a sparkle to his eye as he recalls the events leading up to Stuart Brace’s penalty conversion. “Alan Starling was the goalkeeper. He was an old mate of mine. We’d played together at Luton. Goalkeepers weren’t allowed to move much then so I was standing in front of him to restrict him. ‘Do you want it then?’ he said and held the ball up to my face and said, ‘Have it then.’ And I fell over. For a joke you know. Well, I was as surprised as anybody when the referee awarded a penalty. I was shocked. And then Bracey scored. It was a good penalty.”

By 2 May 1972 when Exeter City arrived to complete a rearranged fixture Town needed a draw to clinch the Division Four Championship. Eighty five goals had been scored, more than anywhere in the Football League that season, the bulk provided by Tees, Brace and Hickman.

Matt is typically generous in acknowledging the importance of his fellow marksmen to his own tally. “Mike’s [Hickman] was the hardest part. He was the ball winner, the provider, the ninety-minute runner. He took all of the knocks and I reaped the benefits of all of his hard work.

“Stuart [Brace] provided the pace. He was a mind reader who always seemed to know what I was doing. We always seemed to know what the other was doing, where we were – we anticipated each other.”

Similar praise is given to Dave Boylen. “He used to keep us all ticking over. He provided all of the opportunities from midfield.”

Matt is reluctant to dwell on his own special talents. While unassumingly recognising them as “heading” and “timing” he prefers to stress other factors. “A lot of the time it’s luck. You have to rely on the run of the ball, the pace of the ball, the delivery of the ball and that’s usually down to someone else. But it’s more than this. That season the whole team built a confidence and that grew from a mutual reliance on each other.”

Such confidence and mutuality brought the team to Tuesday, 2 May 1972.

The Exeter City team coach required a police escort to get to Blundell Park through the crowds of people and cars on that night. 22,484 spectators were entertained before the game by the Athol Pipe Band. Trevor Symonds flew home from Australia for the match. Town needed a point to become Champions of Division Four. Such was the setting that the opposition faced that night. Lawrie McMenemy would later claim that it was the fans that won the game, that the team merely made up the numbers.

Matt recalls, “The Exeter players were frightened by the crowd and atmosphere. Some of them said they’d never felt anything like the pressure of that night. They wondered where the crowd had come from.

“We’d played Exeter earlier in the season, on a Saturday. The fog came in and the referee abandoned the game. It was fate. The match was put back to the last game of the season. We had to win and we knew we would. If we won we were Champions. The atmosphere that night was fantastic. When you went on to the park you could feel it. It was electric. And those supporters on the Barrett Stand roof! During the warm-up we were talking to each other and saying, ‘We can’t lose tonight.’

“You couldn’t get that at Blundell Park again. Not 23,000 like that. For excitement and atmosphere it was probably the greatest and most memorable game I played in.” This from one who had played in glorious Blundell Park League Cup fourth round draw against European Cup Winners Cup Holders, West Ham United featuring the future World Cup Winning trio of Moore, Peters and Hurst in 1965.

“I don’t recall the lead up to the game. We tried to keep calm and not think do this - do that. We tried to treat it like any other match.”

Does Matt remember the goal that set everything rolling? “I can! The ball came across in the air and I jumped up and headed it in. That’s it.” Others remember that it was a scoop from Brace for a leaping Tees to head across the goal and into the far corner of the net. They also remember a toothless hero, arms aloft acknowledging the adulation of the masses. Exeter were overwhelmed as the anthems spilled over the roofs of the stands and into Cleethorpes streets. The turf was filled with supporters for the first time in years. And Matt the Messiah was chaired from the pitch on the shoulders of the faithful.

Hundreds remained in the Pontoon long after the game, reliving the marvels and the wonder, recalling among other things the fierce and soaring Tees header that didn’t find the net. The second goal, fantastically reminiscent of the first of his second coming, a Tees nod down from a Boylen cross for the great hearted Hickman to score. And Lew Chatterley’s third, that fired the crowd whose cheers rent the air.

He’s not really surprised that Grimsby folk still linger on the memories of that great season. “I think people should remember. People speak to me about that season, the older ones.” He echoes his words to a Telegraph reporter on the night. “What a wonderful night. The crowd were fantastic. Being out there and hearing 20,000 chant ‘Mariners’ and ‘Champions’ was something we’ll always remember.”

The next season was to be different. Away at Watford in January, Tees returned from a two-month injury lay-off to hammer an 82nd minute low shot across an advancing goalkeeper to win the game. It was his second of the match and it put Town on the fringe of the Third division promotion race. With sad irony, the Telegraph Sports editor Roy Line wrote, “Tees? Well what is there to add? His goals said it all. There still seems a lot of scoring life left in the lean wiry Scot.” Matt would never score for Grimsby again. Further injury restricted him to only six more games. His last appearance was at home in the final game of the season when the Telegraph reported he “played with all his old fire…getting a rare old buffeting from the Plymouth defence.” The back page bore a picture of an airborne Tees flying header, neck and leg sinews tensed, being foiled by the goalkeeper’s perfect positioning.

In his end of season “Mariners Log” Line observed that a major factor in the failure to win a second successive promotion had been the frequent absence of Matt Tees through injury. The report went on to acknowledge that there would be few players capable of emulating the feats of that goal-scoring machine.

In the following week, Matt Tees was given a free transfer by Grimsby Town on the same day that Manchester United released Denis Law and Bobby Charlton played his last game for Manchester United. Such is the symmetry that history sometimes provides.

There have of course been other strikers to grace The Park and excite the faithful. Donovan, Drinkell, Lund, Wilkinson, Mendonca have all proved successfully creative and productive though none have been as prolific or gained the affections of the fans in the way of the man from Johnstone. And the affection is returned. “This is a good place. There are lovely people here. Even when we moved away to London we always intended coming back here sometime.” Matt is modestly aware of the esteem with which he is remembered by many; and delighted and amazed to hear that there are men walking local streets who were named after him by devoted fathers.

The second coming only lasted for two and a half seasons. It brought 42 goals in 80 matches. It saw the club fortunes turned around. Near desperation turned to jubilation. It led to one of the most fantastic nights that Blundell Park has ever seen. And but for a chipped anklebone, it might have witnessed a double promotion to match any other the club has achieved.

Some will remember one of Matt’s greatest fans, a man who would often be seen in his greatcoat, drunkenly circuiting the terraces or wandering along the railway after the game, roaring with his deep and gravely voice the name of the Mariners’ Messiah – TEEEEEEEEEEES! TEEEEEEEEES! TEEEEEEEEES! I can hear it still.

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