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Grouch Of The Day

By: Doug Embleton
Date: 02/02/2008 (Last updated: 03/03/2008)

A note to you, dear reader! This article was written in early December and this only goes to prove that a few weeks is not only a long time in politics….but also in football. Steve McLaren’s exit is history and England aim to turn over a new leaf with Capello. Sir Alex has been turning his hairdryer at maximum heat on the fans who don’t make enough noise at Old Trafford….and many of those fans (quite rightly, in my humble opinion) are pointing out that Premiership football has become a sanitised experience of high prices; all-seating; being ejected for daring to stand up or shout. But…it’s the corporates and day-trippers who swell the Old Trafford coffers these days. And scoff the prawn sarnies.

More Premiership Managers have been sacked because, for better or for worse, they couldn’t compete in the cash-obsessed four club race for the title. And Sol Campbell has complained about fans being abusive towards highly paid players.

And, finally, I have broken my self-imposed exile of not attending games at Darlo’s huge, out of town stadium. Well….Christmas and New Year visitors drag you along, don’t they?

But, in spite of these developments, I haven’t changed the views which I wrote down in late November one bit. In fact, they have probably been reinforced.

Mariners’ fans beware! As a Darlington supporter- and I have written about this in previous editions of your admirable little fanzine/website (well done, Jake!)- I nowadays confine my meetings with fellow Quaker brethren to as many away games as I can.

There is an interminable debate at Darlo which revolves around actuality and reality. The club remains utterly baffled as to why bigger crowds can’t be attracted to the new super-dooper, edge of town, all-seater stadium. And, fair play. The team is performing much better this season and at the time of writing is in 2nd position.

But, in the same way as any wise politician will say “It’s the economy, stupid!”, in Darlo’s case “it’s reality and history, stupid!”. It’s not a great matchday experience to sit amongst 3,000-odd hardy souls but surrounded therefore by well over 20,000 empty seats. A reality. And history says that, charming market town that Darlo still sort of is, even in 2 successive promotion years in the very early 90s, crowds averaged only 4,000.

A Saturday in early November saw me and the good lady on a weekend visit to Manchester to see one daughter plus son-in-law. Perfect son-in-law, especially in these days of the “modern man” (whatever that is) . Hatch the matchday plan on the Friday night, package it up and tie it with a ribbon before presenting it to the ladies. Like a Gordon Ramsey recipe.

Firstly, the ingredients. Review FA Cup 1st round games within driving and ladies’ shoppability distance. This, when parboiled, reduces to Stockport v Staines, Bury v Workington and Altrincham v Millwall. A good selection but, as it contains extra spice, the Alty game goes into the pot.

Then, add a touch of dressing and serve to said ladies at breakfast as… “Erm…we thought you might like to go and have a nice pub lunch in Altrincham and then we two could just ‘nip over’ to the match whilst you go shopping”. No mention at this juncture that dessert will consist of the game being the main FA Cup dish on Match of The Day later that night. Perfect.

Mission accomplished, even if a wine bar and Pinot Grigio (good name for a new England manager? They’d sold out of the Capello dry white) are not my ideal pre-match aperitif. Never mind. Space left for a pre-match pie and Bovril. And there’s the rub. If we tot up all of the attendances of the 1000s of clubs outside of the Premiership then there are many, many more folk who prefer to stay with the matchday experience which they like.

And this experience, whilst including much better crowd banter and gallows humour; being able to stand and move around whilst watching the game; players who are human beings –you are closer to them on the pitch- but also closer to them as people;…. also includes, for those who so choose, the matchday ritual of a good, tasty pie and a Bovril.

The pie is somehow symbolic. Roy Keane famously ranted about the prawn sandwich brigade…the pre-match lunch, sit-down meal brigade. And, just as symbolically, this is what Premiership football has become. An allegedly “gourmet” experience but-increasingly- only for those who can afford it.

Saddest of all, many other clubs who have proud traditions and historical local support now aspire to achieve the same –on the same gravy train. Sometimes, via Chairmen who cast envious glances at the riches of the Premiership, the money, the sell-out crowds and feel that they and their club should have a slice of it.

This is definitely not a rant against the Man Utds, Chelseas, Arsenals. Good luck to them. It’s more about a reality which the big money men and football authorities will sooner rather than later have to accept. And, especially those non-Premiership clubs who, shall we say, become smitten with ideas beyond their historical station.

That reality is that many fans across the country simply don’t need - in fact don’t want- the prawn sandwich experience and get their own preferred matchday experience from the things at the very roots of the game but which are in huge danger of being scoffed at and mocked by the Premiership elite and the pundits.

And so, on to Alty. When we got to the ground we were surprised ( as were about half of the people arriving) to learn that it had been deemed an all-ticket game with ticket sales suspended the day before. Sure, Millwall’s reputation was the source of this but, my oh my, don’t the police and local authorities have a field day (and a decent revenue) from the likes of Altrincham on these occasions?

As it turned out, Millwall brought just a few hundred fans with just the odd (well, very odd) acne-ridden, Burberryed 14-year old nutter. About one Steve Harley “Acne Rebel” per police horse.

So, gaining entry was the first priority but there were plenty of tickets to be had outside the local chippie. But, not before amicable debates with an absolutely mad excess number of stewards. Perhaps the local authorities were being politically correct and had decided that fans had human rights to one-on-one counselling and anger management from their own nominated steward. One thing’s for sure. Altrincham didn’t need- or want- this huge expense.

The ground , which we’d visited before with Darlo in the FA Cup , is a little gem with one seated and one all-standing covered stand on the sides and a covered standing area and open terrace at the ends. And, yes, the local pies were fantastic and the Bovril got a 5-star rating. We took up a good position in the all-standing covered area on the halfway line, just below the Match of The Day camera gantry.

The game, the banter, the humour were all fantastic. Alty took a 1-0 lead just before half-time with a cracking volley and an upset seemed to be on the cards. In the second half, they were cruelly robbed by a wrongful red card and penalty decision and then their ten men found the going too tough and ran out losing 2-1 to a mightily unimpressive Millwall. But, a really good Saturday afternoon of traditional 3 o’ clock kick-off football.

And what did the prawn sandwich brigade make of it all? Well, the first signs came with Match of The Day. The first bummer was that they devoted most of the programme to endless debate, analysis and action replays from the very few Premiership games which had been played. Well, the Prem no longer does traditional Saturday 3 o’ clock footie, does it?

The insult added to injury was that they then, for the first time in years, failed to show goals from all of the 1st round FA Cup games. The knock-out blow came when, instead of this, they ended the programme with a film editor’s cameo of the “comedy errors” perpetrated at some of the 1st round games and, to rub lashings of salt into the wound, then devoted time to the Lineker & co pundits pouring scorn on these same errors.

Pathetic? Yes. Arrogant? Yes. Elitist? Yes. Of course, the cameo didn’t feature Paul Robinson’s missed clearance in Croatia. Or Steven Gerrard’s miss in Russia. I totally felt for the the guy who featured in the main error which they replayed and wouldn’t let go of. The guy’s Dad had been a great ‘keeper for Darlo, Newcastle and Sheffield United; the guy himself has had a more than competent career in Leagues 1 and 2. He just didn’t deserve it.

One of the best reactions to this came in the Sunday and Monday national press. The “Observer” had a great feature which gives full page plus colour photo coverage right from the 1st Qualifying round through to the ultimate finalist. And it does this with dignity (we’d met the photographer outside the Alty ground).

On the Monday, “TheTimes” did a great article praising the excitement and honest endeavour and ending with the oh so true comment that many, many more spectators regularly watch football outside the Premiership than those within it.

The moral of this particular tale came with England’s sad and pitiful exit from the European Championships . This might finally (oh, please, please!) lead to a frank and brutal analysis of just how far the Premiership (and, yes, you too are included, Match of The Day) has now gone into a separate orbit of worshipping celebrity, money, salaries, ego, etc. An arrogance which has by now totally divorced it from the roots of the very game which spawned it.

Article after article now questions whether there are too many overseas players in our game. Scottish football has already been down this soul-searching road and when it lost the huge TV revenues and most of its overseas players, managed to save itself from the abyss. It now has more and more Scots playing in its Premier League and, whilst not yet the finished article, a national team which shows true grit and determination. And pride.

We know that nowadays even the youth Academies of our top clubs are awash with young players from overseas. That is a national disgrace.

But, hey, we can already see that what is today’s lunatic idea can become tomorrow’s reality. American and other overseas owners of Premiership clubs can foresee “live” games being taken to the USA and other countries to be played. Fantasy? No. These people refer to their team as a “brand” or a “product”. It’s the future. And it’s not garlic bread. Or even a pie. Not even pie in the Sky, as it were.

Looking on the bright side of the road, whilst they may well go down this road of “global branding” this will mean that the armchair fans can fuel their 24/7 TV obesity with this global football. The WAGS will get their own chat shows and shopping channels. Let’s just allow enough time for Leeds and Ken Bates to jump back on this mad roundabout.

Meanwhile, once the space is cleared, (and, statistically, we remain the huge majority anyway) we can just get on with taking part in real football at real local clubs. One thing’s for sure. Our national game is at a crossroads. Pass the prawn sandwiches…or do you prefer a pie and a Bovril and a 3 o’ clock kick-off?

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