When I think of Grimsby Town there’s two moments in time that spring directly to mind – one of a devastating childhood memory and one of some sort of morbid redemption years later. As we prepare to visit Blundell Park to attempt to write another chapter in our historic tussles with the Mariners I look back below on two vivid days in recent times involving the two clubs.
Wembley 1998 – What might have been…
I was still a relative nipper in 1998 when the Cobblers, fresh off the back of the first Wembley appearance and arguably the biggest day in the club’s history, made their way into the shadows of the Twin Towers again to meet Grimsby Town for the chance to play in the second tier of English football (Division One, now the Championship). Back in those heady days of enormous team spirit and unity of the town, it felt that it was our destiny to win back to back promotions.
Grimsby, though, had other ideas and would edge a game that will be with us almost as vividly as the first Wembley game twelve months previously. It was settled mid-way through the first half when a slip in the Cobblers defence was capitalised on by Kevin Donovan who skipped through to fire past Andy Woodman for what would be the only goal of a tense game.
Woody would have his moment, of course, with a second half penalty save but even after that it never felt like our day. The one other abiding memory is that miss from Dean Peer from just a few yards out late on that could have turned the tide but it just wasn’t to be.
After two years of glory that had seen the Cobblers capture the imagination of the entire town it was a sudden bump that we didn’t come back from for many a year. Relegation followed just a year later and so began a period of rebuilding with Ian Atkins sacked near the start of the 2000/01 and old monetary issues rearing their ugly heads once again a couple of years later.
As a young teenager and with a relatively small amount of Cobblers supporting experience behind me, this was the first real moment of utter disappointment that I felt. Fortunately there were happier days ahead that made these days somewhat worthwhile…
It was the final day of the 2005/06 season and one week ago I had one of the best individual days (and nights) that I have ever had. It was a few days after my final week of university and the Cobblers were up against Chester City at Sixfields. On the same day, my housemate and emerging Cobbler, Jamie, was watching on as his first love, Chelsea, won the Premier League at lunch time. Before I travelled to Northampton from Southampton, the base for our uni life, we had provisionally planned a night out should two things happen: a) Chelsea won the league and the Cobblers were promoted and b) I got home in time!
After Chelsea had done their bit for our personal celebrations, the Cobblers won 1-0 to seal promotion and after the on-pitch party, I raced back to Southampton to eventually find a now unfortunately defunct, almost all night venue, the Frog and Frigate to be the perfect setting for sing alongs and celebrations.
That party mood was still in full swing when we visited Grimsby on the last day of the season a week later with a sold out away end ready to see it out in style. The Mariners, though, came into the game in third place and needed one more victory to seal their own promotion. They seemed confident and it appeared that we would all be singing along to “We are going up” by the end of the afternoon.
Leyton Orient and Ryan Gilligan had other ideas.
Orient were fourth at the start of play and needed us to do them a favour as well as having to win at Oxford United to edge Grimsby out of the final automatic promotion place. If the events of that afternoon had happened further up the footballing pyramid they would still be showing repeats to this day.
It was as tense as you like until Grimsby found a break through with fifteen minutes to go when they were awarded a penalty and Jean-Paul Kalala converted to give them a direct ticket to League One. With Orient drawing at the Kassam it was all pointing towards a Grimsby promotion. Until the final seconds of the day unfolded, that is.
Suddenly, and almost at the same time, two goals changed the course of history.
I’m not even sure what happened first but just remember a haze of astonishing celebrations. The Cobblers won a corner in stoppage time and the ball broke to Gilligan. As Grimsby fans hovered on the edge of the pitch ready to begin their own party, Gilligan swept the ball into the net for 1-1, sending shockwaves around the ground. At the same point, Orient broke away at Oxford and scored themselves and, in a split second, were promoted in the Mariners’ place!
We were celebrating alone, after all, in the away end at Blundell Park but Leyton Orient will forever thank us for coupling their victory with a crucial goal that sent Grimsby into the playoffs, eventually to defeat in the final against Cheltenham Town.
A few years of struggle followed for them and ended with relegation to the Conference in 2010 – you’re unlikely to find a more convincing point of reference for where the slide began other than this day in 2006.
While this one didn’t directly replace the disappointment from 1998 it went a long way to healing old wounds when you talk about Grimsby Town to Cobblers fans.
On Saturday afternoon, any high will be nowhere near the high felt from that game and any low won’t come close to Wembley ’98 but as we meet again, there will be plenty of fans from either side shuddering as they consider their opposition.