The first competitive home game of the season is always worthy of getting out the bunting, especially when the visitors are from relatively close by. This was the lure for my Italian friend Stefano from Ancona and I as it took us to Great Grimsby, or Cleethorpes if you want to get picky, as Grimsby Town play in the neighbours backyard so to speak! The town is prefixed by Great to distinguish itself from Little Grimsby a little further down the road, but as we were to discover it felt like an ironic title.
The “by” at the end of any town or city in this country signifies Viking involvement, and in Grimsby’s case it was allegedly named after a Danish fisherman called Grim in the 9th Century AD, not just yesterday! As to whether he was one of the brothers remains unclear! He certainly had the right occupation for a port famous to this day for its fishing. Sadly the unfortunately named Mr Grim might also be well named for modern day Grimsby as with its industries and fishing fleet diminished, the legacy has left a feeling of a down at heel town trying its best to improve itself, but “Great” Grimsby it is not for now!
Checking into the town centre’s best hotel The Holiday Inn Express I enquired as to the proximity of the stadium, and was delighted to hear it was no more than ten minutes, but alas upon declaring we had plenty of time before walking, the receptionist changed her estimation to about an hour!! We aren’t that slow at walking I quipped, which she ultimately didn’t mean, merely that it was a more complicated route! If only we’d heided her warning, but up in the room Google maps suggested a mere 45 minutes, and after a drive right across England from Liverpool to Grimsby, a stretch of the legs was needed!!
Now I have done a few crazy things all in the name of a good photo for the FW magazine, mostly walking into open stadio in Italy uninvited, including getting locked in at Livorno! This expedition required a shot of the iconic Dock Tower, Grimsby’s tip of the hat to Firenze or Venezia, where it wouldn’t be out of place in either city! Having seen a game from Blundell Park on TV I was familiar with the idea that the ground was close to the sea, and one of the three Google map walking routes was taking us by the port, it couldn’t have been better…until we happened upon a security hut at the entry to the port! Understandably Grimsby is a large working port where access isn’t allowed, but in asking the chap what was the best way to the stadium, I showed him my phone with its suggested possible walk through the port. This apparently is the North Walk, and access is allowed if you are heading there!! He gave us way too detailed route information, and it got to the point where my brain shutdown thinking it’s all on the Google map anyway! While the Tower was still illusively in the distance, the start of the walk along the yacht harbour did afford the clearest view. Twenty minutes later having walked by one industrial unit after another we came to a gate in the fence, but it was locked, we had no option but to double back. The clock was ticking and if we tried to walk all the way we’d never make kick off and so an executive decision was taken when we arrived outside Grimsby Town’s sponsors HQ in the port, I called a cab! The taxi driver was shocked to learn the security man had let us into the docks as the North walk was dangerous in his opinion, but I suspect we never found that route, as we’d walked along nothing more dangerous than occasionally crumbling pavement!
Less than ten minutes in the taxi and we were in the queue for tickets outside the ground. It was a glorious night and immediately the magnificent old style floodlight pylons caught my eye. Entry through the turnstiles brought a wonderful old fashioned stadium. Blundell Park should be preserved forever as a reminder of how stadia were all different and quirky back in the day before the bland template for all seater arenas came along. The main stand is unusual and unique too with its slight forward lean. A seat on the upper tier would afford views of the port, that iconic tower and out to sea. Alas we’d opted for the lower tier, and our seats were right in the front row at pitch level! It was an unusual view, as well as a frustrating one with people shuffling by on a regular basis en route to the conveniences and the snack truck. The attendance was relatively poor at around 2,500 but it meant a good number of seats were free in the home stand behind the goal and so we took up a different vantage point for the second half.
Doncaster are my English team, a curiosity that started from news footage of fans carrying a coffin through the streets of the town at the point when the club were relegated from the football league in the late ‘90’s after a truly disastrous season, and the threat of the club going out of business. Well ahead of the troubles at Bury especially this season, a ruinous owner nearly brought Doncaster to its knees. I started following their Conference results, and gradually their saviour John Ryan brought the club back to life. Eventually the intrigue got too much and I headed down to Belle Vue to see them play Hereford United one early November Saturday in 2002 for a fifth tier joust. Belle Vue was another proper old ground with real character, and it afforded a cracking atmosphere. Another reason Rovers grew on me was the development of a new badge with a Viking, something the Viking settlement of Grimsby missed out on, but then they have got fish! In more recent years it became apparent via a historian that Doncaster had never been “officially” signed back to England after the plunderings of William Wallace, and “technically” was Scottish! A touristic quirk to trade off perhaps, a Scottish enclave in England, but not for a proud Yorkshire town! Indeed the chanting of their proud county’s name at Middlesbrough when Rovers were in the Championship caused particular angst amongst a contingent of the home support and it sadly lead to trouble outside the Riverside when I was there.
In my twelve visits to the old ground, the most curious scheduling afforded me three consecutive years of the August Bank Holiday Monday fixture against Huddersfield Town with a win, loss and a draw across two leagues between the clubs! The best day for me at Belle Vue was a fortuitous Easter Monday fixture against Cambridge United that saw the ground encountering a last ever lock out for many disappointed fans ahead a 2-0 win that brought Rovers promotion to the third tier in only the clubs second season back in the league. All the Good Friday results had all gone in Donny’s favour and it caught the club out in terms of when promotion would be clinched, and having a lack of time to issue tickets. I was in the stadium more than an hour before kick off and it was nearly full by then such was the excitement! Obviously in beating Leeds United to reach the Championship in the League One Play Off was a real high by which time the club were settled into the Keepmoat Stadium, and while I had to settle for watching this game on TV, I journeyed down to Cardiff for the Johnstone Paint Pot final versus Bristol Rovers, where an extra time winner took the Cup to South Yorkshire after a thrilling 3-2 success.
The only time I had come across Grimsby had been at Wembley when they played FC Halifax Town in the FA Trophy Final in 2016. It was The Mariners second weekend on the trot at the National Stadium having beaten Forest Green 3-1 to regain the clubs league place after six years in the wilderness. The following Sunday in a close run match, the Shaymen won out 1-0 amid floods of tears, a first major honour for Halifax a week after the club had slipped into National League North amid fears the club would struggle to bounce back, but they were promoted immediately within the year, doubtlessly on the coattails of this success. Grimsby’s real cup final had been getting back into the league and they have consolidated in League Two.
Grimsby started life as Grimsby Pelham in 1878, an odd name, but a year later the taking of Pelham (as the film goes) was replaced by Town, a name you’ll hear more than Grimsby at Blundell Park, “We are Town”, “Come on Town” or “fish” seem the staple of the faithful as they encourage in a stadium that has been the clubs home for 121 years! Bill Shankly was once the Town boss, ahead of going on to greater things across the breadth of the country at Liverpool. Lawrie McMenemy won promotion to the third tier with the Mariners in 1972 before moving onto Southampton and an FA Cup success with them in 1976. Alan Buckley though is the most successful boss guiding them to three promotions amongst three separate spells in the hot seat. While Lincoln might be blazing a trail through the leagues for now, Grimsby can still claim bragging rights in Lincolnshire as the only one of the three league clubs from the county to have played in all four divisions, as well as a brace of FA Cup semi finals. With Scunthorpe slipping back into League Two and replacing Lincoln, a derby will still be on the fixture roster at Blundell this season. One unusual permission Grimsby and Hull held was the right to host home matches on Christmas Day to coincide with the fishing fleets being in harbour! Given how diminished these fleets are now, such an anomaly no longer exists, which is good news for the Town players as well as the opposition, not to mention all the staff involved in match days too.
The visit of Doncaster wasn’t necessarily a derby, but a club from reasonable proximity gave it a local edge. Rovers having come within a penalty shoot out of Wembley for a place in the Championship for a third time in their recent history last term might have lost their boss and top striker in the close season, but they started off the more confident and capable side in this encounter. They were perhaps a touch too indulgent at times and a lack of a true cutting edge became apparent. That said, Town’s keeper was in inspired form early on with one quite brilliant save to keep the visitors out. Grimsby grew into the game and started looking more dangerous on the break. One such counter attack brought a tidy finish to the delight of the home crowd. In the second half Doncaster were never as threatening and it almost felt they were going to go out with a whimper, but a late rally, including a near header from their keeper in the Town box nearly forced extra time, but it was too little to late, and they were out.
The walk back to the hotel was needless to say attempted on the more sensible regular road route, initially a straight as an arrow road crossing the divide between Cleethorpes and Grimsby. We then came to the issue as to why ten minutes in the car becomes nearer an hour walking, with a flyover of no more than 500 metres in length in our way and it had no pavement! You have to turn left up a road that only relents with a walkway across industrial wastelands after more than a mile up a poorly light and disturbingly quiet road, complete with hookers on corners across the road! It wasn’t the most relaxed walk, but safety in number of not being alone was fine. It isn’t a walk I would ever wish to repeat! I know the good people of Grimsby are friendly, and those we chatted too were happy visitors had ventured from Italy and Scotland to see Town, but as a town, sadly grim sums it up!
After four years without seeing Rovers play, this was a disappointing loss, meaning it is six years since I last saw them win a game, so I better get myself down to Doncaster this season and rectify this statistic! As for Grimsby, I wouldn’t be adverse to watching more games at cracking Blundell Park, but I would pincer in and out of the area on the day.