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How a historic run in the FA Cup re-energised Grimsby

BY R M Clark

31st Jan 2024 Sport

5 min read

How a historic run in the FA Cup re-energised Grimsby
Grimsby Town made a historic run in the FA Cup in 2022/23, but what did it mean for the Lincolnshire football club, town and its people
Journeying into the heart of English football, giving the amateur footballers and industrial towns the same curiosity and respect as Premier League stars and world-leading cities, R M Clark’s Winner Stays On: England with the FA Cup for a Compass is a unique and amusing book.
In the following excerpt, Clark looks at his time visiting Grimsby Town as they made history in an FA Cup run in 2022/23 that would eventually take them as far as the quarter finals and a thrashing from Brighton. But what did their success mean for the people and the Lincolnshire town itself?

An entrance into Blundell Park

Grimsby Town's Blundell Park
I entered through the turnstile early, an hour and a half before kick-off. Paper ticket, metal gate, creaking. Up the stairs around the back, past the busying bar room and the high-vis jackets, past the reserved signs on red plastic seats for the season ticket holders, of which there were many. Looking down upon the oldest stand in English football. The River Humber beyond it, vast enough to be the sea and just dark enough to be visible against the evening’s incumbent sky. Lights twinkled in the distance. It was Hull, perhaps. And a handful of ships moved slowly across the near horizon, as if part of a model railway. Darkness soon fell entirely, and the river vanished with its arrival.
"He was the mascot Mighty Mariner, and the fish was Harry Haddock. The crowd waved their haddocks back "
The boats were otherworldly now, floating above a dull tin roof, floating on an invisible, impossible ocean and, at 5.29pm, the mascot of an elderly fisherman appeared from the end of the tunnel. He jogged ahead of the players on to the pitch and waved an inflatable fish towards the crowd. He was the Mighty Mariner, and the fish was Harry Haddock. The crowd waved their haddocks back towards him and they cheered.

First half

Kick-off was delayed by two and a half hours in the name of international TV coverage. Somewhere in Scandinavia, the son of an expat fisherman cheered. Six weeks had passed since their tie against Chippenham, and Burton appeared to have spent most of that time getting juiced up on steroids. They were bigger, angrier and, in a practical sense, completely and utterly useless, so focused on winning back possession that they hadn’t stopped to think what to do once they had it.
It was as if the football were a longstanding enemy and only upon its capture was the grudging respect between them realised: once they had it in their grasp, they no longer wanted to use it, for it was victory enough simply raising the sword to its throat. Thus, Grimsby escaped unharmed, although not for a lack of their own trying.

Pear drops, sausage rolls and rituals

Pear drops in a hand
Half-time arrived. The lady in the next seat along had poured a small cup of tea before the referee had finished blowing his whistle. She offered me a pear drop, and her husband produced a sausage roll from the end of his sleeve. A fine, feathery rain arrived with the wind.
"At half-time the lady in the next seat offered me a pear drop and her husband produced a sausage roll"
Grimsby were much improved in the second half. They won 1-0 and progressed into the Fourth Round of the FA Cup for the first time in 23 years. I hung around after the match and spoke to Kristine Green. Jonathan Lange and Lord Glasman floated around the hospitality suites with ill-fitting Grimsby shirts pulled awkwardly over their clothes. Kristine had been tasked with finding them a taxi, and after several botched attempts I made a joke about how their next mission should be introducing Uber into the town.
“Oh no, no. They are such bad employers. Uber is a severely unethical company,” replied Lange, and I took that as my cue to leave.

Talking to the chairman

Blundell Park's main stand
I phoned Jason Stockwood the next morning. I was in a Costa Coffee at Freshney Place Shopping Centre, one of those weird, island ones that sit oddly in a clearing below a skylight. He was sitting in the car, waiting for his daughter to finish playing hockey.
Having spent the previous six weeks romanticising the relationship between the town and its football club, I had left the previous night’s match feeling somewhat underwhelmed. The whole thing was just so … practical. So normal. I wondered whether these were the rituals that Stockwood had spoken about. Or perhaps they were only going through the motions. The two can look awfully similar to the unacquainted.
"Grimsby had now won three consecutive ties against teams from the division above them"
Grimsby had now won three consecutive ties against teams from the division above them, and yet the extent of the previous evening’s coverage consisted of about four seconds’ worth of highlights on BBC’s Match of the Day. The supporters cried conspiracy, but Stockwood didn’t seem to mind. To him, all that really mattered was progression, getting through to the next round. They had won £213,000 in prize money so far, a figure that works out as around seven per cent of an average League Two club’s annual budget. And there was a time, earlier in this project, where I would have met that kind of information like a tenner down the back of the couch (Eureka!). But it bored me now; seemed insignificant, really.
I had spent three days in Grimsby, and I had met artists and poets and activists and politicians and workers and millionaires. I had seen the East Marsh and I had seen the other side of town, and I had found it difficult to believe that they were both built upon the same industry; the same fish, the same ocean.

A competition is nothing without its context

Blundell Park in Grimsby
For months I had obsessed over the FA Cup. Waiting for that magic moment, that particular club in that particular league where the money winds up insignificant. Where the victory is symbolic, and the scales are tipped from practicality and into romance. But my time in Grimsby made me realise that such a spectrum doesn’t really exist, and that the FA Cup isn’t interesting enough to warrant such a grand idea—not in isolation, at least.
"A big draw in the next round could be lucrative and practical and romantic all at once"
A big draw in the next round could, and probably would, be lucrative and practical and romantic all at once. It could pay for that mythical new 20-goal striker, and it could put the town on a level with Manchester or Chelsea or Brighton, and it would do so in a straight fight, on an equal billing. And the FA Cup is the vehicle for all of that; the matchmaker, if you will. But it does nothing to contribute to the wider context of those matches.
It does not know about the Cod Wars and the false dawns and wind off the roll of the Humber, and it does not know of John Fenty or flower baskets, or how much a place like Grimsby could do with a leg-up, how dearly its people deserve to walk that bit taller, how they deserve to have some excitement on the horizon, some achievements on which to hang their hats. In time, they will do it naturally, free-standing and without the trellis of football to guide them. But for now, it is the best shot that they have. And it is a shame, a real shame then, that they ended up being drawn against Luton.
winner stays on cover
Winner Stays On: England with the FA Cup is published by Pitch Publishing and is available now
Banner photo: 

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