Phil Ball remembers Grimsby Town's 1979-80 season
There’s pleasure in purgatory. Thus speaks the Grimsby Town supporter, a strange creature stuck out in the wilds of north-east Lincolnshire, miles from anywhere, in a cut-off place with a cut-off mentality to boot. If you are handed the burden of following this club from an early age, you very soon learn that you are likely to spend the rest of your life having the piss taken out of you, a curious state of affairs which nevertheless hardens you and makes you all the more determined to face things out – to go into the world, as Val Doonican might have put it, walking straight and looking at your adversaries in the eye.
This is a mind-set which has made Grimsby supporters famously dismissive of prima donnas and flash players. A hard place projects its paradigm onto the pitch, and for all of Alan Buckley’s ten years of obsessively pretty football, the true Grimsby fan would willingly swap them all, Wembley triumphs to boot, for just a whiff of 1979-80 and one of the most perfectly idiosyncratic Grimsby sides of all time.
Memorable seasons have a curious habit of coinciding with some emotional crossroads in your life, and 1979 was the year in which I began to pay tax for the first time, as a teacher in a comprehensive school in Hull. It would have been a lonely and stressful year had it not been for the solace of the fortnightly trip over the river to Blundell Park. I would cycle down to the old Humber Ferry, catch the one o’clock crossing, throw my bike on to the train at the other side and trundle down to Cleethorpes just in time for the game.
We’d been promoted from the old Fourth the season before behind Reading, but the side hadn’t quite convinced me. Apart from the sublime Joe Waters in midfield, the rest, young though many of them were, looked no more than decent Fourth Division campaigners. Curious then to report that the season that was to unfold would be the best ever, for me at least. It started with an auspicious 4-1 win at home to Exeter in front of 5,900, and ended with a 4-0 stuffing of the old foe, Sheffield United, in the presence of 19,276, a figure that seems impossibly large now.
A baby-faced Kevin Drinkell, later to enjoy a respectable top-flight career with Norwich and Rangers, scored a thumping hat-trick and the championship was ours. I remember walking off the pitch at the end when the noise had died down, thinking that things could never be as good again, and although we went on to finish a startling seventh in the old Second Division the next season, I was basically right.
It reads like some sort of fantasy now. In late October, Grimsby drew Everton at home in the League Cup and beat them 2-1 in front of 22,000. Brian Kidd had headed Everton into the lead but Mike Brolly, a curiously diffident winger signed on a free from Bristol City, scored twice to send us into a quarter-final with a Wolves side featuring Andy Gray and a fading Emlyn Hughes.
Grimsby have always had a player like Brolly – one with a silly name who looked as though he should have been doing something less sweaty than football – but he had a silken touch and became an unlikely hero that night. A month later, on a freezing night in Derby (a colleague graciously taught my afternoon class) Wolves finally put us out at the third time of asking, but it was clear by then that the side was coming of age, and that more pleasures would inevitably follow.
They did. We drew Liverpool at Anfield in the third round of the FA Cup in January, and went down to a 5-0 defeat in front of a 49,000 crowd. But I still treasure the millisecond of impossible anticipation when, in the second minute, Kevin Kilmore, signed from Scunthorpe because he had the same initials as Keegan, found himself alone with Ray Clemence in front of the Kop. He hit the corner flag, of course, but it was worth the moment. Later, the legendary Bob Cumming – easily the most gratuitously violent player I have ever seen on a football pitch – took out Souness by the corner flag to make it a curiously perfect day.
I guess that was the happiest year of my life. Ridiculous, but true.
From WSC 180 February 2002. What was happening this month