10 October ~ "Thank goodness a wedding prevents me from seeing the Mariners stoop to new lows at Altrincham tomorrow," reflected one Grimsby Town supporter on Twitter the other week. This wasn't just any supporter, mind you, this was the club mascot. And if our foam-suited official cheerleader Mighty Mariner was so severely and so publicly down in the mouth, what hope for the rest of us?
Since dropping out of the Football League on the final day of last season, Town fans have had more mood swings than a teenager listening to My Chemical Romance on a day out at Alton Towers. Gloom turned to cheer when a side boosted by some impressive-looking signings comfortably won a friendly with Sheffield Wednesday. The bookies made us second favourites for the Conference title, behind Luton. The supporters weren't arguing.
The experience of other ex-League clubs, of course, suggested that caution was advisable. "Do your idiot fans still think you're going to go straight back up?" a York City fan asked me at the end of July. The Conference takes some adapting to, for both fans and players. Going into Sunday's game at Kidderminster, Town are perched on the shoulder of the Conference play-off places. Winning performances at home against Luton, Wrexham and Newport have been the best we've seen in years. But some stinkers against Fleetwood and Hayes & Yeading were as poor as any of the dross that took us out of the League.
Great things were expected of pacy striker Charles Ademeno, who must be feeling silly after turning down a new contract at Crawley because he thought Grimsby would do better in the league. At Crawley, of course, convicted tax scammer Steve Evans has found a new place to hurl around ridiculous amounts of mysteriously sourced cash. They've moved fairly obviously to the top of the league while the rest of the Conference runs a sweepstake on the date the administrators move in.
Ademeno has been injured all season, though – instead it's Alan Connell, signed from Bournemouth ostensibly as the link forward, who's flown out of the blocks with ten goals in 14 games and has Grimsby supporters drawing misty-eyed comparisons with Clive Mendonca. Connell is widely held to be playing at least a division below his "true level” and we're braced accordingly for a January swoop from Scunthorpe, or Crawley. Central midfield has been the problem area. Michael Leary, Micky Cummins and Mark Hudson are not terrible players, but no pairing from them has produced function and balance. The arrival of Andrew Wright on loan has put a lot right, but if Scunny want him back then we'll be right back in trouble.
So could the Mariners be back in the Football League next season? Looking for precedents is a sobering business. In the early days of automatic promotion, Lincoln and Darlington both returned to the 92 immediately and fairly straightforwardly. But back then they were professional clubs in a mostly part-time league. These days, full-time status having extended across most of the Conference Premier, there seems barely any gulf in class between the bottom half of League Two and their top dozen non-League counterparts. And in the last 20 seasons only Shrewsbury in 2004 and Carlisle in 2005 have gone down and straight back up.
Our supporters are on the same steep learning curve described by fans of all clubs who drop into the Conference after a long history of League football. However this season unfolds, Town fans need to stop loading every result with awesome significance. Thursday's draw at Forest Green is no more a precursor of a 17th-place finish than the weekend win over Newport promised the league title. This, more than anything, is the way to avoid those mood swings and just enjoy the ride. But it'll help if the mascot cheers up a bit too. Pete Green