England may have failed to live up to the promise of September 1, 2001, but as Pete Green will tell you the slide from a rare high has been even worse for Grimsby

In 2001 Grimsby Town were a second-flight football team and binge drinking was called “going out”. Quite a few England fans probably indulged in that pastime after the 5-1 win in Germany on September 1. So imagine the double hangover that awaited Town supporters as their side chose the same day to move top of the Football League.

Town had spent most of the Nineties in that division, spiting Birmingham, Middlesbrough and the like. When Trevor Francis wasn’t blaming his side’s latest failure at Blundell Park on the long grass, the short grass, or the nippy wind off the Humber, Bryan Robson was telling the press that if his players were serious about promotion then they should expect to win at “places like Grimsby”. The Mariners’ then caretaker-manager John Cockerill Blu-tacked the quote to the dressing-room wall and we beat Boro 2-1.

But the man responsible for it all was Alan Buckley. By any reckoning the most successful manager Town have had, Buckley was nevertheless lambasted on a weekly basis in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph by the local public for not signing a target man (for a team well known for passing on the floor), using players he had worked with at former clubs (even if, as in many cases, they were brilliant), being bald and letting it rain. Buckley didn’t listen, persisting instead in his exasperating habit of winning games and getting promoted.

This is no subjective, rose-tinted reaction to more recent miseries. You want facts? Buckley arrived in 1988: Town were promoted twice. He left and we went down. He came back in 1997: we went straight back up. By comparing average attendances and league positions, a case could be made that we are the second greatest overachievers in senior English football over the past 15 seasons, exceeded only by Wimbledon.

Our tragedy began when the perversity spread to the board. Try for a moment to visualise Crewe sacking Dario Gradi two games into the season for drawing at Portsmouth. Tricky, isn’t it? Which is why, in August 2000, just after a 1-1 at Fratton Park, I didn’t believe the news. Yet chairman Doug Everitt and his puppeteer Bryan Huxford, who briefly but fatally reached the top of the pile during a sequence of tedious boardroom dust-ups, decided we needed Lennie Lawrence, who promptly talked about the club he was managing as “they”, rather than “we”. Not a good start.

For all Buckley’s success, there were certain things you knew Town would never do with him in charge: sign foreign players, deviate from 4-4-2, use the loan system much, shoot from long range. Lawrence consciously reversed these policies in order to mark out his territory early on, like a new cat pissing around the garden. We used wing-backs. We got a Chinese centre-half. We borrowed a glittery-booted striker from FC Copenhagen, David Nielsen, who announced endearingly that he would be our “golden dude”.

We played some hopeless football, but cheated relegation with a few formbook-defenestrating performances around Easter. Lawrence had given up on 3-5-2 and Nielsen’s shine had dulled after a row over wages. One-nil down at half-time in a six-pointer against Tranmere, our flimsy front two of Mike Jeffrey and Daryl Clare (rechristened “Jeffrey and Bungle” by Blundell Park wags that very day) were subbed for Fulham loanee Luke Cornwall and talismanic hardman Steve Livingstone. Cornwall scored two; Livvo torpedoed feet first into Rovers’ keeper John Achterberg and thumped in a third. Tranmere finished bottom while Town beat Fulham on the last day and clambered four places clear of the drop zone.

What happened next? You might as well ask the teams on A Question of Sport. We’re still rubbing our eyes. The Mariners squeaked a 1-0 win over Crewe on the opening day, then spent most of a sunny afternoon at The Hawthorns in their own penalty area, but stole three more points with a late penalty. Then a draw at home to Preston and what seemed the bubble-burster back at Portsmouth, where Peter Crouch’s key role in his side’s 4-2 triumph prompted no calls for his inclusion in the England squad to travel to Munich.

It is thanks to that round of internationals, in fact – and to two resolutely non-international squads – that Town are to top the table. Call-ups for World Cup qualifiers mean postponements for every match in the division except ours against Barnsley. As Sven-Göran Eriksson’s men are completing their final training session, then, our new signing Phil Jevons is celebrating his first league goal. Again, the ball has scarcely left the Mariners’ half for the first 20 minutes, before we break away and two daydreaming Tykes defenders fall over each other. Jevons finds himself in space ten yards out and finishes with a coolness that will largely elude him again until he signs for Yeovil in 2004.

Barnsley’s chances dry up as the home midfield tightens. Town’s Danny Coyne strengthens his claim on the title of best keeper in the Football League. We hold out through a finely balanced second half. And then we float eight places up the compacted early-season table – above Wolves, Birmingham, Man City – to top the league by a single point. Three or four hours from now Carsten Jancker will fire past David Seaman to put Germany ahead in Munich.

Our position turned out to be as fragile as that Germany lead. Two weeks later we lost 5-0 at Palace, and an amazing League Cup win at Anfield in October only briefly distracted us from a breathtaking plunge down the division. With only one league win in 20 games Lawrence was sacked following a home defeat on Boxing Day, his side second from bottom.

The characteristically Grimsby aspect of our 24 hours of supremacy – Town fans getting up late the next day blinked blearily at Ceefax to learn that Burnley had won at Bradford to go two points ahead – was that we were singing “we are top of the league” with our tongues in our cheeks. Even when it was as good as it got (at least since 1948 and our last appearance in the top flight), we were laughing hollowly at the falseness of it all. We’d played an extra game – two more than some, in fact – and scarcely deserved those three wins in any case. The players knew it as well, their amused disbelief sworn on Saturday night in sweaty Cleethorpes nightclubs (sort of Rabelais with alcopops). When somebody tells you the table doesn’t lie, they’re lying.

You might have seen the rest. Long-serving captain Paul Groves took over from Law-rence (who, describing his dis­missal as “the best thing that ever happened to me”, was installed almost immediately at Cardiff: “a real club”, he said, equating “reality” with willingness to let him run up £30 million of debt) and Town defied gravity for another year with some more swashbuckling springtime victories: Burnley, 3‑1; Palace, 5‑2; Wimbledon, 6‑2! But as soon as ITV Digital really started to bite, we were knackered. The best players were replaced by shrugging temps and we woke up this summer 18th in the fourth division: our lowest finish since 1971. That is what you call a hangover.

From WSC 221 July 2005. What was happening this month

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