Grimsby Town 2 Lincoln City 2

It was a record-breaking day for the home side but not one Grimsby fans would want to remember. Pete Green watched their local rivals deny them the three points desperately needed to help preserve League status

You can tell it’s a Lincolnshire derby day: there are five people in the pub instead of four. Alright, I’m exaggerating a bit, but as local rivalries go Grimsby against Lincoln is a fairly polite and respect­ful one all round. Though knots of giddy schoolboys do their best to keep the police busy, it’s the charity fundraising fixture between fans’ teams that typifies the tone. For most, out here on the far, featureless tangent of the Humber estuary, the football is as distant a distraction as the low tide that recedes a mile from Cleethorpes seafront.

Right now the Mariners are at their lowest ebb in more than 130 years of history. Neutrals seem perplexed by Town’s abrupt decline – until 2003 we’d barely left the second tier since George Kerr took us up in 1980. Let’s get it out of the way then.

The relegations that stemmed from ITV Digital downsizing were compounded by a sequence of very poor executive decisions. The failure of chairman John Fenty ‒ Conservative councillor, seafood millionaire and, of course, a Town fan through and through ‒ to retain Russell Slade after we lost the 2006 play-off final has been followed by a string of managers who either weren’t good enough or who he sacked without giving time to prove otherwise. After dispatching Mike Newell in November (coming soon to a courtroom near you), Fenty excelled himself with the appointment of Neil Woods, the club’s hitherto popular youth team coach. Anything less than three points from Lincoln today will set a new club record of 23 league games without a win.

As for the Imps, they aren’t far above us and on a paltry streak themselves. But they’re basically a well-run club having one shaky season under a rookie manager. At Grimsby, by contrast, the problems are deep and endemic. They’re the product of a regime that, according to former director Alec King, cut the wages of office staff who were already on less than £10,000 a year, did likewise with a team manager, and then ordered the same manager to sign three new players on annual salaries that could exceed a hundred grand.

This management style may be perfect at a fish factory but it’s poison at a football club. Disillusionment and indifference now inform the players’ every kick of a ball and the backroom staff’s every click of a mouse. So the result isn’t just a crap team and an increasingly likely relegation from the League. It’s an official club website that’s a daily fist-in-mouth embarrassment (specimen charge: giving directions to Southport for fans travelling to a friendly at Gainsborough). It’s the wall of the ticket office displaying a huge picture of 2,000 Town fans at Notts County last season, and asking proudly in 320-point block capitals: “WHERE YOU THERE?” And it’s a club customer charter that still gives an email address which the club said was defunct in 2005.

We’re way past optimism, but we hug pre-match pints in the knowledge that today’s match and the visit of Macclesfield in midweek offer half a chance. Four points, we nod. Four points from these two games and we’re still in it. We dodge the dogshit down the Grimsby Road and the Liverpool shirts walking the other way and we nudge into Blundell Park, where gulls wheel and caw above the shivering stands. Somehow there’s excitement and somehow 6,500 are here, breathing steam and wispy hope into the freezing North Sea air. The cold and the dazzling winter sun etch a brittle, hyperreal picture, like a digital photo sharpened too much with a Photoshop filter. The Mariners run out, as usual, in handsome black and white. The visitors cunningly run out in black and pale grey. “If you all hate Lincoln clap your hands!” chant 15 Town fans, to no great effect. “If you really fucking hate ’em clap your hands!” they insist. Nobody does, really. You can’t hate a cathedral city.

The belief lasts three minutes. A routine free-kick finds the head of Drewe Broughton (Lincoln having just become his 17th club), who brushes the ball into the goalmouth and Town’s dozing defenders let Chris Herd poke in from close range. A nothing goal. I even laugh. Bitterly, and quietly, but it’s a laugh. “Is it really four months since we scored twice in a game?” asks my friend Al, recalling a last-gasp draw against Accrington. It’s five months since we won, I remind him. A pitchside board advertises free chlamydia screening in the ticket office. Grimsby fans at least have a choice between types of humiliation.

We’re way past hope and the first half does little to call us back. In a rare good spell of possession for Grimsby, a Southampton player wins the ball and sends it wide to a Hull player, who passes to a Charlton player, who lays it off in turn to a Barnsley player. At Blundell Park, every loan is an emergency loan. Among our scarce causes for cheer were some cracking and committed performances, a few months back, from local lads Bradley Wood and Jammal Shahin. Woods withdrew them from the first team, unwilling to pitch our fragile youngsters into a relegation scrap. But he doesn’t seem to mind pitching other people’s in.

Two of the temps, Jamie Devitt and Michael Coulson, look perky out wide and vex Lincoln by switching flanks, but there’s not enough movement elsewhere to offer an outlet. For a foul on Mark Hudson, Herd receives a yellow card and a chorus of “Gyppo!”, a traditional local ritual applied when a man transgresses the regulation half-inch hair length. Referee Mark Haywood dithers over a free-kick. Frustrated and bored, I stand up and urge him on in terms that would make even Grimbarian mothers blush. A dozen turning faces in the rows below remind me that today is National Don’t Swear At The Football Day or something. Oops.

Just as it seems the highlight of the first half has been a helicopter full of disappointed police glinting fiercely in the sun, an equaliser appears. Devitt’s looping free-kick donkey-drops into the Lincoln box, prompting an old-school goalmouth scramble, and eventually we establish that it was Lee Peacock, an arrival from Swindon a couple of weeks ago, who got the final touch. I laugh again. We’ve deserved nothing.

During half time at away games I like to have a little look round and maybe neck a swift pint. Not so at home – the last time I attempted the bar beneath the Pontoon stand, it vanished in a fearsome miasma of teenage hormones, recreational smoke and not getting served. Instead we linger on the back row, shifting our weight from one foot to the other and mulling over the first 45. When the football is bad we talk about our children. When it’s really bad we talk about our jobs.

For the second half Town nearly always kick towards the Pontoon and its first ten minutes are nearly always our best of the match. The fans get going, then we don’t score and the players get a bit tired, and nothing happens and we lose. Today, though, Coulson, wide on the halfway line, wins the ball with a wonderfully timed lunge, bursts forward and squares for Peacock on the penalty spot, who kicks it into the last defender but forces it home at the second or third attempt. It’s a goal borne of sheer willpower, which rouses the crowd all the more for its rarity. We’re so excited that we sing Sheffield United’s greasy chip butty song, which we’ve altered slightly to be about Grimsby. We’re so parochial that we think we made it up.

We’re 2-1 up, our blood is up, we might be staying up. Then, way off down the Osmond End, a penalty to Lincoln, for… we’ve no idea. It’s miles away. Brian Gilmour prods the ball uncertainly, too close to Nick Colgan, who saves quite easily. Town fail to follow up the penalty, though, and Gilmour finishes the rebound for two-all. Stunned, the Mariners fall apart from the restart. Herd nets again almost straight away from another Broughton cross but Haywood disallows this one for a foul on Colgan. Phew. It’s starting to feel like a proper local derby.

Town, just this once, turn it on instead of shrinking away. Tommy Wright, who’s just joined from Aberdeen, is felled in the box but all eyes turn to Lincoln defender Adam Watts, who looks properly hurt after a clash with Peacock. An entourage of medical staff crowd closely around. The Pontoon seethes at the challenge on Wright and runs a minor spat with Ian Pearce but warmly applauds Watts as he’s carried off several minutes later with a broken leg and an oxygen mask.

The game continues to hum like a dynamo. Our lot look as dangerous with the ball as they’re vulnerable without. Town’s corners stack up and with them a sense that the season, and our Football League future, could turn on the precision of any one of these shots or headers the players are lining up. Scant inches separate survival from generations of oblivion.

Hyperactive from the tension, the crowd roars the team on, appealing in a frenzy for anything and everything. Foul? Penalty? We don’t know. But this is why we come. Is that three handballs in stoppage time? As the long minutes added for Watts’s injury tick down at last, Lincoln clear a corner back out to Town’s left flank. The ball sails back in. Herd lifts an arm above his head to block the cross. Haywood says it was his chest. No penalty. Astonishment. In the stands, on the pitch. Astonishment. Are we all deluded? We don’t know. But the game’s up. And we file away, fuming quietly under the smoky lilac swirl of vast estuary sky. We’re way past surprise. We’re way past disappointment. We’re not even calling for the head of John Fenty.

We are here at the end times. But we were here in 2001 when we topped the second flight, we were here in the early 1980s, pressing for promotion to the top. Our dads were here for Lawrie McMenemy’s championship in 1972, their dads for the great teams of Allenby Chilton, Bill Shankly and even Charlie Spencer before them. On the final day we’ll applaud the battling, futile draw carved out by underachieving players who’ve never heard these names and we’ll tearfully vow to be back. And we will. We’ll be back.

From WSC 278 April 2010