The Grimsby View
With the visit of Grimsby Town coming up in the FA Cup Third Round, TEB had a chat with award winning broadcaster, filmaker and avid Mariners fan, Philip Norton.
Q. Perhaps we could kick things off with how you became a Grimsby Town fan?
One of my earliest memories is of my dad taking me to Blundell Park when I was about four or five years old and peering through the gate at the hallowed turf beyond. I distinctly remember dad telling me ‘one day when you’re older, I’ll bring you here to watch the Mariners’. That day came on March 11 1989, when I was seven, for a home match with Stockport County in the old Division Four.
I can’t remember too much about the game, apart from an old man next to me in the Upper Findus who kept giving me sweets, a proud dad beside me knowing he’d brought his boy along, and cheering with everyone when our two winning goals went in. A few weeks later I was taken again for the local derby with Lincoln City and remember winger Dave Gilbert making his debut. He became one of my favourite players, we won yet again, the bug had bitten and without me knowing. Suddenly Grimsby Town became a huge part of my life.
Q. It has been quite a journey for the club over the last fifteen years or so, hasn’t it?
Incredibly so – I’m very fortunate to have been around to celebrate the highs of the double Wembley season of 1998, when Grimsby won both the Auto Windscreens Trophy and the old Second Division play off final, and for me the pinnacle of my club’s success during my 37 years on the planet so far. But for anyone born since, there hasn’t been a great deal to celebrate. Falling through, and then out of the Football League, was tough for everyone. It really took some motivation to get behind the club at times when we found ourselves playing at the likes of Welling, Barrow and Braintree – and it was things that we’d taken for granted that you missed. Not being mentioned in the national papers, the limited chances to meet any big clubs in cup competitions, the lack of highlights being shown on mainstream television goals round-ups, it was a huge reality check and at times felt like we had fell into the abyss.
We spent season after season being the ‘almost men’, losing in the play–offs three years running. But one of the best things about Grimsby Town are the fans, and after losing in the 2015 play off final, everyone united for ‘Operation Promotion’, a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than £110,000 for the club to invest in a promotion push the next season. And it worked – the Mariners beat Forest Green Rovers 3-1 at Wembley, finally securing our spot back in the Football League where we belong, and that moment will live long in the memory for all of us.
Q. How has the season been for the Mariners so far?
Its been a really strange one so far. We pulled off a bit of a great escape from relegation again last season thanks to the efforts of Michael Jolley coming in and turning our results around. And for the first few weeks of this season we flirted with the bottom of the league again, and an all too familiar feeling of looking at results and teams around us set in, worried that it could be a long slog and a nailbiting season fighting off the threat of relegation once again.
Since October, Michael Jolley has worked wonders with the team, and the lads have pulled out some fantastic performances. Until this week, we’d won four games on the bounce in December, and had been unbeaten in the league at home since October, so the points had racked up and helped us breathe a little easier. Its been nice to start looking up League Two, rather than down it, and wondering if our run of form could help us further towards those play off places.
Q. What are your hopes for the rest of the season?
Obviously, like any fan I’d love us to go on a great run right to the end, get into the play offs and give them a good shot. But realistically I’d be happy with us getting ourselves playing good, attacking football, a bit of consistency with results and ensuring our league safety well ahead of the end of the season. It’s been clear Michael Jolley has come in wanting to steady the ship and build a team for the future. I and most of the fans have been able to put our trust in him to do that, and so far it’s starting to look like its coming together.
Q. Who has been the stand out Grimsby player for you so far this season?
Our goalkeeper James McKeown has been outstanding yet again – as our longest serving player he’s become one of our club stalwarts, the backbone of the team through thick and thin in the National League and now having what I feel is his best season yet. He’s pulled off some stunning saves so far this season which have kept us in games and helped secure so many points. He’s a top bloke too, and a huge part of the team in the dressing room.
Another player worth a mention is Harry Clifton – one of our own, born and bred in Grimsby who has progressed through the youth set up, scoring his first professional goal for us in November, and has been a real joy to watch develop in midfield. It’s clear Michael Jolley believes in his talent, and he’s definitely a local lad to keep an eye on in the future.
Q. Do you expect the club to be very active in the transfer window?
We’ve already made a few changes, signing Swedish fullback Sebastian Ring on an 18-month deal, and only this week the club secured Elliot Embleton on loan until the end of the season. He’s an England under-20 international on loan from Sunderland, and has been really impressive in midfield for us this season. The news has delighted fans, eager to see young creative talent being kept at the club. Unlike the Premier League, it’s not quite as easy for clubs like Grimsby to just go out and splash the cash – finances are tight, and movement has to be made in the wage bill with players departing for new signings to come in. But Michael Jolley has plans to continue building and improving the squad, and it’s still a work in progress. If there were to be any other players brought in sooner rather than later, it might have to be another move in defence where injuries have taken their toll and we’re a bit thin on the ground.
Q. If our early interaction with fans on Twitter is anything to go by, are we right to assume that Grimsby fans are looking forward to this cup tie?
Oh completely – its been quite a while since the excitement of a big cup tie with a Premier League club, and I think the ticket sales have shown the appetite from the Mariners faithful. We’re blessed with a fantastic away following anyway, helped by a huge number of expats from Grimsby who have found themselves living around the country, but to have sold our ticket allocation a few times, and taking 5,500 to Selhurst Park, is still quite something. It’s a famous, good old fashioned traditional football ground, a bit like Blundell Park, which adds to the appeal. We’re a loud bunch when we get going and definitely believe in the 12th man effect. You’ll hear a few of our famous chants – we only sing when we’re fishing of course – just don’t ask what we do to your fish!
Q. Name one Grimsby player and one Palace player that you believe will be a threat in this game?
Of course, team selections sometimes catch you out in cup games, but Wes Thomas scored an absolute peach against Port Vale on Boxing Day, and I think with confidence rising among the squad in recent weeks, he could be in his element for Grimsby. As for Palace, I’ve always enjoyed watching what Andros Townsend can do, and he can be lethal in front of goal…or from miles away from it, as we all saw against Manchester City!
Q. Perhaps you could share your opinions on Palace so far this season?
I think while there have been a few missed opportunities against teams around the Eagles in the Premier League, such as the draw with Cardiff and the loss to Brighton last month, the season has been a good one for Palace so far. The main problem appears to be similar to what Grimsby had for the first few months – scoring goals. But the incredible win against Manchester City proved there’s a quality team that can be well organised under the expert eye of Roy Hodgson, and by grinding out results like that can only boost confidence among the side and see them going on strong for the second half of the season.
Q. Finally, let’s have your prediction…
This won’t be a walk in the park for Palace – Grimsby Town have always risen to the occasion against the country’s top sides in cups over the years, and as ever we’ll be up for the fight. As for a scoreline, I’m well known as a bit of a jinx, and usually whatever I predict, the opposite always happens. So in that case, I’m going to have to say 2-1 to Palace…