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The Long Decline
The Long Decline

The Long Decline - Part 2

By: Chris Smith
Date: 23/10/2009 (Last updated: 13/12/2009)

BACK to the Chesterfield game and I remember looking around the ground at my first home game since 1999 and thinking what happened? A trolley gate to separate the lower tier from the away section, rubbish from a previous game, tired rusty signage and an air of dilapidation.

By the way, I lived in the south at the time, so could be forgiven for not being a regular at Blundell Park. Anyone could be forgiven now, no matter how near they are to the ground. I know the Taylor Report and the collapse of ITV Digital hit us hard, but I think that this club’s decline started a long time before that, even when everything looked rosy.

I started supporting Town in 1979/80 when the ground somehow accommodated 24,000 or so. I didn’t really query the conditions as I would now. It was accepted that football grounds were somewhere to stand, by and large, and chairmen up and down the land were happy to take the money off fans without reinvesting in the infrastructure. Apocryphal stories of pissing on the fan in front of you on Liverpool’s Kop aren’t wide of the mark and I didn’t really question standards until a Boxing Day 1983 home game against Wednesday when it took me until the second half and a goal to finally place both feet on the Pontoon.

I was happy enough despite this as Town had a fantastic footballing side in the early to mid 1980s and healthy crowds in the earlier years. We averaged 10,000 plus in 1979/80 which went to nearly 12,000 in 1980/1 when we finished seventh in the old Division 2. Had it not been for a postponed game at Hillsborough when we were on fire, which disrupted our momentum, and a later heavy defeat by West Ham in front of 18,000, we could have been promoted that year. It wasn’t for lack of trying, although effort seems to be a rarity these days.

George Kerr was, I thought, unfairly sacked in January 1982 after we lost at home to Orient in the league, the small matter of a 6-1 win away at Millwall in the FA Cup having been forgotten. Yes, Town were struggling in the league, but there were rumours that all wasn’t well with relations between the outspoken Kerr and the boardroom. I don’t know what the truth was, but it was the first instance of politics disrupting GTFC that I had come across. The decision could have been costly but we got away with it as Dave Booth eventually fashioned a team that also came close to promotion to the top flight. I did like George Kerr as a manager though and he gave the club a big profile, something I’ve missed ever since.

In 1983/4, Town finished 5th against consistently falling crowds. I’ll give the Grimsby public the benefit of the doubt given that Thatcher was destroying the manufacturing industry at the time. It is a shame that such a good footballing team couldn’t capture the Grimsby public’s attention though. I read reviews of the 1983/4 and 1984/5 seasons in Man City’s fanzine recently and it was exciting revisiting those seasons when we ran better supported clubs so close and that we were mentioned so much. What I do know is that some regulars never returned after the aggro at the Leeds game in 1982, feeling it wasn’t a safe place to be and Town had more than their fair share of hooligans as well, although that is just my opinion.

There was also a perception that there was a lack of ambition at the club, and that Town had faltered in some promotion campaigns as the board weren’t ready for promotion. Again, I don’t know the truth of that, but that feeling persists today in some quarters. Just to jump forward a decade, my pals were asked by the then chairman whether they were happy to be an established tier two side or would they like to spend a season in the Premiership? Of course, the answer was the Premiership which took him by surprise. Talk about being out of touch. I wonder if Dave Booth leaving in 1985 was linked to recognition that he could do no more. When there is a debate about greatest Town managers, he gets my vote.

The problem is that we should never have settled for anything less than continual improvement. If we accept a limit to our horizons, then relegation is the inevitable result. Fans won’t pay money to see a club make up numbers at a higher level. Fact. This has been demonstrated at Town and elsewhere. Premiership clubs like Bolton now have a home base of support of 18,000 and dropping. The momentum of increased crowds with promotion soon dwindles. In 1984/5, when we scoring goals for fun, our crowds had dropped for the fourth consecutive season. If the club had ambitions, surely they could have helped Town make that final push. Having said that, where were the Town fans? I earned next to nothing, but didn’t find the price of a match ticket a problem (the cost would have been less than it is now in real terms). Balancing it with drinking was. There always seemed to be plenty of trade in the boozers I frequented though, and I think that’s where folk opted to spend their dosh. Nothing new there historically then if a book I’m currently reading is anything to go by.

I left Grimsby in 1986, like so many of us, as it was clear then that the town was dying on its arse. That is why we have a big exile base. You couldn’t even get a job interview for jobs outside the town if you had a Grimsby, or northern address for that matter. That meant leaving my club behind as well, although it wasn’t quite the wrench I thought it would be. Crowd figures plummeted everywhere as a result of Heysel, Valley Parade and the Birmingham v Leeds riot. It was the first time in my life that the contempt of clubs for their fans became apparent. I read the Popplewell report just after it came out and was staggered at how clubs had got away with it for so long. It rubbed your nose in what you had blithely accepted to date.

I think that was the end of the era of relative prosperity for clubs like ours. Sure, attendances have risen since then, but we now have an overpriced "product" and despite this, numerous clubs are now up against the wall. Of course, our historical inertia means we aren’t really in a position to offer cheap season ticket deals as Huddersfield and Bradford are doing. Last season showed we do have support out there at the right price.

The article continues in Part Three

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