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The Pointless Game
By: Andrew Doherty
Some weeks ago, I suggested to my wife Celine that we went to Town’s final game of the season, adding prophetically that there would be nothing to play for. Since then, she has referred to it as the "pointless game".
I have not clarified with her whether she was referring to the fact that the occasion was pointless, Town would 0gain no points or the game of football in general is pointless. Such miscommunications cause breakdowns in relationships, I'm told. But I didn't call in Jeremy Kyle to sort this one out. Irrespective of the occasion, going to Blundell Park is always like a religious experience. With a 1pm kick-off, we even decided to forego lunch. So we committed ourselves jointly to fast for football.
I've been to a few last matches of the season. Some are more special than others. Most special was the legendary 3 - 0 victory in front of 22,000 against Exeter in 1972, when goals by Tees, Hickman and Chatterley saw us take the 4th division championship and we all ran on the pitch afterwards in unbridled joy and celebration. The 3 - 2 victory against Swindon in 1968 was a great win against a very good team but we were two goals short of what we needed to avoid going down on goal average from division 3. It’s not always so significant and we've found ourselves with nothing to play for. On this basis you would expect Town to blood youngsters and turn on the style for the loyal supporters. This certainly didn't happen in 1969 when we lost 0 - 2 at home against Brentford, sealing our fate as the second worst team in the league. Our starlet on the day of this soporific and poorly attended performance was Keith Cockburn, a £1000 signing from the bottom club Bradford Park Avenue. In fact history shows that the Brentford game was not the last match, but the second last as we played Doncaster at home two days later in a similarly pointless fixture. An intriguing statistic about the Doncaster game is that there were 5310 there, most of them presumably away supporters as they won the 4th division championship. This match is erased from my memory however. All I can remember is that horror show of a performance against Brentford.
Offset against the near non-existent prospect of a dazzling spectacle was the stronger possibility of 22 players nervously treading water as they try to impress the management in the hope of winning a new contract. This smacks to me of last minute revision at school, which my teachers would warn me was tantamount to base moral turpitude and the portent of a ruinous life. Vacancies exist, however. Coulson, Garner and Duffy have gone already. All three made their contributions in greater or mostly smaller degrees. Above all I shall miss Coulson’s diagonal cross-field runs.
Our opponents today Southport have worked hard all season to stay among the leaders, but they too have fallen at the last hurdle. My recollections of seeing them last year was of a slightly overweight but highly organised side who played up the left side. I'm not aware of great injections of money, so whatever they've done, they've got it right.
It was a grey and cloudy day as the teams came out. Down at Southampton, there would be 32,000 fans in a hotbed of excitement. Not here. 3,738 were at Blundell Park for this exercise in futility. But the structure’s the same. 90 minutes of endeavour lay in front of us. Our Trial XI today read like a proper first team line-up:
McKeown - Silk, Pearson, Miller, Townsend - Soares, Disley, Thanoj, Artus - Elding, Hearn.
First Half. It was cold and windy. Conditions were going to be a factor as the wind blew across the pitch towards the Imperial corner of the Pontoon end. Town attacked the Osmond end to begin, and showed enterprise from the outset. Elding nodded down for Artus on 2 minutes but the left footed shot was dragged wide. Town’s play against the yellow and black shirted Southport team comprised positive movement and cross-field passes, including an excellent switch move from Elding. There was too much airbound traffic though, and Southport’s patient build-up on the ground and across the pitch looked more effective. On 10 minutes Southport’s goalkeeper was caught out by a floated cross from Townsend and although Elding got there first, he couldn't get good contact and his header went over the keeper but wide. Town continued to work, move and create space. Artus tried a wild and speculative shot from long range on 12 minutes. On 18 minutes Silk was injured and replaced by Wood at right-back. The game lost momentum and although Town were patient, it seemed a case of going through the motions. There was a chance for Town when Soares ran onto a defender’s header but the goalkeeper arrived first. The first corner of the game went to Southport on 21 minutes. Two minutes later Artus won a free-kick and the ball came down to Miller who controlled it well but his low shot ran wide. On 25 minutes a pathetic dive by Soares as he ran into the box should have resulted in a booking but the referee allowed play to flow rather than stop and penalise Soares for "simulation". Artus by contrast was showing determination and endeavour, robbing a defender on the right and winning a corner. Encouragingly, Town continued to put in medium range passes which threatened but up to now did not manage to penetrate the defence. Wood’s introduction was a bonus as he put in good work up the right. The wind was unpredictable and any back pass to McKeown was cause for nervousness. On 30 minutes a mix-up between McKeown and Pearson who appeared to allow the ball to run back instead of being sure, resulted in Whalley nipping in between the two and slipping in a shot which left McKeown stranded and ran inches past the post. Town pressed on and on 39 minutes Soares was unable to control the ball after good work by Wood. Artus then had a shot, Disley made a wrong choice and lost possession. Artus was impressive, getting everywhere and on 42 minutes he found himself in Town’s penalty box cutting out a dangerous attack. This was after McKeown made a good save from Whalley. Southport had a good spell and on 43 minutes a three man cross field passing move ended when Gray cut inside and had his fierce shot well saved by McKeown. Town continued to build up play patiently and just before half-time, Soares nipped in between two defenders but blasted over from 15 yards. In added time, a good run and cross from Wood came back to Artus who laid the ball off to Disley whose low shot was deflected away for a corner. The half ended: Grimsby Town 0, Southport 0.
This absorbing rather than truly entertaining game was in the balance. Town’s passing was purposeful and patient, but although we had a lot of possession we could not unlock the Southport defence. Southport themselves showed that they were capable of putting together some passing movements and came closer to scoring than Town, who would have the advantage of the wind in the second half. It was getting colder out there and the sea looked choppy. It was woolly hat and gloves time.
Second half. Town continued with the tactic of crisp passing. Final crosses from Wood, Soares and Townsend came to nothing. Wood battled on the right while Soares continued to practice the art of falling over. On 54 minutes, Town put together a multi-player move. Started by Elding, Thanoj and Wood worked well off each other. The ball came out to the left. Townsend’s pass was weak but Artus won the ball back and found Thanoj who set up Hearn who cut inside and curled his shot just over the bar from outside the box. It said something though that Southport were restricting Town to chances of this kind. Now the wind was behind us, it was all Town. Hearn won a free-kick the left on 57 minutes. Artus’s cross resulted in a fierce shot from Hearn but it was blocked. On 59 minutes Winn came on for the hapless Soares. Soon after Thanoj made a good run. The overall control and passing remained good but nothing was happening up the centre or in the "final third".
Southport had their first attack of the half on 62 minutes when Miller was booked, conceding a free-kick outside Town’s box. Hearn battled and battled on 64 minutes, squeezing the ball through to Thanoj was curled wide in a carbon copy of Hearn’s effort 10 minutes earlier. There were signs of Town getting bogged down now but on 69 minutes Artus, who was Town’s best player today, tried to liven up proceedings with a turn and shot from 25 yards out which went over.
Southwell replaced Elding on 69 minutes and immediately got involved in a move with Disley who then worked off Wood whose chip was a good one but Disley couldn't control it from 5 yards out. On 79 minutes Town had a bit of a scare when McKeown had to rush out to receive a short pass but fortunately he got there first. A good run from the half way line by Winn resulted in a scuffed shot, then on 81 minutes a useful Hearn flick presented Southwell with a chance from a tight angle. Southwell’s effort went close, passing the left hand post and winning a corner. Two corners later, Artus laid on a pass for Hearn who turned adeptly and passed to Southwell whose shot ballooned over the bar from 6 yards out. Disley forced an error deep in Southport territory and Town continued to press.
Southport, who had barely spent any time in Town’s half, launched an attack on 87 minutes. Typically neat passing resulted in Benjamin receiving the ball on the right. Benjamin took the ball up the wing and sent over a superb low cross which bent away from the stretching McKeown. The ball was cleared but only to Stephenson 25 yards out who coolly controlled the ball and fired a low shot to McKeown’s left. McKeown got his finger tips to it but was unable to stop it going into the right hand corner. The 148 Southport supporters, their players and support team were ecstatic. Grimsby Town 0, Southport 1. Town huffed and puffed and pressed but were unable to make progress. 3 minutes were added. Two minutes in Disley, Elding and Southwell combined. Southwell’s shot struck a hand on the edge of the box. Townsend floated the free-kick over the cross bar. The full time whistle blew. The season had ended. No-one came on the pitch. The crowd was relieved that the purgatory was over. Final score: Grimsby Town 0, Southport 1.
In response to tannoy instructions and lethargy, there was no pitch invasion as sometimes is the tradition and as the club were expecting. Celine had expressed an interest in experiencing the hallowed turf of Blundell Park, but this was somewhat impractical from the Findus Upper. The carrot for non-invasion was a "lap of honour" by the players. "I'm going home" observed the gentleman behind me, mirroring my own sentiment and that of most of the Findus faithful who could see why we should reward failure by honouring this hollow lap of mediocrity, lack of honour or lap of dishonour as you prefer. 1966 style celebrations were not appropriate in this instance, I'm afraid. But before I descend completely into findusian grumpiness, I must say that it was nice to see Liam Hearn and Peter Winn spontaneously going across to fans at the end of the match, sign autographs and acknowledge their support.
"They hadn't got a clue" was the comment of a supporter as I left. Town dominated this game in terms of overall possession, but we couldn't score. In fact I can only recall the Southport goalkeeper having to make one difficult save. Town lacked penetration and ideas. By contrast, Southport played neat football along the ground where we frequently spoilt our build-up by putting in harmless crosses into the wind or inaccurate shots. Southport worked well across the field, and the construction of their goal was smart, a quality which we lack. The cross curved away from the goalkeeper and the scorer took his time, which we allowed him, to place the ball accurately. As the game progressed, we became more ragged, another sign of the season. It wasn't a trial match. It was a proper game and we failed the test again.
We have finished in 11th place. I think with the poor start, a good middle and the mediocre results at the end, that’s where we deserve to be. We showed we could play like heroes as we did at Cambridge but mostly what I saw was an alarming lack of confidence, the inability to apply pressure and break down opposing defences. The midfield needs to be stronger and most of Town’s players need to see psychiatrists to convince them that if they can do well against Alfreton and Stockport, it’s possible to play well against York, Southport and the like. Footballing intelligence seems to be missing. The official player of the season is Liam Hearn. Yes, he scored a lot of goals and his work rate, skill and performances are good most of the time, but he can lack self-belief and needs coaching on his positional play. Today he put in good support work but was either out wide or too deep in the box to get in and score. I support the choice however on the basis of his commitment and skill, but there is obvious work to be done. As alternative choices I might have gone for James McKeown, closely followed by Elding. These players gave total commitment to the cause too and made significant contributions. I also liked Pearson, Artus, Thanoj and Miller. Some credit is due to the management duo who clearly aren't psychiatrists or great motivators but at least built up a reasonably talented squad and I think they realise that we need to be smarter and more competitive. Today’s game against Southport summed it all up.
As we left the ground, Celine observed that instead of spending 16 quid apiece, we could have more usefully taken part in a demonstration which was going on in London today. If I have interpreted what she said correctly, I think she was suggesting that by going to Blundell Park, we had wasted our time and money on a pointless and futile exercise. She’s right of course. But at least it’s over now. For a while. All that remains is to check the tables one last time and keep monitoring all the transfer speculation. I need to re-focus myself now until August and concentrate on the truly pointless game: cricket.
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