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Into the Doldrums- 2003/2004
By: Alex Ramsden
OVER the course of the 2003/2004 season, far too many players came through the club and signed short-term deals and one-month loan contracts. This discontinuity had an adverse effect on the fortunes on the pitch with the club marooned into another relegation battle.
Things really came to a head when the club travelled North to Hartlepool on the 12th of September, 2003.
An unspectacular start had got the club into mid-table by the end of the first month, but once September arrived the poor performances and inept playing staff lost all confidence, momentum and, it appeared, had forgotten how to play football. The month began with a not-too-bad home point against Peterborough United, a 1-1 draw with Mick Boulding continuing his good start to the campaign. However, the three hour trip to the North East will live on in infamy as the day the club narrowly avoided its worst ever defeat. The awful capitulation. The disgraceful surrender. The embarrassing ineptitude. This team of no-marks were chewed up and spat out, much to the amusement and cheer of the Hartlepool faithful. The 8-1 scoreline was the nadir of Grimsby Town's myriad of problems. Lack of funds. Lack of ambition. Lack of quality, desire, heart. It was all too much for the long-suffering travelling army to take and highlighted the severity of the situation facing the club in crisis. It seems impossible to comprehend the dejection, upset and frustration that the supporters felt on the long journey home. No doubt made even longer by the thought of the eight goals being fired beyond Aidan Davison's reach. This bleak catastrophe should not be recalled with any fondness from a playing point of view, but should be seen as the consequence of mismanagement, debt and the futile word of lower league football.
While the mega-rich, globalised world of the Premier League thrives on the never-ending revenue streams, the lower league sides are left by the wayside. Look at the troubles that have been facing 'big' clubs like Rangers and Portsmouth (circa 2010-2014) and the help and extended deadlines that they were given, purely because they have international clout. The collapse of ITV Digital plunged so many clubs into the red, with little or no help from the Football Association, they were left to rot. An issue which still rankles deep inside the make-up of Grimsby Town FC. They were, like many others, left to fend for themselves. Scrabbling around for pennies and pounds while the elite rolled around in piles of cash.
Perversely, this humiliating horror show was followed a week later by a morale-boosting 4-0 thrashing of relegation rivals Chesterfield, at Blundell Park. Goals from Stuart Campbell, Marcel Cas, Graham Hockless and Mike Edwards did wonders to erase the haunting ghost of a week previously. Unfortunately, these high points were outweighed by the negative, numb and naff results. You'd be forgiven for thinking that it couldn't possibly get any worse. How wrong you would be.
January 2004. A trip west to Staffordshire to play mid-table Port Vale seemed like a terrific opportunity to get some more points on board at the most crucial time of the season. The midwinter period is a time where points essentially count for double and a good run over Christmas can often steer you away from the drop or push you towards the top. Unless you are my beloved yet beleaguered football club.
Another goal from star striker Phil Jevons was the only high-point in a day to forget. Another day to forget. The ever-dwindling travelling support would have been just as disgusted, just as abhorred and just as furious that they had wasted their hard-earned money on tickets and travel to see another abysmal display. A 5-1 defeat the result. Three weeks later, it got even worse. Once you've hit rock bottom, it is hard to see how anything can get worse, however, this is a club that had hit porous rock and was still seeping into the footballing abyss, at an alarming rate. The 8th of February saw yet another dismal awayday. With immense pressure mounting on Paul Groves, he looked a man out of his depth in football management. He cut a distressed, lone figure as his side were pulled apart at will by a rampant Oldham Athletic side- this time it was a 6-0 murdering. Six. Nil. This spelled the end of Groves' awful tenure in charge, he was sacked the following day amid unbearable fan pressure.
His replacement was the ex-Chesterfield and Hereford player Nicky Law. The bald, workaholic coach came in at the club's lowest ebb. He did not help himself though. To be fair to Law, he had one of the most difficult jobs in the country and had a gang of expendable players that seemed to care very little about the cause or plight they found themselves in. I mean, they can just join another club, right? That seems to be the view we have of these kind of players. At a time when the club needed fighting spirit, loyalty and quality- we found ourselves with youth teamers (Mansaram, Soames, Young) and the aforementioned journeymen (Mickael Antoine-Curier, Nicky Daws, Paul Warhurst). A raft of new players came in. A host of players went out. The sting was felt most when Boulding decided he had had enough and was shipped off to Barnsley, ending his fruitful spell in Cleethorpes. If you ask many fans of this era, and consult the fanzines (The Fishy etc.) they may say that Law is up there with Groves, Neil Woods and Kenny Swain as the worst manager in the club's history. This may be the general view but it is not one that theoretically pans out. Okay, so he failed to improve either the squad or the team's fortunes but Law brought in the likes of Alan Fettis, Jamie Lawrence and Craig Armstrong to try and stave off the real threat of a second successive demotion. He at least tried to arrest the unending slide down into despair.
The final nail in the club's coffin came on the final day of the season against Tranmere Rovers. The last home tie of the campaign had seen the club avoid the drop (at least for now) with a fantastic win over Brentford thanks to former Arsenal trainee Isaiah Rankin's goal. Defeat that day would have confirmed another relegation but the players, at last, showed the tenacity and determination that should have been evident weeks before. In typical Grimbarian style, survival was left to the last minute. Chesterfield were the only side that we could realistically catch, bettering their result would see the two clubs switch places and, crucially, the Mariners would finish 20th- the last position of safety. Again, great away support as the fans made the trip to the Wirral for the biggest game of the season.
Heartache. Horror. Humiliation. After the second Tranmere goal went in, we knew it was the end. The tears and tantrums of another tumultuous season were in vain and the self-destruct button had been pressed by us - again - defeat meant that the Chesterfield result did not matter. For the first time since 1988, Blundell Park would be hosting fourth tier football. The bottom rung of the Football League ladder. The victory at Anfield, so much hope, so much optimism had been wiped from memory barely three years since it had happened. Phil Jevons's fantastic winning goal that put the club back on the map was erased from the annals. Two consecutive relegations, mountains of debt, few quality football players and a clueless hierarchy from chairman to captain. The SS Grimsby Town was sinking to the bottom of the ocean. It would need a titanic effort to resurrect the fortunes of this once proud football club.
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