League Two Table
Question of the Week
Do you support Cleethorpes Town?
By: Alex Ramsden
A NAME that needs no introduction to any Mariners fan is Alan Buckley. The most successful manager in the club's history, he led the club to three of their (thus far) four Wembley appearances in his three separate spells as manager.
After the disappointing start to the 2006/2007 season, under rookie boss Graham Rodger, the board acting swiftly by sacking Rodger and replacing with the one man guaranteed to put a smile on the fans' face. Buckley was a legend. A black and white hero. The Meggies Messiah. If anyone could get them out of this rut, then it was him.
Plucked from non-league Kettering Town way back in 1988, Buckley (who still holds the distinction of being Walsall's record goalscorer) was appointed as the manager of this free-falling football club. Debts, relegation and the looming possibility of administration had ravaged through the club and, not for the first time, it was rattling around the lower league doldrums. Over the course of the next six years, Our Alan wrote himself a massive chapter into the clubs history. His first taste of success came at the end of the 1989/1990 campaign, leading the Mariners back into the Third Division after finishing runners-up to Exeter City. This promotion made all the sweeter by watching their great rivals Lincoln City narrowly miss out on a play-off position.
The nucleus of the side was built from the likes of European Cup winner Garry Birtles, bandy-legged striker Keith Alexander and terrace favourite Kevin Jobling. These were quality players and added the perfect amount of flair, guile and experience into the side. This rise up the league was just what was needed after a decade of disparity and a lack of success.
Buckley instilled a visionary passing philosophy to the club, one that has been used (more or less) to this day. A fully paid-up member of the club's Hall of Fame, he is possibly only beaten by Lawrie McMenenemy in terms of 'Greatest Manager Ever' debates. Anyway, success breeds success and the 1990/91 season followed in a similar vein with the club earning back-to-back promotions. With the top three highest-placed teams going up automatically, Town were involved in a hectic, exciting battle for supremacy with Bolton Wanderers. In the end the Mariners trumped the Lancashire club by being elevated ahead of them, albeit only by virtue of a much better goal difference. Grimsby had the best defence in the league that season and conceded just thirteen goals in front of their home fans, a club record. The 1991 Third Division season was a strange one as the top three sides in the league, Cambridge United, Southend United and Grimsby Town, all achieved a second promotion on the bounce to find themselves one league below the big boys. Surely, this was our proud club's best chance of mixing it in the top flight since the forties? Despite this early success, Buckley couldn't achieve a further promotion before leaving the club to take over at West Bromwich Albion in 1994. He had brought rays of optimism onto the cloudy banks of the River Humber and had created a new, positive mindframe that the whole club could adhere to. This is why Buckley's legacy is so revered at Blundell Park.
After an under-achieving spell in the Midlands, Buckley returned to his spiritual home on the 21st of May, 1997 much to the delight of any Town supporter. Then, THAT season happened. Despite a difficult start, the Mariners (who were now back in the third tier) went on a storming run in the second half of the season to finish in third place and the club would take part in the Football League play-offs for the first time in its history.
Speaking of firsts, the 1998 Auto Windscreens Shield final saw Wembley Stadium finally adorned by a sea of scarves supporting the heroic household names such as Lee Nogan, Kevin Donovan and Daryl Clare. This was the ultimate high-point of Buckley's managerial career. This was followed by play-off successes over much-fancied Fulham and, then in the Wembley showpiece again, Northampton Town. Two trips to the capital. The fans had twice seen the twin towers of the national stadium. The players and coaching team had become immortal icons. It should be said, however, that had the team got off to a better start and won more matches (they drew fifteen times) then it's not an impossibility that this team of hard-working, hungry heroes could have lifted the Division Two title, but I suppose that matters little.
Still, Buckley couldn't break through the wall and manage in the Premier League. He is in a select club of managers that have coached over 1000 league games in their career but he is the only one of these to never take a team into the top-flight and has forever being described as the Alex Ferguson of the Third Division. In a horrifying show of disloyalty, he was sacked by the club on the 22nd of August 2000- just two years after delivering the finest season in history.
Spells at Lincoln and Rochdale were fruitless and Buckley took time out from the game, before he turned up in the hotseat at his manor on the 9th of November, 2006.
His first game back in the dugout came against Wycombe Wanderers at Adams Park on the 18th of November. A decent point, helped by Gary Jones's goal saw the 'Buckley Effect' working its magic again. Then, to a rapturous reception the following week, the Messiah had returned. A 2-0 win over Accrington Stanley saw Buckley pick up maximum points from his first home game back in charge. I don't know what it is, he gave the side a shot in the arm. A feel good factor that his presence as boss emanates. Now, Graham Rodger stepped in to take the reigns after the disappointment of losing the play-off final and the hurtful departure of Russell Slade, but he never looked comfortable. Just like Paul Groves before him, he lacked the necessary nous to be the 'big boss'. He cared a great deal about the club and I, for one, am very glad he is still with us in some capacity- back to his original job as community officer.
The honeymoon period didn't last long, however, and Buckley's men went on a horrendous losing streak- seven in a row- over Christmas and New Year that saw them drop like a stone towards the bottom of the league. Things really came to a head when Grimsby made the long trek south west to a Torquay United side that were in all sorts of trouble, marooned in ninety-second place in the Football League and changing manager's like nappies. To come home after a bruising 4-1 defeat was embarrassing to say the least. The old adage, things have to get worse before they can get better is one that should be written permanently in the stands at Blundell Park. This horror run ended in fantastic fashion away to local rivals Boston United in early February. The Lincolnshire side were fighting their own battle for survival at the foot of the table but, aided by a first senior hat-trick for local lad Peter Bore, the Mariners hit Boston for six in a glorious performance. This was followed immediately by a morale-boosting win over play-off hunting Bristol Rovers (a 4-3 win) and successive 2-1 victories over Mansfield and Wrexham.
It seemed the ignominious run of defeats had helped the club to re-ignite their league form. Despite a blip in losing away to a rejuvenated Macclesfield Town, the Mariners won seven out of eight in the league and found themselves being touted as late challengers for the top seven. Unfortunately, one win in the next four games extinguished any last, flickering hopes of success. The promotion tilt would have to wait another year.
The real finds of the season though, were striking starlets Bore and Danny North. Both of the Grimbarian lads had netted hat-tricks and were the joint top goalscorers, along with Gary Jones, after firing in eight goals in all competitions. That statistic just doesn't budge in my mind. If you look at the sides that gained promotion that season (Walsall, Hartlepool, Swindon and Bristol Rovers), they had a potent strikeforce capable of winning matches. This was coupled with imagination, creativity and ambition. You can only go so far relying on the vociferous home support and the fans' adrenaline and optimism travelling into the footballer's psyche. No, to win football matches you need goals, ideas and the money to solve this lack of firepower. Unfortunately for us, all of these key ingredients were missing.
If you look at this 2006/07 season as an example, we had a very talented young striker by the name of Martin Paterson arrive on loan from Championship side Stoke City. He netted six goals during his short stay at the club and has since gone on to represent his country, Northern Ireland, at international level. The fact that we could never have afforded to buy him permanently is a subject that really rankles with me. So while Milton Keynes Dons, Peterborough and Swindon were spending money in order to plot an upwards trajectory, the little clubs like Grimsby are forced to use the loan markets and free agents so they can scrape together a gang of players for the coming season. Is it financial mismanagement? Is it the lack of ambition that Bill Shankly said we had way back in the fifties? Or is is the flow of money being siphoned off in the top two divisions? Make up your own mind on that one.
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