TOTOCC News Grimsby’s dream FA Cup run is lifting the town

Grimsby’s dream FA Cup run is lifting the town

Lloyd Griffith’s live show at the Docks Academy in Grimsby on March 18 sold out in minutes. Having already travelled the length and breadth of the country, this is the final run of the comedian’s tour with six nights in his hometown. But instead of toasting his homecoming, it’ll be an early night for everyone there.

League Two side Grimsby Town are three wins away from the Europa League, with the first part of the this most unlikely tale coming on Sunday when they travel to face Premier League high-flyers Brighton & Hove Albion in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup; it’s the furthest they’ve got since 1939. The day after Griffith’s gig, there will be a mass migration of supporters heading from the east of the United Kingdom to the south coast, complete with thousands of inflatable fish, all hoping for yet another memorable upset against established Premier League opponents.

– Stream LIVE: Brighton vs. Grimsby, 3/19, 10 a.m. ET (ESPN+)

Griffith, 39, was there for their 2-1 win over Southampton on March 1 in the fifth round. He had a gig the following day in London’s Leicester Square, so as the 4,000 Grimsby Town fans celebrated the pair of Gavan Holohan penalties and their victory, he mimed the songs he knows so well in order to preserve his voice for the following day.

“Every week you’ve got however many thousand people all singing in the same choir, you know? It’s great for mental health,” Griffith tells ESPN. “It’s the best thing in the world when you start a chant. But what’s the worst thing in the world — and also one of the funniest — is if one of your mates tries to start a chant and his voice breaks. It’s a beautiful moment.”

The club are sitting in mid-table in the fourth tier of English football — 14 points from the playoff places, and 13 points above the relegation zone — and supporters are loving life under their owners, Grimsby-born Jason Stockwood and club supporter Andrew Pettit, who purchased the club from John Fenty, the polarising previous majority shareholder, in 2021. “You are a custodian in the true sense of the word,” Stockwood tells ESPN. “This club has endured before you and will endure after. Your job is it to help improve it.”

Home for Grimsby fans is Blundell Park, a few minutes’ walk from the North Sea. Griffith’s season ticket is at the back of the Findus Stand, opposite the Main Stand, complete with its wooden seats. “I think it’s the oldest stand in the Football League: an absolute fire hazard,” Griffith says. “The old boardroom is beautiful. It’s designed as a skipper’s room on a ship. Everything in the cupboard is protected and held back so if it was at sea, it wouldn’t shake around.

“I love the place. It’s not just the club, but the town too: I loved growing up there, and when I went to university [in Exeter] I think that bond had grown stronger. I have my season ticket and try to go to as many games as possible, probably to the detriment of my career. People go to the ground, not just for the football, but for everything it encompasses. It’s a good place under these new owners — I know they want to look forward and not talk about the past, but it was toxic. It wasn’t healthy, but the club has a new lease of life.”

Stockwood steers our talk towards the future rather than the past, but he does allow some nostalgic moments. “There’s this group of artists that painted a mural in our fanzone at the ground,” Stockwood says. “When I first saw it, the weight and the power of the history of the club was really present for me in that moment.

“As I stood on the spot looking at this mural of players and fans over the past 140 years, I was thinking there were literally tens of thousands of people that stood in these spots and identified as supporters of this club.”

Recent years have been tough in Grimsby and the surrounding Cleethorpes area. A 2022 study from the Childhood Trust showed 21% of the town’s residents live in food poverty, while the 2019 English Indices of Deprivation put North East Lincolnshire — Grimsby’s local authority — 19th in the country for the highest proportion of neighbourhoods featuring in the most deprived 10% in the UK.

The area has also seen the highest drop in male healthy life expectancy in the last decade, while the once-flourishing fishing industry is less prosperous than it once was, dropping from being the busiest port in the world in the 1970s with 400 trawlers based there, to just five in 2013.

But through it all, the area has stuck by Grimsby Town. It has remained a constant in the heart of Cleethorpes. Griffith has been there for it all over the past 30 or so years since his first match on April 27, 1993. He was 10 years old at the time, watching John Cockerill’s testimonial against his brother Glenn’s Southampton. He’s been there when they were riding high in the old First Division [now Championship] in the early 1990s, through their crash down to non-league football in 2010 and their recent elevation once again under the present owners.

His love of Grimsby is best told through anecdotes. There are the moments on the field, like Adrian Forbes’ last-minute overhead kick equaliser against Barnet in February 2009, that stick in the mind … primarily because traffic chaos meant Griffith and his pal “Foxy” only arrived at half-time with the game locked at 2-2 and were still charged full price for entry. “I remember the guy on the door saying it’d be full price, and we questioned it ‘mate, we’re only watching half the game.’ ‘Yep, well, you have two choices then, either pay the entry fee, or don’t come in.'” Forbes’ acrobatic effort made it worthwhile.

Grimsby’s journeys between the various tiers of the Football League mean visits to new grounds, and other cherished memories. “We went to Bromsgrove Sporting in the FA Cup in 2021 and there were a few hundred people there, and a couple just strolling past with their shopping trollies,” Griffith says. “Aldershot away: you have to walk through a forest to get to the ground.

“There was one trip to Braintree where all the trains were broken and we had to pay an extortionate amount of money to a man in a van to take us home. But wherever you go, you bump into old friends: my mum’s mate, or an old player like Danny North. The three points or a cup win is important, but it’s the memories, the friendships and I love it.”

There are the other memories of some of the club’s former great players. Griffith remembers fondly Clive Mendonca’s time at the club, Padraig Amond’s scoring run back in 2015-16 where he grabbed 29 goals in 40 games to get the club promoted, and Omar Bogle’s form (19 in 27) the following season. Those from an older generation will remember Bill Shankly’s tenure at the club from 1951 to 1954 prior to becoming one of Liverpool’s most successful managers: his old office at Grimsby is now the boot room.

And then there was the ballad of Ivano Bonetti, who was at the club from 1995-96. He came to the club having played for a decade in Serie A, including stints with Atalanta and Juventus. It was a shock signing for the club, then in the First Division. To complete the deal, the club needed to find £100,000 to release Bonetti from an image rights deal: club supporters raised £50,000, with Bonetti himself funding the other half. It was love at first sight, but ended acrimoniously when then-manager Brian Laws allegedly threw a plate of fried chicken at Bonetti after a defeat to Luton Town, leaving the Italian midfielder with a fractured jaw. He left Grimsby at the end of the season.

There are other memories about the club’s former owner that were painful at the time, but now more a reminder of how fortunate they are. There’s an infamous video of Fenty taking a camera crew on a tour of the club. Griffith remembers club legend James McKeown telling a story at a Q&A session that when he was signing for the club, he looked over at a field and saw a man in a suit trying to fix a pipe.

“He asked the club rep there, ‘why is your groundsman wearing a suit?’ The reply was, ‘oh, that’s the owner taking water from the next farm. Corners aren’t being cut now, and the money is going back into the club.'”

When the new owners took over the club in May 2021, they sent out a survey to the fans. They acted on the feedback, and reintroduced local vendors to the matchday experience. The supporters club, the Mariners’ Trust, owns 17% of the club and has two seats on the board.

“We want to make sure everyone feels part of the conversation,” Stockwood says. “It’s so, so integral to our identity and to who we are as a town that everyone should be in that discussion.

“I think football clubs are one of the last bastions of life with a common goal that goes across the vectors of gender, politics, religion, where you come together and have a shared experience. We want to focus on the things that bind people together around connection, compassion, relationships; alongside a reinforced sense of aspiration and hope for the town as well. So that’s kind of what we’re thinking about.”

Their efforts stretch beyond the walls of the club. Sponsored by local business My Energi, the club are setting up a code academy with that business for local students, while the owners are behind the initiative “OnSide” to build a new facility in the town called the Horizon Youth Zone. Then there’s the project called “Our Future” in connection with social entrepreneur Emily Bolton.

“The way politics and society has gone over the past 50 years hasn’t been entirely positive for places like Grimsby, where post-industrial towns lost their main industries,” Stockwood says. “And through globalization, jobs have been outsourced or [gone] offshore. It felt like, within that narrative, there was an opportunity to be try to be useful and help tilt in the story of the town away from the past and the story of decline to something that’s more hopeful and more positive.

Griffith has grown tired of the place being looked down upon. “There was a lad recently who did a YouTube video of an away day and he just absolutely took the p— of the area. It annoys me.

“Grimsby is a football club that gives people hope. It is a warm, friendly place — literally at the moment, you know what I mean? They’ve opened the doors for people to come and stay warm in the club. It’s a beacon. It’s the beating heart of the Cleethorpes area. It’s amazing.”

There will be thousands of inflatable haddocks in Brighton on Sunday. Though the Seagulls will hope to see off the Mariners, complete with their fish, there will be few sights like the away end at the Amex.

The roots of the fish fascination head back to 1989 when local journalist Nigel Lowther, then at the Grimsby Telegraph, wrote after a famous FA Cup fourth round win over Middlesbrough that the “inflatable fish” were on order for their next round tie against Wimbledon. It was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but some readers took it literally.

Lowther got some of his mates to chip in some money; from there, they went to London in his Ford Fiesta and purchased 200 inflatable fish. They sold out quickly, as did the next couple of thousand, with one fish appearing on England’s flagship football show, BBC’s Match of the Day.

“Nigel called the fish ‘Harry Haddock,'” Griffith explains. “It was only later they established it was actually a rainbow trout. They’ve had three or four iterations of Harry the Haddock: there’s the original rainbow trout, there’s one that was made a few years back which looks a bit more like a robot than a fish. Then there was one in 2016, which actually is a haddock. And then this one this year. It’s quite fortuitous they brought it out, as we’ve had such a cup run. At Southampton, there were fish from all different eras.”



Grimsby scores another penalty to go 2-0 up at Southampton

Grimsby scores another penalty to go 2-0 up at Southampton

Over the past 10 months, the club have created some unbelievable moments. The playoff run last summer was incredible as they went from non-league to League Two. In the quarterfinals, Holohan equalised in the 96th minute against Notts County and they then won 2-1 in extra time. Then they came through 5-4 extra time against Wrexham and beat Solihull 2-1 in extra time in the final. It was beyond fairy-tale imagination.

This season they’ve enjoyed a remarkable FA Cup run where they knocked out Plymouth Argyle, Cambridge United, Burton Albion, Championship side Luton over two matches and then the win at Southampton. In doing so, Grimsby became the first team in FA Cup history to beat five teams from leagues above theirs.

“We had our instincts that if you put the right infrastructure in place, you build and set the right values and tones for the organization, and then you really focus on building a culture of high performance and high trust, then you increase your probability of footballing success,” Stockwood says. “We just want to create these magical moments that last a lifetime. And I think, you know, by doing those things, we, we think we’ve increased the probability of creating those moments.

Ahead of the quarterfinal with Brighton, plans have been shifted, gigs re-scheduled and fish ordered. Grimsby are back on the road.

“It’s not really David and Goliath, is it? It’s more like if David had a younger brother that wasn’t quite as talented, and he’s taking on Goliath,” Stockwood says. “But there’s always that hope — that little bit in the corner of my mind that hopes that if they have a really bad off day and we have the game of our lives, we can maybe start dreaming, as unlikely as that is.

“It’s remote, but if we did it, it would be the greatest upset in FA Cup history.”


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