Grimsby Town’s 3-1 win over Forest Green Rovers in Sunday’s National League Promotion final secured their return to the Football League after a six year exile. The Mariners are the latest in a line of ex-league clubs who have fallen from a great height to take their time finding their way back. As Tom Simmonds explains, Grimbarians of a certain vintage will have felt the absence keenly.
Grimsby’s board have stuck with boss Paul Hurst for five years since he was appointed alongside Rob Scott in a joint enterprise. Scott’s departure in September 2013 left Hurst to fly solo. The patience that Hurst has been afforded, despite three narrow failures to get promoted back to the league before Sunday’s win, shows that the club is run by sensible people who appreciate how tough it is to get out of the National League.
They also clearly know the club’s history too, given that stability was the watch-word for Grimsby’s most successful period in recent memory, between 1989 and 2002. Grimsby have been managed by Bill Shankly and Lawrie McMenemy, though neither of these titans are the club’s defining manager. Alan Buckley’s deeds at Blundell Park mean that he is the only man worthy of this title.
A Midlander widely acknowledged by Walsall fans as one of their greatest ever players, he managed the Saddlers between 1979 and 1986 before inheriting a Grimsby side that had just been relegated to the bottom division in 1988. He quickly turned them around, winning back-to-back promotions from the bottom (1989-90) and third tiers (1990-91) before establishing them in what is now the Championship.
While Grimsby didn’t replicate Tranmere’s three seasons of unanswered knocking at the Premier League’s door, or Cambridge’s one-off attempt to batter their way to the top table in 1991-92, the Blundell Park faithful enjoyed relative success and stability. They finished ninth in 1992-93 season and 10th in 1993-94 before eventual relegation in 1996-97.
Not all those six seasons were under Buckley. His success was enough for West Brom to lure him away in 1994. But 1997-98, the one season in 12 Grimsby spent outside the second tier from 1991, was arguably their most memorable, and one Buckley oversaw.
Grimsby recovered from a dreadful start in which they won one of their first nine league games to finish third and securing play-off promotion. They overcame a Fulham side containing Peter Beardsley, Chris Coleman and Paul Bracewell 2-1 on aggregate in the semi-finals before beating Northampton 1-0 in the final at Wembley. This was their second Wembley success of that season after they beat Bournemouth to win the Auto Windscreens Shield.
Buckley remained for the next two seasons, guiding the Mariners to 11th and 20th placed finishes before being dismissed early in 2000-01. Lennie Lawrence and then Paul Groves succeeded him but, by this time, the collapse of ITV Digital and the subsequent reneging on the too-good-to-be-true financial offer they made to second-level clubs hit Grimsby hard. Relegation in 2002-03, a season after they knocked Liverpool out of the League Cup at Anfield, was an inevitable consequence and the catalyst for decline.
A near-miss with promotion to League One in 2005-06 under Russell Slade and another trip to Wembley for the JPT final (which they lost 2-0 to MK Dons) was as good as it got in intervening years, against a constant backdrop of financial woe. Another club legend Neil Woods, a striker who served Buckley so well in the early 90s, could not prevent the slide into the non-league from which they have just emerged.
Buckley is still heavily involved at Grimsby, managing their under 17s side. Yet Hurst seems unaffected by his presence. Given the security that his employers have demonstrably afforded him, it is unlikely that he sees Buckley’s presence as a threat, and nor should he. Buckley, more than anybody, will be willing Hurst to replicate his achievements.
Grimsby fans-do you think that stability has been key to your return to the league? Can other clubs learn a thing or two from the way Grimsby have given Hurst to get things right?
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