A curious communion. 

Grimsby v Solihull, June 2022

When anyone asks me which team I support, I always flinch slightly at the verb. I don’t ‘support’ Grimsby Town. The word suggests a pastime, a hobby, a magnanimous gesture.  My relationship with this team is something entirely different, as if they were an inexorable part of me, and me of them. They’re not an appendage, because that suggests something physical, but rather a part of my personality.  I’d prefer this not to sound too holistic or spiritual, but for those who worship at altars outside of the church of football, it’s a notion that cannot easily be understood. 

Put it like this. I first went along to watch this team at their noble but rickety old ground (Blundell Park) in 1966, and was smitten by the colours, the pipe-smoke bonhomie and the curious sensation, hitherto unexperienced, of the weird tribal consensus that unites football supporters. I’ll use that noun as a necessary default, but under protest. Anyway – I picked up on this togetherness immediately, and it smelled as sweet as the pipe-smoke. It was not a quality I’d detected in the species, up to that point.  

Blundell Park, circa 1970

Blundell Park was not, and never will be, a glamorous venue, but its crumbling 3rd Division chic was enough for me, even when they were almost immediately relegated to the 4th – a more humiliating- sounding category than League 2, its post-modern equivalent.   And I still do not know how I came to be there every fortnight, in congregation with 4,000 other lost souls, leaving their troubles behind in their kit-bags and gathering in that strange unison that only a football crowd bestows. Cloth-capped wags shouted witty remarks about incomprehensible things, and everyone smiled and laughed.  I’d not seen this before, and so in spite of the Siberian terraces in winter, brutally exposed to the grey North Sea, I wanted to be a part of Grimsby Town, however much time and money I knew it would waste.

I remember the first time I tried to break this emotional umbilical cord.  The internet informs me that it was February 1, 1969.  It was during a particularly wretched season, but the sun shone during the first half and we took the lead against Bradford City.  I was behind the goal and I remember it with embarrassing clarity.  By the 90th minute we were 1-5 down, the skies had opened and the hellish scene resembled something from Dante.  People had drifted away as the visitors were joyously banging in the goals in the funereal silence – and for one brief moment, staring through the nets behind the goal – I tried to switch off the life-support system, tried to pretend that I didn’t care.  How could such profound misery be a self-inflicted thing?  Better to take up stamp-collecting or chess, like my more sensible mates. 

I was there

But of course I didn’t, and ever since, my life has been measured in weekly doses of Saturday to Saturday (more or less) – a comforting rhythm of joy and deflation, deflation and joy.  Summers were torture, waiting for the publication of the fixture list and the restoration of the weekly dose.  As Einstein might have said, time is an inconvenience between football matches.

For the last thirty years I have lived in San Sebastían, and have naturally become a supporter of the city’s side too. My son was involved in their youth set-up, I am a season-ticket holder – and although they play top-flight football I also see their flaws and share in the pain of their defeats.  When people ask me which team I prefer, Grimsby or Real Sociedad, I tend to shrug because comparisons of that sort are invariably odious.  Like an unfaithful partner trying to justify his polygamy, I simply love them both differently. They are both a part of me, snuggled down in the soul, wherever that is.  I will only cast them adrift when I shuffle off this mortal Danny Coyle, and that’s ok.  

Real Sociedad. Different kind o’ love.

Slide the video forward to last Sunday. In the depths of Hackney Wick, in a state of mild culture-shock after three years of avoiding England, I pass a pub heaving with young-buck Grimsby fans, noisily celebrating the temporary kinship that a play-off final affords, northern castaways finding brethren in the murky southlands – talking the same bollocks, drinking the same beer, dreaming the same dream of an unlikely victory in the London Stadium.  It’s the National League play-off final, and the insane 4-5 victory at a Hollywood financed Wrexham the week before has persuaded me to fly over at short notice to attend the event.  I haven’t seen Town in the flesh for 5 years, but I simply cannot stop myself from buying air tickets and negotiating the tricky logistics of getting to the game.  To stay away would, as it were, be a denial of my own existence.

A curious communion

I am rewarded with a raucous 2-1 win, meeting up with some old mates who remarkably recognise me, and the post-coital afterglow of victory, even if it was against Solihull. As unsexy as they sound, Solihull were probably the best side in the Division after Stockport, and Grimsby’s win was once again achieved on the wings of a comeback. It was good to be there, amongst a sea of younger faces that I no longer recognise but with whom I share this curious communion.  The club seems to be on the rise again, with intelligent new local owners and a groundswell of fans who seem genuinely wedded to the club.  Grimsby can be as rough as arseholes, but is nevertheless a special kind of place. I left the town long ago, but it’s never quite left me, nor do I want it to. 

Maguire-Drew gets the winner for Grimsby

A few years ago, I responded to a question on the platform ‘Quora’ as to which team I supported and why.  I responded as below, and I stick by the thesis. 

Grimsby Town. Because they’re crap. And supporting crap teams (because you were brought up in the town and had no choice) is good for your general outlook on life. It teaches you to be wary of unrealistic or unhealthy expectations. It helps you to appreciate the wins (and the happiness that accompanies them) because they are few and far between, and so you understand that joy is a fleeting thing. It helps you to be an optimist, curiously, because despite the years of barren nothingness, you continue to entertain the fantasy that one day your team may be great, that there will be abundance as they bestride the world like a colossus. The fantasy is enough. You know it won’t happen, but it keeps you going, like a sort of life-carrot. You also belong to a smaller community of sufferers – and you understand each other perfectly. This increases your capacity for empathy.

So I cannot imagine why anyone would wish to support Real Madrid, Bayern or PSG, for example. You would learn very little, and all the above advantages would be absent or reversed.

Support a crap team. You know it makes sense.”

Phil Ball, San Sebastian, June 2022

17 thoughts on “A curious communion. ”

  1. Congrats, Phil. What did you make of the London Stadium? I saw Fulham play there last time we were in the Prem and thought it was the worst away day in the division. My seat was as far away from the goal as the goal was from the halfway line.


    1. Thanks Derek. The LS was ok, in that big-statement stadium sort of way. It’s not my cup of tea really and yes, there was a feeling of distance from the action. It just makes Grimsby’s own stadium seem so much better – although they could do with working on it too.


  2. Brilliant, took me back to the days at Blundell Park, flat caps, pipes and all and Phil describes a town obsessed with football superbly.


  3. What a brilliant summary of the joy and despair of following our home town club. The connection between club, the town and it’s community is real, and stronger now because Jason and Andrew recognise the importance of that. There are stark contrasts in Grimsby as a place, which have always been there for all to see (well demonstrated by the bus parade along leafy Wheelsby Road, just around the corner from where I grew up). It is those contrasts that make any town real and highlight inequalities which must be addressed. Despite those inequalities, we are all united by the club, none more so than this season, and that is incredibly powerful. That unity can’t be ignored and must be utilised positively for the benefit of the town and its community.
    As an exile I only get to a few away games each season, but that connection with the club and the town give me a deep sense of pride. To have my 12 year old daughter willingly come to games with me, and now the proud owner of a town shirt, pronounce herself a town fan well in the middle of the season after our win at Yeovil, tells me we are a club that is heading in the right direction! UTM


    1. Yes, to all of that Sam. And the first time the kids don the black and white is indeed a special moment, even though for me it’s been harder to persuade my kids because they’ve grown up in a top-flight football city. But something’s rubbed off.


  4. Great stuff, Phil.

    You made me think of my inability to shake my first love, the Brisbane Strikers.

    Once Champions of Australia, they were recently relegated to the third tier of Australian football, and relegated at a really bad time. The second tier in Australia is a little like the unwieldy mass that was Segunda B in Spain and there’s talk of structural reform and rationalisation in the next few years. They’re going to miss out.

    I’ve tried to love the top-flight team in town, but it never took. Even when they were the best team in the country about a decade back.

    The club closest to where I live are a very good team in the second tier with a lovely club overlooking the ground at which one can sample peking duck spring rolls and garlic prawns before the game. Bloody luxury. I admire but don’t much like ’em.

    No such luxuries at dear old Perry Park, home of the Strikers. You can get a donut and a coffee to sustain you, though. I recently watched Garlic Prawns FC (Lions FC, actually) stuff the Strikers 1-6 at Perry Park in the Cup.

    I don’t know why I do it to myself.


    1. Sounds good David. My son had a mate here who went on to play in Oz league – prob about 4th level, one of the Brisbane sides. Looked a decent level though. During the summers (when I was a kid) I hated the lack of footy and so I randomly supported Sunshine City, because it was a good name. That was a bit sad. I think they might have folded now….


  5. Hi Faraz – thank you. We’ll be doing stuff, down the line. Just waiting for things to warm up a little, don’t worry.


  6. Hi Phil, have followed your writing since the soccernet days and Morbo, and have been re-reading the hapless teacher’s handbook. You mentioned before you were working on another book? Hope to see it soon! Else will just have to make do with the brilliant pieces here I suppose.


    1. Thank you for the heads-up. Hope HTH did the trick for you again. There’s an update of Morbo in the offing, and the next book is children’s literature (my new path…) but I’ll alert you to it. Not a mention of football though, amazingly enough.


  7. Hi Mr. Ball,

    Stop the torture please. Why are you not writing anymore? The least we deserve is a mid-season review from you. Please!!!


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