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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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