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

Entertaining, but not painless

Is this the LaLiga we expected?

LaLiga is quickly becoming all that we expected before this season started. The theoretical top three (Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico) struggle to win theoretically winnable matches, whereas the following group of teams (Real Sociedad, as well as Sevilla and Villarreal, who both have a game in hand) have quickly become potential contenders for the title. On top of that, a couple of nice surprises in the form of Osasuna and Rayo occupy Europa League spots, while Athletic, Valencia and Betis have shown promising glimpses of what they could become if they achieved some sort of consistency.

However, there’s a slightly disappointing touch to the whole thing so far, as though watching the bigger teams play terrible football took some brilliance out of the increased competitiveness of the tournament.

Continue reading “Entertaining, but not painless”

A rough night in Lisbon

After events such as Lisbon, one can always count on Shakespeare.  Macbeth, sitting down in the morning for coffee and porridge after murdering the king in the night and having had a bit of verbal with the missus, is asked by fellow party-goer Lennox if he’s had a decent night’s sleep.  ‘Twas a rough night’ replies Macca, deadpan.  This is often used to teach the concept of dramatic irony to GCSE students in England, but if Shakespeare were alive today you’d probably prefer to just ask him – ‘You were taking the piss, right?’ Continue reading “A rough night in Lisbon”

Season Review

Who overachieved, delivered or underachieved this season in LaLiga

The final weekend in LaLiga only brought one surprise: Espanyol managed to finish 7th as they surpassed two Basque teams, thus making the preliminary round of the Europa League. The Catalans defeated an apathetic Real Sociedad at home, and those three points allowed them to overtake Athletic, who played another awful away match at Sevilla. Continue reading “Season Review”

Conclusions from two clásico defeats

With yet another defeat to Barcelona in the Santiago Bernabeu – the fifth in six matches –, it’s the first time that Real Madrid have lost three consecutive home matches since 2004. Let’s finish the brutal statistics intro with the most hurting one for Real Madrid fans: after 87 years, Barcelona lead the head-to-head stats with 96 wins vs 95 for Real Madrid.

That said, let’s draw conclusions from these two clásicos and ponder what awaits Solari and his players for the rest of the season: Continue reading “Conclusions from two clásico defeats”

Tantric antics

Given the foul weather on Sunday morning, I wandered down to the local bar with my papers and pored over the footy stuff, accompanied by my ‘Tejano’ coffee (Texan – which is an ‘Americano’ with a bit of cold milk) and a croissant whose sugary nature will mean some gym-ridden penance sessions this coming week.  I like these coffee visits to the bar, usually alone.  I can read all the Spanish news and all the sports tabloids, in perfect peace.  In fact I stayed so long that Valladolid v Huesca began on the telly.  ‘They’re going back down, that Huesca lot’ pronounced the owner of the bar from within shouting distance – aware of my weakness for football.  I nodded. ‘They try to play football, but it doesn’t work for them – look!’ he proclaimed, as a pass went astray. Continue reading “Tantric antics”

A weekend at the derby

This weekend was a multiple-derby theme, on the third ‘jornada’ of La Liga.  There’s nothing like a good variety of derby-fests to fill the fans full of late summer cheer, especially with a fortnight’s break looming for the internationals (and an interesting game for Spain at Wembley ).

The Spanish have adopted the term ‘derby’ and re-spelt it ‘derbi’ although they seem generally unaware of the etymology of the word.  In the past it was sometimes used more loosely to simply refer to any big game, to the extent that even the ‘clásico’ was called a derbi by some. But with the new globalised reach of LaLiga (without a space) the term clásico has stuck.  The derbies, however, now conform to the accepted idea of being either a same-city encounter (Betis v Sevilla) or a same-region game (Eibar v Real Sociedad).  This weekend saw two same-city clashes, one regional affair, and one in-between-the-categories affair, in an unusual cluster of fraternal frolicking. Continue reading “A weekend at the derby”

Allons enfants de la Patrie!

The 2018 World Cup, far more enjoyable than folks were expecting, was similar to a three-course meal that you spoiled by eating too much of the excellent starter (the Group Stage), leading you to a less spectacular but occasionally tasty main meal (knock-out stage), but a decent enough dessert to end the evening.  Without wishing to stretch the metaphor any further, the best team won despite the dubious nature of their first two goals, in a game where both sides stuck to the guns that had seen them reach the final.  Continue reading “Allons enfants de la Patrie!”

Back home

A disappointing Spain flies back home

It took me a while to digest Sunday’s defeat. Not only because I felt optimistic about the match and the squad, but especially because I liked the line-up and thought it sent the right message to the team and the rival.

However, it didn’t work. In fact, the match became the continuation of the downward spiral Spain’s game got into after the tournament started. Each match was a bit worse than the previous one in terms of energy, risks taken, errors committed. Making a simple extrapolation, the tournament was bound to end badly. Continue reading “Back home”

Did I not enjoy that!

As Graham Taylor might have said (had his sympathies been directed towards Spain) ‘Did I not enjoy that!’  The Russians stride on, unconcerned about the nature of their victory, since victory it is.  Perhaps Spain hadn’t quite seen it coming – in the sense that Russia, playing in front of the home crowd with a tail wind – might have been expected to have played a slightly more open game.  Fair cop to them, of course, but half-way through the first half their supporters showed a certain lack of irony when booing the Spanish team for retaining possession of the ball.  As the Spanish saying goes ‘¿Qué remedio?’ (what else could we do?), and in the second half it only got worse, with Russia completely renouncing any thoughts of more than two consecutive passes. Continue reading “Did I not enjoy that!”