We all know Blundell Park is a special place. It might be a bit run down these days but the sense of history is unmistakable. It is the place where my Dad first took me in 1990 to see big Keith Alexander scramble home a last minute winner against Carlisle.
Pretty much from that moment on I was obsessed with Grimsby Town and in love with Blundell Park with those huge floodlights towering over the pitch, the modern (at the time) Findus Stand, the terracing in the corners, the rickety old main stand, those weird bumps in the goal mouths. I wanted to know anything and everything about the place. My Dad would often oblige my new found passion. Taking me to the Imp on a Saturday evening, where in the shadow of the stripy floodlights he would tell me about his first game, about title winning teams and the times that as a well-regarded Sunday League Goalkeeper he even got to play there a few times himself.
As I grew older we went to many, many games together at the old ground. We were there for promotion clinching games, cup upsets, play-off wins, and several relegation scraps. A few times if we were lucky we made onto the pitch for celebrations but for me that was as far as I got in terms of gracing the hallowed turf. The dream of actually playing there never quite happened. I tried and tried, playing youth football but my club didn’t quite make those cup finals held at Blundell Park. The closest I came was for the school team who did make a cup final. I made the squad for the game but wasn’t selected. I watched the game from the Main Stand, secretly heartbroken.
My Dad passed away in 2005 and as a result Blundell Park became an even more important place for me. It is the place where I can remember him best. I give his old seat, G31 in the Main Stand, a little pat every time I’m in there. He never saw me play at Blundell Park and for a long time I thought that my opportunity to ever play there had gone. But then in 2015, John Paul Pittman skied that penalty at Wembley and Operation Promotion was born. I jumped at the opportunity to buy a slot in a fans XI to play a celebrity team. It was my chance to put right the injustice of Mr Telford’s crazy decision not to select me for the Year 9 Grimsby and District Cup final in 1996.
My family were quite amused by the news that I’d be playing against a team of celebrities at Blundell Park, even more so that I’d pledged £120 to do so. They thought it would never happen and to be honest I thought the same after the first date was cancelled after coinciding with the FA Trophy Final in 2016. Months went past with no news and just when I’d almost given up, an email from the Mariners Trust dropped into my inbox. The date was set for May 21st 2017.
In the following months and weeks I attempted to get fitter in order to make the most of the big day. Colleagues from my office in Leeds questioned whether any celebrities would actual come to Grimsby but as the day drew nearer Lloyd Griffith and the Trust came up with the goods, convincing Jack Whitehall, Thomas Turgoose, Danny North and co to turn out for the celebrity XI. It was turning into quite a big event.
When the day came around I was more nervous than I expected. My wife dropped me off at the ground and I reported to a Mariners Trust volunteer who led me into the changing rooms. This was my first time behind the scenes at Blundell Park and to be honest there was a tinge of disappointment when I realised they are really no better than your average Sunday League facilities. After meeting my team mates I ventured into the Home dressing for a quick look to be greeted by Jack Whitehall in his pants. We exchanged an awkward hello and I snuck back off to the Operation Promotion XI dressing room. A chap who manages the Internet Mariners took the lead and got us all organised into a Bucklyesque 442 formation. Despite usually playing in goal I somehow ended up volunteering to play in centre midfield. At this point, I was imagining Paul Groves style late runs into the box, Alan Pouton step overs, and Craig Disley leaping headers.
Probably the highlight of the whole day for me was the pre-game formalities. Standing in the tunnel wearing black and white stripes, walking out on to the hallowed turf, lining up and waving at my wife and daughter. I felt like a real Grimsby Town player and without being too cheesy I felt quite emotional as looked to my Dad’s old seat in the Main Stand.
Once the formalities were over we trotted over to our starting positions. I pulled myself together and suddenly realised the pitch seemed absolutely huge. I quickly decided that I should downgrade my expectations so as not to be on my knees with exhaustion within 5 minutes. I channelled my inner Mickey Cummins and became a sloth like holding midfielder. This tactic initially worked quite well. Within the first 2 minutes of kick off I’d had about 5 solid touches, I won a header, I set up an attack that led to my midfielder partner hitting the crossbar, I got a couple of good tackles in. I started to get more ambitious, making a few late runs into the box, I even had a couple of attempts at goal. By 15 minutes though I was starting to pay for my indiscipline. I, like the rest of the team had tired quickly and Gary Croft in particular started to exploit this.
In my entire lifetime of playing amateur football I’ve played with and against some good players, but Gary Croft was on another planet. He’s 43 now and I’m pretty sure he could still be playing at a high level if he wasn’t so busy flogging houses. His touch was sublime. If you got tight he would glide past you, if you dropped off him he would ping a 40 yard pass out to the wing. After my initial good start I spent the rest of the half literally chasing his shadow.
When half time came round we seemed pretty pleased to have kept the game at 0-0. The break gave us enough time to regroup and we came out and played well at the start of the second half. A spell of sustained pressure led a surprise goal with probably our best player on the day curling a really nice finish past Lloyd Griffith at the Pontoon end. This though seemed to awaken the competitiveness in the ex pro’s and they stepped it up with Danny North quickly scoring two goals to turn the game.
From about 70 minutes I was starting to feel shattered and I think most of my team mates felt the same. We just couldn’t get the ball out of our half and the only thing that kept the score down was a mixture of terrible finishing (hello Paul Savage!), an inability by Turgoose and North to stay onside, and some good goalkeeping. The last 5 minutes felt like it lasted an hour. To be honest I was delighted when the final whistle went, much longer and I would have struggled to walk off the pitch.
Despite the final score the game ended with a good natured penalty shootout at the Pontoon end. Lloyd Griffith stopped the first three for the celebrity XI with some great saves. When it came to my turn I gave him the eyes and rolled it down the middle while he dived off to my left. Despite acting like I meant it I was actually aiming for the right bottom corner. There’s a photo of my celebration somewhere on the Trust website, my face etched with relief.
It took me a good week to recover physically from the game and to say I was sore is an understatement. I really didn’t care though. I’d played in a game at Blundell Park. I can’t thank the Mariners Trust and all involved enough for making my childhood dream come true.