mThe earliest memory of the FA Cup comes from the 1980 final when West Ham played Arsenal. The excitement of the day was mainly due to the fact that it was a rare live match on TV. Today we have ubiquitous live games broadcast from every corner of the globe, so few things mark my age more clearly for my children than the idea that one game a year is televised live, except perhaps the concept of writing real letters, which makes me sound like character from Brontë’s novel.
Those colorful Saturdays are so vividly remembered because normal TV programming was replaced by an all-day football extravaganza, reporters roaming outside team hotels, a celebrity edition of Quest of Sport, a growling rendition of each FA Cup team’s song, all before the whistle blew starting the match.
I don’t remember much about the match itself or even the score, but I do remember the sense of injustice when 17-year-old Paul Allen, then the youngest player to play in the final, walked through the goal and was cynically beaten by Arsenal’s Willie Young. The foul was booked and a free kick was given, and Young stayed. To this day I remember my disbelief and sense of injustice. Apparently the authorities shared this view as it was a tackle that changed the rules on “professional fouls” and similar tackles now result in a red card.
Today, in our unfashionable corner of North East Lincolnshire in Grimsby, a quiet revolution is taking place on and off the pitch. Our city is beginning to rediscover itself as the home of the renewable energy industry and is moving from a story of industrial decline to a low-carbon future and a community full of emerging solidarity and hope. On the football field, while Hollywood owners Wrexham continued to be the center of attention (and TV money) for this year’s FA Cup, Grimsby Town went almost unnoticed by the national media as the lowest-placed side in the fifth round.
We beat three League One teams, including then league leaders Plymouth Argyle, 5-1. More dramatically, we beat Premier League contenders Luton Town 3-0 in a hard-earned floodlit replay at Blundell Park. The FA Cup romance never seemed more generous and magical as the evening unfolded. Whether it was the unlikely three-goal lead at half-time, the sight of academy graduate Edwin Essel getting his first taste of those great nights in the 88th minute, or most of the 7,106 singing “he’s one of us” to a local hero Harry Clifton, when he scored, it was one for the ages.
This season’s results are markedly different from last year’s. In our first year of club ownership we were knocked out in the early qualifying rounds by Kidderminster Harriers who play in the National League North, the sixth tier. When Grimsby play Premier League Southampton away on Wednesday, it will be only the 11th time we’ve reached the stage of the competition where we first entered in 1882. Financially this is huge for a lower league club as a win would be equivalent to between 10% and 20% of a player’s annual budget and the next round could be as much as 50%.
Regardless of the money, this is a historic year in the Cup, sitting next to the day our inflatable mascot, Harry Haddock, first appeared at Wimbledon in the fifth round in 1989, or the last time we reached the semi-finals, in 1939, playing Wolverhampton Wanderers. This is the closest we’ve come to the final and the 76,962 spectators at Old Trafford remain a record for the stadium.
The cup offers a chance to revisit the interconnectedness of clubs up and down the football pyramid. Lawrie McMenemy is one of the most famous managers associated with Grimsby since the Second World War. Some would say Bill Shankly achieved greater things, and insiders would say Alan Buckley had a more lasting impact on our history. McMenemy was manager of Grimsby from 1971–73, and after winning the Fourth Division title, he went to Southampton where he won the FA Cup in 1976 before becoming assistant manager in England alongside former Grimsby Town player Graham Taylor.
I imagine nothing he has accomplished will be more important than having a bar on our biggest stand named after him. For the last 20 years this has been my usual place to eat fish and chips before a home game. McMenemy’s Bar has been the venue for weddings, funerals and celebrations of all kinds for the people of Grimsby and shows how a character from 50 years ago still lives on in our hearts.
Over 4,000 Grimbarians (now including Harry Haddocks) will make their way, like Viking raiders, to the South Coast for one of the furthest days on our calendar. Somewhere between our recent league appearances – the win away to Northampton, the recent defeats at Gillingham and Colchester and the amazing achievement of winning against Luton – is the truth of who we are now as a club. It’s a reminder that the goal of a professional football club is to create memories and bring the community together.
Football has the power to give our lives a communion that is so often lacking elsewhere. As we review the archives of our days, the act of supporting and following our bands creates lifelong memories on par with those ritual celebrations seen at McMenemy’s. This is especially true when it comes to the FA Cup where the competition is fierce and the financial reward can be transformative if we dare to dream that another round is possible.
Jason Stockwood is the chairman of Grimsby Town