Wikipedia describes purgatory as “the condition or process of purification or temporary punishment in which the souls of those who die in a state of grace are made ready for heaven”. Such a condition may not have been the intention of the Football League when they imposed their points deductions upon Luton Town, AFC Bournemouth and Rotherham United during the summer, but this has been the effect of the decision upon supporters of Grimsby Town this season. Were it not for the sanctions imposed by the Football League, Grimsby would already have been cast adrift at the foot of League Two but, as things stand, they face a lengthy wait to see if they can maintain the status that they have held since 1892.
Going into today’s match, they haven’t won in the League in twenty-one matches, and are already the only club in the top ninety-two not to have won a single league match. As if this state of affairs isn’t bad enough, Grimsby’s supporters have to cope with their local rivals being arguably more successful than they have ever been before. Ten years ago, Grimsby were in the Championship, whilst Hull City were bottom of the entire Football League. This weekend, Grimsby are being kept away from the relegation places by the grace of God, whilst Hull City are travelling to Old Trafford to run Manchester United very close in the Premier League. The suffering doesn’t end there. Their other local rivals, Scunthorpe United, sit at the top of League One, and seem likely to (at the very least) run close to getting promotion this season. Things can only get any worse for them if they lose in the FA Cup at Morecambe next week.
Off the pitch, things don’t seem to be going a great deal better for them. Manager Alan Buckley has already been fired and replaced by ladies man Mike Newell, whilst plans for a new stadium continue to stutter. Their local council effectively gave the green light for the club to build on a new site a year ago but nothing seems to have happen since then, and now the club’s chairman has made a statement saying that the council are not been supportive enough in the plans for them to build a new stadium, as if the council have some sort of obligation to part fund its construction. On the pitch, Rotherham have already overtaken them with form that would have put them amongst the promotion places had the Football League not deducted points from them during the summer, and Bournemouth are slowly but surely closing the gap as well. Survival that should have been a foregone conclusion is starting to look like becoming a nerve-shredding uphill battle.
Today’s visitors, Darlington, could tell Grimsby a thing or two about the perils of building a new stadium. Darlington vacated Feethams for The Reynolds Arena in 2003, after the former safe cracker George Reynolds built them an unnecessarily large new stadium. Reynolds is no longer at the club, having gone back to prison for tax evasion, but Darlington’s home crowd still pays testimony to his folly every other week as they rattle around like peas in a tin can at the 25,500 seater stadium that retains his name. Whether a town with a population of just under 100,000 people and with a club in League Two needs a stadium that size remains an open question, but Darlington have finally managed to move themselves out of Reynolds’ shadow. Last season, they made the League Two play-offs, losing on penalties to Rochdale, and they go into this afternoon’s match in second place in an exceptionally tight table.
Grimsby lost 4-0 at Dagenham in the week, and it doesn’t take long for their defensive frailties to cost them again. Just six minutes are on the clock when Rob Purdie’s shot iss back-heeled in by Billy Clarke. If confidence goes a long way towards explaining the current positions of the two clubs, it’s an early indication of the gulf between the two teams. With Darlington playing with the ease of a team near the top of the table and Grimsby’s last remaining vestiges of self-confidence already drained from them, what follows has an air of inevitability about it. After fifteen minutes, Grimsby fail to clear a corner and Ricky Ravenhill, a former Grimsby player volleys in from twenty yeards out. We’re a sixth of the way into the match and it looks like it is already over as a contest. Grimsby battle gamely, picking up a couple of yellow cards, and the introduction of Rob Atkinson just after the half hour mark gave them a bit more shape, but Darlington seem happy to take their foot off the pedal and play out time for the win.
They maintain their two goal lead until, with just under twenty minutes to play, Jean-Paul Kalala pulls a goal back with a shot from twelve yards out. The goal lifts the crowd, which has been largely sullen since Darlington took the lead, but even with the time left that they have, Darlington rarely look threatened. Grimsby have a lot of possession without turning it into anything substantial, and Darlington have the last clear chance of the match when Greg Blundell heads narrowly wide. At full-time, there is no massive chorus of boos from the home crowd, just a resigned grumbling. One suspects that they’re getting used to this sort of thing around here.
Wycombe Wanderers’ 0-0 draw at Rotherham has done Darlington a favour, sending them to the top of the table. At the bottom of the table this point opens up a little more space between Grimsby and Rotherham. The Millers are now three points above them with a vastly superior goal difference. Equally troubling is the news coming through that AFC Bournemouth have clipped another point off the gap between them with a 1-1 draw against Chesterfield. It’s into single figures now, and there has been nothing about Grimsby’s performance that indicates that anything will happen other than it continuing to narrow further. They have a week’s respite in the form of an FA Cup match at Morecambe, but they will be continuing to glance nervously over their shoulders. Quite how Grimsby Town are going to purify their football souls is anybody’s guess. The possibility of dropping into what for them would be the football hell of the Blue Square Premier remains a very real proposition.