Grimsby Town: Ship-Shape

by | Jan 1, 2021

Life comes at you fast. At the start of this month, John Fenty was the Deputy Leader of North East Lincolnshire Council, and the chairman and the biggest shareholder in Grimsby Town Football Club. In an era of oligarchs, plutocrats and other supremely wealthy “investors” buying into the game, there was something almost quaintly retro about the local businessman with one finger in politics and another the local football club, but just because a state of affairs calls to mind a different era, it doesn’t mean that it’s healthy.

Fenty’s world began to unwind with the news emerged that convicted fraudster Alex May – who changed his name by deed poll from Alick Kapikanya after being jailed for mortgage fraud in 2014 – had been seen in the director’s box at Blundell Park for their match against Mansfield Town, as well as other matches. With the matter now firmly in the public domain, May issued a statement which combined confirming that he did intend to buy shares in the club, that he changed his name by deed poll to “put the past behind me” (cynics would argue that it also makes Googling his shady past more difficult), and a paragraph protesting his innocence over the fraud of which he was convicted.

Both the end of Fenty’s time at Blundell Park and as the Deputy Leader of the County Council were effectively sealed with these revelations. Manager Ian Holloway released a statement calling upon the current owners of Grimsby Town and potential investors to ‘stop playing politics’, voted against the sale of the shares to May, and then resigned his position as the club’s manager two days before Christmas. Later the same day, the other group that had been interested in buying the club, issued a statement confirming that Fenty had refused their offer and that their negotiations had collapsed over the matter of the repayment of loans that Fenty had put into the club.

With tensions rising, then, and uncertainty starting to swirl around the club, the Christmas break arrived, and it looked at that point as though this was a situation that could quite rapidly spiral out of control. Grimbsy Town were managerless, near to the bottom of League Two, in pretty desperate form (as of now, they have just three wins from their last sixteen league matches), and stuck with a major shareholder who’d already courted a convicted fraudster and had now rejected the overtures of the group that many fans had been hoping would end up becoming the new owners of the club.

On Boxing Day, the stakes rose even higher. The club issued a statement confirming that they had rejected the consortium’s offer – which had expired, according to them, at 4pm on Christmas Eve – but the consortium of Tom Shutes, Jason Stockwood and Andrew Pettit quickly countered with another offer which would see Fenty’s loans repaid over three years. As the team struggled to a 3-1 defeat at Morecambe in League Two, though, the door had pointedly been left open for further dialogue, and the growing enragement of supporters on social media was also starting to spill out into the town itself, with banners starting to appear at various locations calling to Fenty to sell up and get out of their club, while an online petition calling for Fenty to sell up quickly reached 2,000 signatures.

After a couple of tense days when it wasn’t easy to tell what the club’s future might be, the 29th December saw the announcement that so many had been waiting for. A statement from Grimsby chairman Philip Day confirmed that Fenty had agreed terms on the sale of his shares, as well as the repayment of his loans, and that the club would be under new ownership once all contracts had been signed and the EFL’s Owners & Directors Test had been passed, all of which was very good news for a support base who could well have been forgiven for wondering what the prognosis for the club’s medium term future might be if Fenty was selling up and the owner he seemed most interested in selling to was… Alex May.

The remaining missing piece of the puzzle came the following day. On the Tuesday evening came a goalless draw against mid-table Oldham Athletic at Blundell Park, but the big news was to follow. Paul Hurst would be the club’s new manager. There is history, here. Hurst first joined the club as manager from Boston United in March 2011, the season after Grimsby’s relegation from the EFL. In 2013, he took the club to the FA Trophy final at Wembley, where they lost on penalty kicks to Wrexham, and in 2016 he achieved the goal that had been set upon his arrival at the club five years earlier when Grimsby were promoted back into the EFL after beating Forest Green Rovers in the National League play-off final.

Hurst left to go to Shrewsbury Town in October 2016 and went on to Ipswich Town in 2018, but his career has been on something of a downward trajectory since then. His five months at Portman Road turned out to be the shortest spell of any Ipswich manager, and he fared little better at his next club, Scunthorpe United, where he lasted just eight months. Perhaps returning to Blundell Park is the reset that both the club and the manager need. Grimsby sit three points above the relegation places in League Two, in 22nd place in the division. Hurst left just a couple of months after Grimsby’s return to the EFL, and a decent start to his return to the club would be to steer them clear of the relegation places and towards the relative sanctuary of mid-table.

And the feeling of a clean deck should help with this. Salary caps and squad quotas in League Two mean that transfer activity in League Two isn’t quite as simple as “chuck a load of money at the first team and hope for the best” (and that’s before we take into account the likelihood that – especially in the current environment – the new owners may well be reluctant to spend a lot this January), but arriving at this time of the year and with new owners might give Hurst an opportunity to carry out some rebuilding work on the first team. On the basis of their first half of the season, many supporters would likely feel that the club could do with it.

Ultimately, though, Grimsby Town go into 2021 in a better condition than would have seemed possible just a couple of weeks ago. The club has a new manager – there’s likely a debate to be had about Ian Holloway’s efficacy as manager, but that’s for another day – and will have new owners confirmed in the next few days. Grimsby’s return to the EFL in 2016 didn’t quite provide the springboard to greater things that some might have hoped for. They haven’t finished above 14th place in League Two since their return. Just to start the new year with any degree of optimism feels like considerable progress, especially considering the way things had been allowed to drift over the last few years of John Fenty’s ownership.