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Think Grimsby and you think fish. You know it, we know it. Start a chant of “you stink of fish” and we’ll answer with “we piss on your fish, yes we do”. The names of our fanzines – Sing When We’re Fishing, The Fishy, Cod Almighty – tell their own story. It was Liverpool’s Kop that first sang “you only sing when you’re fishing” at us, during an FA Cup tie in 1980. We changed the personal pronoun and turned an insult into a motto. Grimsby men, away for long periods in the fishing grounds, came home with a lot of catching up to do, with their drinking and with the Mariners.
Words By: Pat Bell
Perhaps inevitably, then, the piscine theme finds its way into We Are Town: Writing By Grimsby Fans 1970-2002, a new anthology published by the Mariners Trust, especially when a Town fan is trying to explain the various ways of north-east Lincolnshire to a wider audience.
In one section of the book Grimbarian author Jack Waterman, reflecting on the club’s centenary exhibition in 1978, argues that during our heyday in the 1930s, “the prosperity of the fishing industry and the confidence of the town were reflected in the performances of the team”. In another, Town fan and former Guardian sports journalist Steve Bierley says of our long post-war decline: “The trawling industry collapsed, while the footballing knowledge of the Grimsby board could have been written on the dorsal fin of a small cod.”
By 1970, the decline appeared terminal – for both the Mariners and the industry that gave us our nickname. The trawling never did revive. True, manager Lawrie McMenemy reignited the club in 1971-72, taking us to a fourth division title. In another chapter of We Are Town, the Grimsby-supporting DJ, author and former WSC staffer Bill Brewster writes that we’ve had better teams since, but McMenemy remains a legend. He took his bleary-eyed players onto the Grimsby docks before dawn to remind them how hard fans had to work to earn the money for a ticket on the Pontoon of a Saturday.
But by the time of our centenary, that revival had faded as Great Grimsby MP and foreign secretary Anthony Crosland negotiated, unsuccessfully, an end to the Cod Wars with Iceland which sounded the death knell of the fishing industry. Everything that happened to the football club since felt like a battle against a strong economic tide.
And yet. In 1980, a team consisting of local youths and journeymen won the Division Three title, and Town were back in the second tier after an absence of 17 years. The next season we almost went one better. Back in the Fourth in the late 1980s, Alan Buckley, with stubborn single-mindedness, built a team of hard-working craftsmanship – that craft at times spilling over into sheer bloody genius – which again returned us to the second flight. Attendances remained low. An abiding theme of much of We Are Town is a failure to appreciate good times when they were working dazzling triangles below us on the pitch.
And the association with fish remained. It was something now that our parents had done, rather than something we did ourselves, but the fishing industry was still ingrained in the way we related to our town, and Town.
We Are Town: Writing By Grimsby Fans is priced at £10 from www.marinerstrust.co.uk