Friday, 20 May 2016

Non-League No More - Grimsby Town FC Vs Forest Green Rovers FC, National League Promotion Final 2016, Wembley Stadium (15/05/16)

Today is our penultimate match of what has been a long, but thoroughly enjoyable season, and where better place to spend it than at Wembley, in fact it will be our first of two visits there within a week. On this occasion, it is to watch a final where one team will end up being ‘non-league’ no more.

The match has all the ingredients for being a cracker. Grimsby Town FC (GT) have the chance to return to the Football League after a six year absence, Forest Green Rovers FC (FGR) have the chance to, as their Twitter account puts it ‘make history’, and get there for the first time ever. Considering how excitable the GT fans were when I watched their semi-final win over Braintree Town FC and how much fun one of their fans in a black and white striped shirt seemed to be having on the tube on Friday night, I have a feeling we will be in for a good afternoon.

Before I am able to enjoy my Sunday at our national stadium, I must endure an overfilled bus, in warm weather, with few open windows and various children in differing stages of distress, from slight moaning to full blown tantrums, and even though I pass stops called Tudor Gardens and Blackbird Cross, even I am unable to craft a vague, but obligatory reference to a certain much loved and popular fantasy TV show reference.

There are no signs of a major football event anywhere to be seen, only the three teens with the same printed off tickets I have, are any kind of hint that there is a football match about to take place. One asks the others if they “know all the songs”, ones reply is an attempt at a manly growl, accompanied by a pumped fist, which isn't dissimilar from most football chants, so I’m sure they will get on fine. However, all that dramatically changes not long after spotting the Wembley arch over the roof of a ginormous ASDA.

Turning into Bridge Road, the final stretch before I hop off at Wembley Park station, a pub, well I think it’s a pub, is rammed. I can't be sure because of the 100’s of people in front of it spilling out into the street, whose muffled singing I can hear through the closed windows of the bus. I would like to say the remaining short journey is a riot of colour, but I would be lying, there are only two, black and white.

Off the bus and once I have comprehended the scale of the striped invasion from Lincolnshire, I notice Tom, smiling back at me from behind a pair of Ray-Bans, with a blue sky and Wembley backdrop, looking like an extra from a photo shoot for a Sports Direct catalogue.

“There are a lot of sharks” says Tom, slightly confused by the GT supporters choice of match day companion. As we look up Wembley Way, I know it's now called ‘Olympic Way’, but I think its old name is much better, almost every person to a man is holding an inflatable fish under their arm, over their shoulder or up in the air.

Being a keen fisherman myself, I've been known to catch the odd carp or two, I can see that Tom's knowledge of marine biology is way off the mark. What they are holding is not a basking or a hammerhead, it is a Haddock, which I believe is in reference to the city's connection to the fishing industry, they even have ‘Young’s’, the well known purveyor of frozen fish as the sponsor on their shirts, and I’ve never heard of battered great white and chips, have you Tom?

He is also stating the bleeding obvious, when he tells me “there are a lot of Grimsby fans” it would probably be easier to point out someone who isn't. “Not seen any Forest Green” he says, having been on here a while before I arrived, the only green and white of FGR he has seen so far are the flags flying above the nearby unofficial, ‘scarves that give you a rash’ or ‘hats that fall apart before the end of the match’, “tut stalls” as Tom calls them, that line the way to the ground.

To say GT have colonised every available inch be underselling what is already clearly a significant turnout, all the more impressive considering GT are playing in the FA Trophy, back here, in a week's time. Along with the pub I passed on the bus, the Premier Inn next to the tube station has been overrun, music is blaring out from somewhere and Tom tells me there are already casualties “someone is asleep outside”, hopefully it's just a disco kip, and they will be raring to go for kick-off in just under two hours.

“Here we are, this is where it's gonna happen” says one beaming GT fan passing us, taking the opportunity as many are to pose like Tom on the bridge for a picture..

Now at ground level, no longer overlooking the fans, the volume has only increased, chants and songs are starting all over, firstly by one or two, but quickly it’s picked up by more, and like a ripple, before we know it everyone around us is at it. Then it peters out, only for someone else start another one and it begins again, “oh when the Town, go steaming in”.

If like me you never leave the house without your copy of the ‘Non-League I Spy’ book, then you might be a little bit jealous of some of the boxes I was able to tick, on our amble towards the ground. Standard sights such as, foam fingers, jester hats with bells, flags worn likes capes have already been ticked off. I was though able to cross off a few rarer sights, the likes of which are usually reserved for big occasions, such as the man in a suit completely comprised of his club’s colours, this fine example a black and white striped two piece, a man dressed as a penguin, they’re fit the GT colour scheme and  like fish, so I guess that counts or the three GT fans with black and white face paint, wearing grass skirts and flower garlands, carrying an inflatable shark, yes this was definitely a shark. Perhaps my best spot, my triple point scorer was a boy with a broken leg in a wheelchair with a flag fastened to the back, being pushed along and leading his merry troupe in a song, “we only sing when we’re fishing”.

At the official kiosk for ‘scarves that give you a rash’, but they are endorsed by the FA so they are ok, I wait in the queue behind someone contemplating a “half and half”. I get a programme, which was only £5, a pleasant surprise, not to extortionate. Tom’s flick through it finishes up on a full page advert covered in battered fish, and it get his stomach rumbling “only had a croissant all day” he tells me. The pull of the nearby burgers is too great, and we stop. Tom who usually is more than happy to splash the cash on his football food, can't be tempted by eating once inside, “too expensive” and as this is coming from a regular at the Emirates, it must be pricey.

Amongst the football fans we see families and couples, walking against the tide,  tourists I think, who are perhaps staying at one of the nearby hotels or have been spending their Sunday shopping at the local shopping centre. Each one looks a mixture of intrigued and confused, either by the fish carrying Englishmen or the walking talking penguin or perhaps it's the woman who has dismissed the idea of buying an official GT shirt and has spray painted a black number 9 on the back of a white polo shirt or perhaps like us they have spotted their first FGR fan in a shirt with ‘Fat Dad 50’ on the back, which Tom thinks is a “bit mean”, especially if it was a present.

The last photo opportunity for most people is at the bottom of the ramp one has to ascend at the foot of the stadium, some though are not making the climb yet, but have opted for a game of headers with a large inflatable football, each successful header getting a “wehhhh”.

Halfway up, we can hear in the distance, past the 5-a-side pitches outside Wembley arena, another mass of GT fans who are being forced to listen to an appalling rendition of ‘I predict a riot’ by the Kaiser Chiefs. If the original recording wasn't shouty enough, this rendition makes it sound positively operatic.

Above us over the wall a GT flag has been hung “So Proud To Be” is written across it, behind, looking marvelous in bronze, Bobby Moore. Every inch of the armed crossed, effortlessly cool effigy of the England captain’s statue, is surrounded, everyone waiting their turn to have their picture taken with him. It’s mostly children being herded by parents to stand in front of someone I’m sure few have probably even heard of, but they do what they are told, while a Mum or Dad takes a snap.

“We are going up” sing a small group of neon green clad FGR children, their GT counterparts, who have been practically armed by their parents, are doing as we all would do, hitting the grownups with their air filled fish, and enjoying every minute of it.

Despite the fact I have work the next day, the combination of fine weather, Tom admitting to wishing he had “shorts on”,  and the fact this is not your run of the mill league game, a beer seems very much in order, so it's time to head inside. Our tickets, self printed and self folded are informing us our entrance is not a block or section, it has its own name ‘Club Wembley’.

Having scaled to the top, we are immediately sent back down, down into the shadows of the ramp, where silver waist high poles, connected with red velvet rope, like outside a high end nightclub, mark our way in. ‘Welcome To Club Wembley” says the sign above us. Once our tickets are checked, and even with trainers on, we are allowed in.

No tight squeeze through a turnstile here, instead automatic glass doors, no burly grumpy stewards,
instead smiling well turned out men and women, no nondescript concrete entrance, instead the torch from the 1948 London Olympics, and a row of giant plant pots, that for the first time in my life make me feel like a Borrower. Is this how the other half live?, is this the side of corporate football that I moan about, but I’m now experiencing for the first time and one very small part of me is fighting with the rest because I’m quite enjoying being called “Sir” by every smiling person, am I becoming a cock?

Directed up a couple of escalators, each one manned by an attentive and helpful person pointing us in the right direction we pass the ‘Bobby Moore Centenary Amazing Lounge’ and the ‘Champagne For Everyone That’s Not You Suite’. When we finally reach our level it is quiet, a few people are having a drink from the bar that has no queue, this is all very different from the Wembley I know, this is all very different from the football I know.

Tom a more worldly, hoypoloi soul than me, tells me that it's just like the “Emirates” and this level of faceless, slightly soul destroying, its all a bit like a Vue cinema, football “is nothing mate” in comparison to the lofty heights he has reached just off the Archway road.

There is a lot to take in as we enter the stadium proper, the fact the door was opened for us by another person with a permanent grin, the amount of empty seats, not that either of us were expecting a sell out, or for it to be even half full, but in our section, the early bird section, the neutral section we have almost a whole block of red padded seats to ourselves, only for couple of Tranmere fans, a few rows in front.

GT’s overwhelming numbers outside, are replicated inside, their section is twice as big as FGR’s and is a sea of black and white. Flags of all shapes and sizes are being hung from every available point, down the front, pitchside, the club mascot, who Tom is not wrong when he says from afar at least “looks like Captain Birdseye” is padding around. Although not sure of his rank, I can see he is a seafarer, he is wearing a white sailor's cap, but certainly his behavior, astride an inflatable fish which he is riding rodeo style is certainly not that befitting a Nelson or a Cook.

Although the prize today is getting into the Football League, there is also a silver trinket gleaming on a plinth in front of the players tunnel. As the over-familiar, bald announcer from BT prowls about, doing a bit to camera, and girls with tee-shirt cannons limply fire souvenirs into the stands, the Wembley stadium announcer hands over to FGR’s, to read out the teams.

“Come on you Rover's” shouts what looks like a twelve year old looking boy. Kudos to him for standing up in front of the crowd, it must be a little daunting being able to see your own image ten feet high on the big screens. His voice has more echo than a U2 song, but he does his best to excite the small turnout in green and white opposite us.

Proceedings are then handed over to GT’s announcer. Not that they needed much warming up, but he does a great job in whipping them up into a frenzy, like a minister at a gospel church, think James Brown in Blues Brothers. “We are Grimsby Town” he shouts, “MARINERS, MARINERS, MARINERS” reply the fans. Each player gets a huge cheer, the mascot, no longer playing Buckaroo, is bowing, arms outstretched towards the GT keeper warming up in a Wayne’s World, ‘I am not worthy’ style. “This is it” says the GT announcer “let's make some noise” and once again they give a deafening reply “MARINERS, MARINERS, MARINERS”.

Time allows for a quick drink, so we hurry inside. Tom returns and informs me that “they have run out of Tetleys” he is slightly concerned for our safety, knowing that them up North like a proper drop, not this wishy washy lager. Guzzling our ice cold, but ultimately tasteless pints, the couple next to us encapsulate ‘Club Wembley’ when they produce their snacks. Not crisps, not an upside down pie like the men the other side of us or a Kit-Kat, but an unopened bar of Lindt white chocolate, what is this world coming to?. At least one man can see the madness in what's going on, bemoaning the price of the thimble sized bucket of popcorn he just bought his two kids, “£4” he says white with shock to his wife, who's preparing the defibrillator.

The attention I’m now getting from the grinners and tie wearers is starting to get a little unnerving, motionless for a mere thirty seconds, waiting for Tom to get out of the toilet, I am surrounded by two or three people all asking me if “I’m ok?”. I’m starting to wonder if I have walked into an episode of Doctor Who, and at some point they will all peel off their faces, revealing their true identities, and will attempt to take over the world

Free from our potential overlords for now at least, the red carpet has been laid out waiting for the teams, and the military band in their black uniforms and red plumage are standing to attention, highly polished instruments in hand, they must be boiling, with the sun streaming down on them.

Before kick off we get the opinion of our nearby neighbours from Prenton Park. For him he is torn between his “head and heart”, his heart would like FGR to win, as they have “never been there (the Football League) before” his head though, has his team and the others in the league in mind, “get rid of Grimsby and all their money”.

Both teams arrive, both teams applaud their fans, both sets of fans wave and whirl anything they can, and despite FGR’s low numbers and Tom feeling “sorry for them” because they are not even close to filling their section, they are giving a good account of themselves, but can’t come close to competing with the GT lot.

Lined up, many players wave to friends or family in the seats in front of them. Men in blazers of the highest position accompany Bobby Moore's widow along the line, shaking the hands, of the anxious and fidgeting players. On the lifting of the conductor's baton, the whole of Wembley stands, to sing the national anthem.

As the band leave, all kept in time by a single drummer, the GT fans manage to get even louder “we’re on our way, to the Football League we’re on our way”. Many have stay standing, and for the first ten minutes or so of the game, they are continuous and non-stop, much like their team on the field who are making all the chances. Each one is close, but not enough and is greeted with a monumental “oohhhh” or “ahhhh” from the fans below us.

The initial adrenaline from the kick-off has simmered, on and off the field. Although most of the GT fans are still standing, some have taken their seat, occasionally a fellow fan will gesture to them to get back up.

With about twenty minutes gone on the clock, FGR fashion their first and best chance of the half, the ball bounces kindly to an unmarked player, who has a clear shot on goal, only for the heroics of one defender who makes a last ditch block, the keeper in anticipation of it chucks himself to the ground, but the ball doesn't get that far. Inspired by nearly going ahead we hear the FGR fans for the first time.

Now we love a drummer and his or her drum at football, we were ever so impressed by the skill of them in Germany, their ability to keep the crowd in time, to start songs, to ultimately control the atmosphere. Today I could hear one, but I can't see it, it’s not until Tom points it out that I notice there are in fact two, standing side by side, both wearing a pair of white gloves, their reason for doing so is perhaps ceremonial, or perhaps they are fans of Mickey Mouse.

It’s not long after noticing them, I find myself transfixed by them, that that they start a simple chant, not one that is overly complicated, there is no world clever word play and it’s not to the tune of a song by a certain brother, sister duo, in fact it's only one word, but it rocks every one of the 90,000 seats, be they occupied or not, effectively it is the Mariners war cry “FISH, FISH, FISH, FISH”. Funnily enough we have actually heard this chant before, I say chant it was was just one bloke randomly shouting it, not 13,000 people as one.

A GT goal seems imminent, around the half hour mark they have two more chances, both once again bringing a  “ohhhh” from the fans. The second chance crashes off the crossbar, Tom is caught up in the moment, shooting forwards, half out of his chair, joining everyone else making a nondescript ‘that was close’ noise.

Tom not content with watching this game unfolding in front of us, he is also keeping himself abreast of developments in the Premiership, which is playing out its final day. Every time he checks the latest, he takes much delight in informing me of developments between Spurs and Newcastle. It would seem 300 so miles away another team in black and white is causing a defence problems, as Newcastle increase their lead on Spurs. I try not to show him that he is getting to me, but it’s hard to take, fucking football.

There is a lot on the line for both teams today, the step up for FGR or the return for GT is massive, so when GT go ahead, following a back post header from a free-kick, the fans realise they have just put one foot back in the Football League, there is such an outpouring of emotion and a palpable release of tension, that is unlike anything we have experienced before. One fan is so excited they have managed to produce a pink lilo from nowhere, and are waving it in the air like there is no tomorrow.

Now imagine the excitement when the aforementioned team, only a minute later, edge said foot that little bit further into the Football League when they get a second. A speculative shot from outside the box is fumbled by the FGR keeper, the quickest to react is GT player who is on hand to side foot it home.

It's sometimes hard to be eloquent, to try and be flowery about everything, sometimes it's just easier to say it straight: the place went mental, off the fucking hook. Who needs a shirt on when you are two goals ahead, seems to be the thought process of a large contingent of GT fans, who are now stripped to the waist. One third of the words inflatables are being tossed into the air, and their singing says it all “we’re on our way, to the football league we’re on our way”.

Over the din, Tom tells me that the remainder of the game is “either going to be one of the greatest comebacks of all time, or it's going to get a bit sad”, FGR look shell shocked, halftime cannot come quick enough.

The break brings the only low point of the day, when we along with a few others are asked to take down our flags because it's covering up advertising, sighhhh, not a lot more can be said about that.

What doesn't help, and only compounds my flag based sadness is the glee Tom is taking from telling me that Spurs have now gone and got pumped 5 - 1 by relegated, kind of useless Newcastle. I can't let him see he's getting to me though, I can't let him know he's winning. He is though kind enough to go to the bar again and get me a “consolation” beer, which gives me enough time to compose myself.

Our Tranmere acquaintance is now fully going with his head, sod his heart, sod the romance, “get rid of them” he tells us, let them be someone else's problem, get one of the “bigger fish” out of the league.

Perhaps preoccupied with half time drinking, the GT fans post the restart are the most subdued they have been all day, the drummers are still pounding away in effortless unison, but they are just lacking a little bit of that first half intensity. The same can also be said for the players, whose on field performance mirrors that of their supporters, they now seem happy to sit back, they’re being ever so slightly reserved, not so cavalier.

GT’s reluctance to venture too far forward, in turn gives FGR more of the ball, and they are now creating chances. A long range shot which is dragged, and looks destined to go wide, rolls across the floor with little venom, one FGR player though has not given up, ghosting in on the back post he should tap it in, but he puts it wide.

Gasps fill the FGR end, how?, why?, that was their way back into the game. GT’s supporters all exhale, trying to laugh it off, but it's nervous laughter, it is not the time to give the opposition the upper hand. More chances come, Tom once again is swept up in it all, “go on” he squeals, as the ball just needs to be nudged over the line, but in the end is cleared, his delivery is a little bit more high pitched than one might expect from a bearded East End socialite.

“Oh my fucking God” shouts Tom, this time with a bit more of his usual manly gruff, when a swerving rocket of a long range shot leaves the foot of the FGR player, God only knows how far outside the box, far enough though that Tom is able to comment, sit back, with the ball still flying through the air as the whole place watches on, knowing fair well that ball is destined for the top right hand corner, completely out of reach of the fully stretched keeper, it's just now about waiting for it to get there.

“Game on” says Tom.

The green and white end has come to life, “Rovers, Rovers, Rovers”, they know like they have the upper hand now, GT have been punished for being overly cautious, “complacent” as Tom puts it, and perhaps as a way to distract themselves from the fact the opposition have got a goal back, someone has set off a grey/white smoke bomb, which is quickly filling the air with its unmistakable smell, and shrouding many people with a foggy cloak. For Tom it brings back some old memories, from his time in the Mekong Delta, and his “short time in the Army” he looks off in the distance, and I wonder if it's all going to get a bit Deer Hunter.

Into the final twenty minutes the atmosphere is tense, GT muster their first real chance of the half, they are in the hunt for a third, but it's still a bit tentative. I’m not sure why because FGR have had very little threat since the screamer, and if GT just showed a little more killer instinct they could easily kill them off.

The fourth official raises his board, five minutes of extra time. The two time goal scorer Bogle’s, face is blazoned across the screens, he has been awarded the Man of the Match award, “Bogle, Bogle, Bogle” the fans sing, every time I hear his name all I can think of is dancing or a spelling based board game.

“Their support has been amazing” says Tom quite rightly, as they whistle and jeer the referee, surely that's been five minutes they are thinking, but the game carries one. The age old trick of bringing on a sub to waste some time is brought into play, the GT player going off seems overcome with, and I’m sure he is crying. Such is his meandering pace, the referee trots over and asks him to hurry up.

‘Six years of hurt’ would of been the line from a Lightning Seeds song had they written one about GT’s time in the conference, four times in the play off finals and no success, last year they lost the final on penalties, all this explains perfectly the intensity of the moments following GT’s third and final goal. A mass feeling of ‘we’ve done it’ fills the ground, players and staff on the bench can't contain themselves and dash toward their fans, some are on the pitch, suited and booted and absolutely delirious. One fan has managed to clear the barriers, which is no mean feat as they are considerable at Wembley, but doesn't get much further and is manhandled out by four stewards, but he is not giving them an easy ride.

 Any last reserve of fight drains from FGR in an instant, as the GT players run off to celebrate, a pile on in one corner of the pitch, many from the team in green have sunk to their knees, the keeper lies prone, not moving an inch as all around him enjoy celebrate the goal.

When the final whistle blows, promotion is confirmed, and every player, coach and fan is ecstatic. The players now brandishing ‘we’re going up flags’ dance, like sugar fueled children at a party in front of the supporters who continue to applaud, cheer and enjoy what their team has just achieved. Two players appear on the big screen, an interview is cut short when one starts to sing “we’re on…” he turns to the fans behind him who take over “TO THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE, WE’RE ON OUR WAY”.

Watching on dejected, some sitting, some standing, FGR have to look on as GT climb up the famous Wembley steps, disappear from view for a moment, then reappear on the balcony, any hint of being tired, or drained, I’m sure has been replaced by pure adrenaline, and most must have felt like they were flying.

The outstretched wiggling fingers of the players build up to the moment of the cup being lifted, I’m not sure why they even bother with a trophy, the real prize has already been won, also with trophies and cups come lids, and lids can fall off balconies in the midst of celebrations, and metal lids falling from great heights can be painful, so I hope no-one was standing under there.

GT’s return to the pitch is slowed by most players being stopped every foot or so to be congratulated. If GT flew up the stairs then FGR drag themselves, weary and at a snail's pace to collect their runners up medals, just let them go home I reckon.

A photo opp has been set up for the wall of photographers, the team are ushered to stand behind  hoardings set up on the pitch ‘promotion final winner’, once the stragglers have made made it down the last few steps, the sign is given, the cup is lifted again, the corks pop and the bubbly flows, flashbulbs flash, and streamers of black, silver and gold are fired into the air.

“Marines, Mariners, Mariners” sing the outstanding GT support, as the team parade their accomplishment in front of them, fish are now flying through the air towards them, some players salute the fans and reply with the ‘I am not worthy’ bow.

The final hurrah is a combination of a Jurgen Klopp post match celebration and a Klinsmann dive. Lining up, and all holding hands, the line starts at a gentle jog, quickly breaking into a mad dash towards the trophy which has been placed on the pitch. Moments before reaching it, they each perform a German belly flop and skid across the pitch, except for the person who has to dodge the goal post, some are not fussed in the least though and end up in the back of the goal.

Outside the walk to the tube is full of more singing, more chanting, a beach ball is kicked up in the air from fan to fan as we go. We also get a few last minute ticks in our ‘Non-league I spy’ book, such as a fish wearing a scarf and one fan who has delved deep into the dressing up box, and is sporting a near perfect replica mascot beard, and hat.

Tom and I part ways, I’m cursed with more packed buses, and as I wait for my final one home I notice coach and car loads of GT fans making their way home. Flags hang in the windows, scarves hang out of them, one man serenades the people of Hendon with a song about someone “being on fire”. It’s a long old drive back to Grimsby, but I’m sure they don't give a damn, they were fantastic, looking forward to seeing you at Wembley again soon.

For all our photographs from the match, click HERE


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