A last-minute free kick from loan defender Conor Townsend kept Grimsby Town firmly in the play-off hunt and perhaps extinguishing any hopes that Forest Green Rovers had of reaching the top five.
Townsend’s perfectly-executed effort came in the 90th-minute as an exciting game between two good football sides ended in dramatic circumstances.
Anthony Elding missed a penalty and Rob Duffy struck a post before Townsend’s strike, whilst at the final whistle there was a touchline bust-up between Mariners’ joint-manager Rob Scott and Rovers’ assistant Gary Seward with winger James Norwood subsequently being escorted down the tunnel by stewards for gestures he made to the home fans.
It was a real game of two halves on a sunny afternoon at Blundell Park. Despite taking an early lead, the hosts laboured in the first half as Forest Green, particularly through the dangerous Norwood took control.
A double switch at the break swung the momentum to the home side and the Rovers goal led a charmed life towards the end of the 90 minutes with goalkeeper Sam Russell having his customary excellent game against the Mariners.
Scott and Paul Hurst resisted the temptation to throw their new loan signing from Stevenage, Peter Winn, into the starting XI and kept the faith with the side that matched league leaders Fleetwood Town for so long last Tuesday.
Forest Green boss Dave Hockaday opted to pack his midfield for the trip to Cleethorpes with recognised forwards Norwood and Liam Henderson taking up positions on the flanks. Talisman Reece Styche was declared fit enough for the bench. He scored in the corresponding fixture last season – one that led to the dismissal of then-Grimsby manager Neil Woods.
After a cagey opening it was the home side that drew first blood through a 28th goal of the season for the prolific Liam Hearn. It was an excellent move from the Mariners in the build-up, which started with Craig Disley in the centre of the park.
He played in defender Shaun Pearson who strode forward, drawing two defenders out of the centre, before laying the ball back for right-back Gary Silk to send a deep cross to the far post where Elding nodded back across goal for Hearn to finish with a neat half-volley.
The Mariners’ tails were up and Coulson went on a mazy run through the middle of the Forest Green defence, which was halted by Eddie Oshodi. The ball ricocheted off the defender and struck Chris Stokes with loud appeals from the home fans for a penalty for handball – referee Richard Wigglesworth was unmoved though.
And it was Rovers who secured a spot kick just a minute later for a foul on Norwood. The forward stepped inside a challenge in the penalty area and was pushed to the ground by Silk. Yan Klukowsi converted from 12 yards but did little to endear himself to the home supporters behind the goal with his celebration.
Hockaday’s side are a different proposition from the one that hung on to Blue Square Bet Premier status by the skin of their teeth last season and they went on to boss the remainder of the first half.
Danger man Norwood had three good opportunities to edge his team in front but he was unable to take any of them. Firstly the left-sided player was slipped in by Keiron Forbes but found the legs of James McKeown blocking his shot.
Norwood then popped up on the right after a loose header from Townsend but again McKeown was equal to the effort, getting a foot to the shot to divert it for a corner. And from the set piece, Norwood rose unchallenged but could only direct his header wide of the far post.
The only foray forward from the home side produced a good opening for Disley just after the half-hour. His run from midfield was picked out by Louie Soares but the Mariners’ captain couldn’t get the better of Russell in the goal.
There was a double substitution for the Mariners at the interval with Winn making his debut in place of Soares, whilst youngster Andi Thanoj replaced Anthony Church in the centre of the park. And Winn showed just what he was capable of within five minutes of the restart.
The winger sent a probing diagonal ball to Hearn and Russell had to be alert to keep out the striker’s volley at his near post.
Town were enjoying plenty of possession and a significant territorial advantage as they pushed the visitors back towards their own goal. Hockaday’s side were relying on hitting the Mariners on the break and with the pace of Norwood and Matty Taylor in their ranks, they were always a threat.
A run from Norwood on the left brought the first booking of the afternoon for Silk but referee Wigglesworth waved away appeals for a second Forest Green penalty when the pair tussled again moments later.
Taylor could only fire straight at McKeown on the stretch following a huge Russell clearance. Then substitute Tommy Wright, on in place of Henderson, headed narrowly over from a Norwood centre. The best chance of the half fell to defender Chris Stokes though; he was played in on the left-hand side following a Mariners’ corner but he pulled his effort wide of the goal with just McKeown to beat.
At the other end Pearson and Elding both had excellent headers saved by Russell as the hosts began to turn the screw, although they suffered a blow when top scorer Hearn was forced off to be replaced by Rob Duffy.
Still the home side kept going as the game entered what would be an action-packed final five minutes. Townsend sent a deep free kick into the area looking for Pearson but Forest Green’s Oshodi went up with his hand and the Mariners had an excellent chance to regain the lead.
Elding stepped up to take the kick but Russell pulled off a tremendous save to his left before keeping out a rebound from Coulson. And there was more frustration just a minute later when a Winn cross was half-cleared to Duffy who sent in a stunning volley that rattled the post with Russell a spectator.
There was four minutes of added time signalled but the home fans can be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t going to be their day. Then Coulson went down under a challenge from Stokes on the edge of the box and Townsend did the rest, stepping up to curl an exquisite free kick into the top corner to raise the roof at Blundell Park.
Mariners: McKeown; Silk, Townsend, Miller, Pearson; Coulson, Church (Thanoj 46), Disley, Soares (Winn 46); Hearn (Duffy 72), Elding. Subs not used: I’Anson, Wood
Rovers: Russell; Hodgkiss, Graham, Oshodi, Stokes; Thomson, Forbes, Klukowsi, Norwood (Pook 80), Henderson (Wright 59); Taylor (Uwezu 71). Subs not used: Todd, Styche