THE VANARAMA Conference title race is well and truly on after Grimsby Town sent long-time leaders Barnet spiralling to a second successive defeat after an excellent 3-1 victory in this televised clash at Blundell Park.
Martin Allen’s side looked to be on their way to another victory after top scorer John Akinde netted a sixth-minute penalty but that lead was overturned within ten minutes thanks to strikes from Ollie Palmer and Lenell John-Lewis’ own spot kick.
Despite a spirited start to the second half, it was the Mariners who took full control of the game on 52 minutes when Jack Mackreth slid home to cap off a fine team move.
After three home games without a win, Mariners’ chiefs had taken extra steps to ensure a positive atmosphere inside Blundell Park by opening up the Osmond Stand to home supporters and also giving away black and white flags to some supporters in the Pontoon end.
But that all counted for nought when Akinde won a spot kick from the first real attack of the game. The former Alfreton man turned Toto Nsiala inside-out on the right and powered into the box, only for the defender to push him to the floor as he attempted to get back and cover.
The Conference’s top scorer dusted himself down and stepped up to confidently stroke home a 23rd goal of the season.
Paul Hurst’s side did not crumble though and they were level on 11 minutes. On-loan Mansfield man Palmer tried to link up with Nathan Arnold but the ball fell through to Bees’ defender Bondz N’Gala. He could only control the ball back into the big striker’s path and he made no mistake with an unerring first-time finish into the top corner beyond Graham Stack.
Town’s tails were up now and from their next attack they took the lead. John-Lewis controlled a long throw in the area and looked to turn, before being pushed to the ground by the Bees’ David Stephens. Again it was a clear-cut penalty and the Mariners’ top scorer made no mistake as he committed Stack and slotted the ball straight down the middle of the goal.
It was almost three just five minutes later as Mackreth burst down the right flank and crossed for Palmer who stretched to head goalwards, only to see Stack claw the ball out from underneath the crossbar.
Allen was struggling to get any rhythm going to his side, not helped by his insistence on constantly switching his players around the park, although N’Gala did poke an effort wide from Lee Cook’s corner before the former QPR man dropped a left-wing cross onto the top of James McKeown’s net.
The hosts were making the real openings as the game approached the break. Palmer was unfortunate to be crowded out inside the six-yard box as he looked to turn, before Scott Brown hammered the loose ball over the crossbar.
Barnet made one change at the break with Keanu Marsh-Brown replacing Curtis Weston and taking up a position on the right wing.
The visitors started the half well, penning the Mariners back and forcing several long throws and corners. From one of those set pieces came their best chance of the half. McKeown did superbly to punch a throw away under pressure but it was met by Andy Yiadom who hammered in a 30-yard effort that was deflected wide of the target.
Town sprung back into life on 51 minutes, adding their third goal of the afternoon with a superb team move. Palmer controlled a long ball on his chest before laying off for Brown in midfield.
The former Southport man spread play wide for Carl Magnay and he cut back inside to cross for Palmer to flick on into the path of the onrushing Mackreth, who slid in at the far post to score, despite the best efforts of Stack in the visitors’ goal.
Much like they did in the first half, the hosts were now really in their stride. Palmer should have added a fourth moments later when he was picked out by Arnold in the box. The striker opted to shoot from a narrow angle and saw Stack pull off a fine save, with John-Lewis well-placed for a tap-in on the other side of the box.
Then John-Lewis’ cross was cut out before it could reach his strike partner, after a lung-bursting run from his own half.
Allen responded with another attacking change, Michael Gash coming on for his Bees’ debut, replacing veteran Charlie MacDonald. But it was the home side who continued to press, the impressive Palmer bursting down the left and seeing his cross narrowly elude John-Lewis and Mackreth.
There was an opening for the Bees just after the hour. Mauro Vilhete slalomed his way into the penalty area but shot straight at McKeown after working his opening.
Barnet’s third roll of the dice saw Luisma replace David Villa but it was still the hosts asking all the questions as Nsiala narrowly headed over from an Arnold corner.
Akinde then went in late on Shaun Pearson and was lucky to stay on the field as the game continued to slip from the Bees’ grasp.
John-Lewis burst into the box on the left-hand side on 76 minutes but saw Stack equal to a powerful effort from 10 yards. The striker then teased his way into a fantastic position but his cross was inches in front of Palmer who was looking for a tap-in.
Hurst made his first change of the afternoon as Craig Clay replaced the all-action Brown in central midfield, as Palmer again saw an effort from outside the box gathered by Stack.
Arnold then popped up on the right but his powerful drive didn’t get the desired touch to turn it goalwards. The on-loan Cambridge man then released second substitute Jon-Paul Pittman on the left, the former Crawley man cutting inside before flashing an effort just over the angle of crossbar and far post.
A fourth goal did not arrive for the Mariners and in truth their dominance deserved five or six. But it was a valuable three points for a side that ended 2014 and started 2015 in inauspicious fashion. And the result certainly reels the Bees even further, with Bristol Rovers the side looking most likely to overhaul them in the race for the Football League. But Mariners’ fans will point to two games in hand on Allen’s men, as well as a tasty return fixture at the Hive in a month’s time.
Mariners: McKeown; Parslow, Pearson, Nsiala, Magnay; Mackreth, Brown (Clay), Disley, Arnold; Palmer (Pittman), John-Lewis. Subs not used: Bignot, Hannah, McLaughlin
Bees: Stack; Yiadom, Stephens, N’Gala, Hunt (Luisma); Weston (Marsh-Brown), Togwell, Cook, Vilhete; Akinde, MacDonald (Gash). Subs not used: Saville, Muggleton