GRIMSBY TOWN 2 (Futcher, G. Jones) LINCOLN CITY 1 (Robinson)
Coca-Cola League Two Play-Off Semi Final Second Leg | 16.05.06
The Mariners booked their place at Cardiff in the League Two Play Off Final with a tense and nervous victory over county rivals Lincoln City.
Russell Slade’s side had been pipped for automatic promotion on the final day of the season by Leyton Orient, but they rebounded to come away from Sincil Bank in the first leg of this tie with a slender one-nil lead thanks to a Gary Jones strike.
Unbelievably though, the omens were against Town getting to Wembley. Of the four previous Football League Play Off ties played that season already there had been no home wins, an astonishing statistic by any stretch of the imagination.
The game was beamed live around the nation via Sky Sports, and over 8,000 fans crammed into Blundell Park to see if the Mariners could overcome the Red Imps and get to the final.
Manager Slade had his selection problems; star striker Michael Reddy was struggling with injury and was only fit enough for a place on the bench. His replacement was on-loan Huddersfield man Junior Mendes.
The Mariners started the brighter of the two sides and it was Mendes who tried his luck from distance inside the opening quarter of an hour – the ball flashing just wide of the target.
Young winger Gary Cohen had been a revelation in the Mariners’ season and had scooped the club’s Young Player of the Year Award. His persistence nearly paid off when he ruffled the Imps’ feathers, but saw Alan Marriott equal to his effort.
Disaster came Town’s way on 27 minutes. Former Town favourite Keith Alexander was the Red Imps’ boss and he was renowned for a direct, physical style of football. The aerial bombardment had seen his Lincoln side hammer the Mariners 5-0 just seven weeks previously and that was still fresh in everyone’s minds.
The aerial assault began in earnest, and in one collision Player of the Year Rob Jones was bust open. The big defender had to leave the field for treatment, just as the Red Imps won a corner on the left hand side.
The ball was allowed to travel all the way through to Marvin Robinson, an ex-Town trialist, and he headed the ball into the ground, and into the roof of the Osmond net and spark wild scenes in the away end.
Still the ball kept coming up; Lincoln peppered the Town box straight from the kick-off. It was only a matter of time before the Mariners’ ten men buckled – Slade had to act fast.
Within 60 seconds of Robinson’s strike, the Town boss threw ex-Lincoln star Ben Futcher into the fray – the 6’7” centre half would easily fill the void that Jones’ departure had made.
It was an unhappy Jones who came back to the dugout minutes later, not knowing he had been substituted. However, if Slade had not made the switch then the tie could have swung the other way.
The Mariners clung on until half time, still in the tie, with the aggregate scores level at one-apiece.
Alexander’s men would up the tempo another gear after the break and were the better team as the game reached the hour point. They came agonizingly close to snatching a second goal through chief poacher Simon Yeo.
The ex-Army man cut inside from the left and fired a shot that beat Steve Mildenhall, but Gary Croft was alert enough to get back and cover the danger on the line.
Slade would have to reshuffle his pack again if the Mariners were going to progress and on 59 minutes he played his ace card. Irish striker Reddy was introduced into the fray for Cohen, just as the Mariners had won a corner on the right.
Woodhouse swung the set piece in, and the Red Imps defence was all at sea as Reddy, with his first touch, nodded the ball back across goal for the waiting Futcher to poke the ball home from all of three yards.
Blundell Park exploded as Futcher raced along the touchline with glee, right in front of the fans who used to chant his name.
It was now the Mariners who were on top of the game as the pendulum swung a full 180 degrees. Reddy’s pace and directness was too much for the Lincoln defence to withstand and he was at the centre of everything going forward for Town.
Town pressed and pressed, looking for a winning goal on the night that would ensure their passage to Cardiff. It came with eight minutes on the clock and Woodhouse was again the architect.
A free kick from the right was viciously whipped in, and Gary Jones rose highest to get the slightest of touches and send the ball flying beyond Marriott.
The Mariners had a two-goal advantage now with the aggregate score at 3-1 in their favour. Lincoln had no answer to the turnaround and were crestfallen for the final five minutes.
There was still time for drama though; a long punt forward by Mildenhall was looking for Gary Jones, and the Town striker managed to get a flick on ahead of Lincoln defender Paul Morgan.
Jones appeared to graze Morgan with an accidental elbow on the way down, but none of the City players reacted in any way. Therefore there was collective disbelief as top official Mike Dean gave the former Tranmere striker his marching orders in injury time, temporarily ruling him out of the final.
The jubilant Mariners fans converged on the pitch at the full time whistle, but in truth the gloss had been taken off the victory by Jones’ dismissal.
Thankfully, referee Dean saw fit to rescind his decision and allow Jones to play against Cheltenham at Cardiff. It was to no avail though, as the Mariners succumbed to a solitary goal from Steve Guinan.
TOWN: Mildenhall, Croft, Newey, Whittle, R. Jones (Futcher), Cohen (Reddy), Bolland, Woodhouse, Parkinson, G. Jones, Mendes (Toner). Subs not used: Kalala, Goodfellow.
IMPS: Marriott, McAuley, McCombe (Mayo), Morgan, Beevers (Green), Kerr (Frecklington), Brown, Hughes, Forrester, Robinson, Yeo. Subs not used: Birch, Cryan.
The Mariners ditched their traditional content for this special Play Off edition of The Mariner.
Keeping the 48-page, £2.50 cover price, Mariners’ officials crammed the programme full of Play Off thoughts from the Grimsby camp.
Grimsby’s Wembley 1998 heroes, John McDermott, Dave Smith and Kevin Donovan all gave their views.
Gary Croft had won promotion via the Play Offs for both Ipswich and Cardiff, and he looked at what victory had meant to those two teams.
Ben Futcher had experienced Play Off heartbreak with the Red Imps, but admitted that he was looking to put that behind him with the Mariners.
There was all a photo round-up of the club’s recent Player of the Year Awards ceremony, which was held at McMenemy’s.
The uniqueness of this edition of The Mariner makes it one of the most collectable issues of recent times.