MMy earliest memory of the FA Cup is the 1980 final when West Ham played Arsenal. The excitement of the day was largely because it was a rare game on live TV. Today we have ubiquitous live games broadcast from all corners of the globe, so few things mark my age more strongly for my children than the idea that one game a year was live on TV, beyond perhaps the concept of letter writing. real, which makes me look like a character from a Brontë novel.
Those colorful Saturdays are so vividly remembered because the regular TV programming was replaced by an all-day football extravaganza, roving reporters outside team hotels, a celebrity edition of a Sports Question, the snarling version of FA Cup music from each team, all before the whistle to start the game was blown.
I don’t remember much about the game itself or even the score, but I clearly remember the sense of injustice when 17-year-old Paul Allen, then the youngest player to feature in a final, was knocked out and cynically fouled by Willie Young of the Armory. The foul was punished with a yellow card and a free kick and Young continued. I remember my disbelief and sense of injustice to this day. A sentiment shared by the authorities apparently, because it was a tackle that changed the rules on ‘professional fouls’, with similar tackles now requiring a red card.
Today there is a quiet revolution taking place on and off the pitch in our unfashionable north-east Lincolnshire corner of Grimsby. Our city is starting to reinvent itself as the home of the renewable energy industry and shifting its narrative away from a history of industrial decline towards a low-carbon future and a community filled with solidarity and nascent hope. On the football pitch, while Hollywood owners Wrexham continued to get the spotlight (and TV money) in this season’s FA Cup, Grimsby Town went almost unnoticed by the national media in Round 5 as the lowest ranked team remaining .
We beat three League One sides, including then league leaders Plymouth Argyle, 5-1. More dramatically, we beat Premier League hopefuls Luton Town 3-0 in a hard-fought replay under floodlights at Blundell Park. The romance of the FA Cup has never been so generous and magical as the night’s events unfold. Whether it’s the unlikely three-goal lead at half-time, seeing an academy graduate, Edwin Essel, come on for his first taste of those big nights in the 88th minute or the majority of the 7,106 chanting ‘he’s one of ours’ to local hero Harry Clifton in the score, it was one forever.
This season’s race is in stark contrast to last season’s. In our first year as club owners, we were knocked out in the early qualifying rounds by Kidderminster Harriers, who play in the National League North, the sixth tier. When Grimsby play away in Premier League Southampton on Wednesday it will be just the 11th time we have reached this stage of the competition that we entered in 1882. Financially it is huge for a lower division club because a win would be the equivalent of between 10% and 20% of the player’s annual budget and the next round can reach 50%.
Regardless of the money, this is a vintage year at the Cup, sitting next to the day our inflatable mascot, Harry Haddock, made his first Wimbledon appearance in the fifth round of 1989 or when we last reached the semi-finals in 1939 playing against Wolverhampton Wanderers. That’s as close as we’ve come to the final and the crowd of 76,962 at Old Trafford remains a record for that ground.
The Cup offers a chance to revisit the interconnection of clubs from top to bottom of the football pyramid. Lawrie McMenemy is one of the most famous managers associated with Grimsby since the second world war. Some would say Bill Shankly did greater things and those who know him would say Alan Buckley had a more lasting impact on our history. McMenemy was manager of Grimsby in 1971-73 and after winning the Division Four title he left for Southampton, where he won the FA Cup in 1976, and became assistant manager in England alongside a former Grimsby player Town, Graham Taylor.
I imagine that nothing he achieved will be more important than having the bar in our biggest stand named after him. For the past 20 years, this is where I’ve tended to get fish and chips before a home game. McMenemy’s Bar has been a venue for weddings, funerals and all manner of celebrations for the people of Grimsby and demonstrates how a character from 50 years ago is still lodged in our hearts.
More than 4,000 Grimbarians (now with Harry Haddocks in tow) will head, like Viking raiders, to the south coast for one of the furthest days on our calendar. Somewhere between our recent league performances – the away win at Northampton, the recent defeats to Gillingham and Colchester and the incredible victory against Luton – lies the truth about who we are as a club now. It’s a reminder that the purpose of a professional football club is to create memories and bring communities together.
Football has the power to punctuate our lives with a kind of communion that is often absent elsewhere. As we sift through the archives of our day, supporting and accompanying our teams creates lifelong memories, alongside the ritual celebrations at McMenemy’s. This is especially true when it comes to the FA Cup, where the competition is fierce and the financial reward can be transformative if we dare to dream that another round is possible.
Jason Stockwood is the Mayor of the City of Grimsby