Harry Clifton was following Grimsby Town before he knew it. ‘My mum was pregnant with me, but it still didn’t stop her from going to Wembley!’ laughs the Mariners midfielder about his mother, Julie, watching the Football League Trophy Final in April 1998. ‘Apparently I was shooting nonstop during the game.’
Clifton was born in Grimsby two months after the Wembley victory and would soon be attending the games as a fan. One of the first he remembers is in the League Cup against Newcastle in 2005, when Alan Shearer scored the only goal, which he watched with his grandfather Billy and his brother Jack.
Footage was recently unearthed of seven-year-old Clifton giving his opinion of the match as he left the pitch for local ITV News. Well, fast forward 18 years and he will be live on the national ITV channel playing for his boyhood club against Premier League Southampton in the FA Cup fifth round.
‘It’s actually a bit crazy,’ admits Clifton, who started at Grimsby as an eight-year-old and has made over 200 appearances for them by the age of 24. ‘It’s nice to have moments like this to remind yourself how far you’ve come.
‘You always dream of playing in a big cup. I look back at that Newcastle game and the Tottenham game the day before, and that’s what everyone in town still remembers. This match could be the same for years to come.
Harry Clifton has contributed more than anyone else to Grimsby’s FA Cup fairy tale this season
Clifton started at Grimsby as an eight-year-old and has made over 200 appearances
Grimsby, who are 16th in League Two, are the lowest ranked team remaining in the competition. They knocked out three League One teams – Plymouth, Cambridge and Burton – and Championship Luton to reach the fifth round for the first time since taking Chelsea to a replay in 1996.
“I wasn’t even born then, which goes to show how long ago this was and what a huge achievement this is,” says Clifton, who grew up just a five-minute drive from Blundell Park and is sitting with Sportsmail at one of the modest of hospitality on the old ground.
The mention of Grimsby in Round 5, however, instantly conjures up memories of an even older tie – the visit to then-champions Wimbledon in 1989. It was the day the nation was introduced to Harry Haddock, the name given to inflatable fish. as 2,000 fans carried on to the final at Plow Lane. Even Des Lyman displayed one in that night’s match of the day.
This year, Harry Haddocks once again rolled off the shelves of the club store. And a big shoal is expected at St Mary’s after Southampton reversed their ban on 4,000 fans bringing inflatables into the stadium.
‘When you think of the greatest games in Grimsby history and the away final, you think of Harry Haddock,’ says Clifton, who denies that he himself named the fish. – I took a picture in Trafalgar Square the day before the 2008 Football League Trophy Final and there’s Harry Haddocks. This year, the fans really got into it. It’s great to bring that memory back.’
The club, now owned by local businessmen Jason Stockwood and Andrew Pettit, is also bringing new memories to the people of Lincolnshire’s fishing port town. Look at last summer, when thousands of fans lined the streets for Grimsby’s open bus parade after their play-off final victory to secure promotion back to the Football League on the first call.
‘The town square was full, it was one of the best days,’ says Clifton. ‘The club has a huge impact on people’s lives here. A lot of the positivity that will happen will be when the club is doing well. That’s a huge factor for me too – being able to contribute in a way that will help the city, not just the club.’
The midfielder will play for his childhood club against Premier League Southampton
Grimsby midfielder Clifton talks to Sportsmail’s David Coverdale at Blundell Park
And Clifton has contributed more than anyone to Grimsby’s FA Cup fairy tale this season. It was his last-day equalizer at Luton that secured a replay for the Mariners, who then won 3-0 at home after he scored the opener in the ninth minute.
‘I like to go forward and try to score goals,’ admits Clifton. ‘My idol growing up was Steven Gerrard. I always wanted to play like him and I see myself as a box-to-box midfielder who can play both sides of the game. My engine is one of my big things.’
Clifton – Grimsby’s fittest player according to manager Paul Hurst – will need that engine more than ever against Southampton. So can he start another giant FA Cup assassination?
‘It’s no use showing up and 4,000 fans coming down if we don’t believe we can win’, he adds. ‘It’s going to take absolutely everything and we’re going to need a lot of luck on our side, but strange things have happened.’