Football: Nothing grim about Buckley's Grimsby Town

After a rough time at The Hawthorns, the Mariners' manager is back among old friends.
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IF THERE is one sign guaranteed to provoke mirth and derision in visiting football supporters, it is the one saying "Great Grimsby" which greets you as you enter the town on the A180. Grimsby? No wonder they put Greater before London and Manchester.

After all, it is 50 years since Grimsby Town were in the top division and it was the 1930s when they came closest to a major honour, twice reaching the semi-finals of the FA Cup. No, the tag "great" does not sit easily at Blundell Park.

Make that "promising", however, and you are nearer the mark, because the way things are progressing Grimsby could make it to the First Division play-offs this season. And in that situation, as Charlton Athletic could testify, who knows?

Grimsby have taken 19 out of their last 24 points and are currently just outside the play-off places which, on average home gates of less than 7,000 - worse even than those of cash-strapped Oxford United - is little short of a wonder. Tomorrow they meet Bolton in what should be a litmus test of their promotion credentials.

Alan Buckley, the manager working this minor miracle, does have previous form. He was successful at Walsall, took Grimsby from the Fourth Division to the Second in his first spell at Blundell Park and, last season, he guided the club to Wembley for the first and second times, winning the Auto Windscreen Shield and promotion via the play-offs in the process.

"If I had come here and been stupid enough to predict what would happen in either spell they would have thought it was a fairytale," Buckley said. "You couldn't have scripted it. It's cuckoo-land stuff."

For a sport that has resided too long in cuckoo and karma land this week, it is a relief the story line is football-related. Buckley was tempted away from Grimsby by West Bromwich Albion in 1994, lost his powers to amaze at The Hawthorns, and then picked them up again as soon as he walked through the doors back at Blundell Park

Which wholly confounds the theory you should never return in football. "Who says you shouldn't come back?" Buckley asked, with some vehemence. "Someone has dug that out from somewhere and no one knows who it is. Ask Graham Taylor: `Should you go back?' You look at what's happened to Watford since he returned there.

"Grimsby is not how it sounds, grim. Lots of people come here and never want to leave the place. My lads grew up here, my wife loved it, she was very settled, so in a sense it was like coming back home. Obviously I came back for the football but it's a nice place to live."

Why did he leave then? "At the time it came at the wrong or the right time, depending how you look at it," he replied. "I felt Grimsby and I had gone as far as we could. We were established in the First Division, I could never see us in the Premiership and there was the challenge of a bigger club. But, as Kevin Keegan said once, it wasn't like it read in the brochure."

His two years at The Hawthorns rankle both with Buckley and supporters, who regard matches between the clubs with almost derby hostility. Most of all, it irks him that the legend has gone around that he was a failure there.

"You read it in programmes when you visit grounds: `After a horrendous time at West Brom...', but was it? Have a look at the League table in October 1994 and see where the club were in the First Division. They were on their way down.

"We weren't relegated; in my only full season there we finished 11th, which was their best position for 10 years and even when I was sacked they were 15th. It rankles me that I seem to be considered a walking disaster."

The West Midlands media, which he believes has pedalled the myth, irk even more so and he refused all requests for interviews after Saturday's game at West Brom. "A club loses three games over there and Central TV is in the pub asking supporters what they think of the manager. They were digging for negatives all the time.

"We out-footballed West Brom on Saturday and there was a guy who came to the dressing room asking: `Can you do a piece for ITV?' It's a two- word answer, isn't it? I'm not a hypocrite so sooner than have an argument I'd rather keep out of the way. I didn't go into the press room either: why should I give them something to write?"

Ouch. You do not read psychology qualifications to see Buckley is happier at Grimsby, where he has revised his opinions about where the club could go. "I was wrong that first time. We used to beat Barnsley home and away and yet, two years later, they were in the Premiership. So if they could do it, so could Grimsby. You never know.

"I don't think the current Grimsby side play as good, pure football as previous ones but we're harder to beat. That's a little unfair to the lads, who are honest pros who work very hard for the club, but you have to understand I have been here 18 months this time while I had been here six-and-a-half years before. Judge us in five years."

So far the verdict has been favourable, and should the club eventually reach the Premiership that verdict will better still. They say greatness comes to those who wait - and Grimsby have been waiting for a long time.