Football: Tales of Rodger the Mariner whose ship has already come in

FA CUP COUNTDOWN
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The Independent Online
Stanley Matthews was 38 before he laid hands on one. Tom Finney and George Best finished without one. Alan Shearer has not even come close to one. Yet there was Graham Rodger, a month out of his teens, climbing the steps to the Royal Box to claim his FA Cup winner's medal.

Looking back to 1987, it all seems like a crazy dream. Coventry City, who had never won any serious silverware, overcame Tottenham Hotspur 3- 2 in a classic final. And one ardent supporter lived out the ultimate Sky Blue fantasy, right down to helping to make the winning goal.

That fan was Rodger. Now, as one of the elder statesman of Grimsby Town's team, he is on the Wembley trail again. In Saturday's fourth round, the Second Division play-off contenders visit Leeds United. The tie stirs fond memories for the 30-year-old central defender, for it was the Yorkshire club that Coventry beat, also by 3-2, in an equally epic semi-final.

Rodger did not figure against Billy Bremner's underdogs. Amazingly, his appearance as substitute against Spurs was his first during Coventry's run. Having been hauled off in their exit at Watford the previous year, after a chasing from Nigel Callaghan, he had still to play a full FA Cup tie when he emulated Matthews.

Add the fact that Rodger had started a mere 15 League matches and it is no wonder he feels "extremely lucky". All the more so given that he owed his break to the misfortune of a friend, Brian Borrows, having damaged a cartilage a week before the final.

Though he knew there would have to be a reshuffle, Rodger did not expect to be involved. "There was Steve Sedgley, Paul Culpin and me," he recalled, "and I honestly believed the other two would be the subs."

The first inkling came as the Coventry squad watched the build-up before leaving their hotel for the stadium. "They were going through our line- up and my picture came up as a sub. The manager [John Sillett] hadn't said anything so I assumed it was just the TV people taking a guess."

It was therefore a relaxed Rodger who joined in the ritual pre-match stroll around the pitch. Then he reached the dressing-room. "I saw my boots laid out and the No 14 shirt waiting for me. I remember thinking: `Bloody hell, I'm playing here'. But still no one had told me.

"Finally, just before the team talk, Mr Sillett said: `Oh, by the way, you're on the bench'. It was a masterstroke - typical of his man-management - because I had no time to worry about the game."

Coventry, facing the likes of Hoddle, Waddle, Gough and Ardiles, quickly fell behind. But they were level at 2-2 when, late in normal time, Brian Kilcline was hurt in a characteristically uncompromising challenge. Rodger took over, and in extra time intercepted a pass by the current England coach to Clive Allen.

"I strode into midfield and saw this wonder ball out to Nick Pickering on the far wing. I didn't go for it because I thought: `God, if I mess it up I could let them clean in'. I took another touch and noticed Lloyd McGrath on the near side.

"I have to admit it wasn't the best of passes, but Lloyd managed to keep it in. He crossed it, we got the lucky deflection off Gary Mabbutt and the rest is history."

This most unsung of final heroes had originally been spotted by Wolves, along with Tim Flowers, in Warwickshire schools football. They became apprentices as Molineux slid into terminal decline under the ownership of the mysterious Bhatti brothers.

"I never saw them - I don't think they actually existed," Rodger said, only half-jokingly. "When you're that young you don't concern yourself with what's going on behind the scenes. All you think of is football. But us lads used to make the tea for the pros. When the milkman wouldn't deliver unless the club settled their bill, I realised how everything was going downhill."

After a solitary outing with Wolves, at just 17, he was offered a six- month contract with the club he had followed since boyhood. He stayed at Coventry four and a half years - gaining four England Under-21 caps in the company of one Paul Gascoigne - before moving to Luton.

One of his managers there, David Pleat, had been in charge of Spurs at Wembley. "We never spoke about the final," Rodger said, "but he did get rid of me three months later!"

When Grimsby came in for him, he had to ask Luton's kit manager where it was. Six years later, the manager who signed him, Alan Buckley, is back at Blundell Park. He has moulded the Mariners into a free-flowing unit, described by Rodger as "tight at the back, with real flair".

Early this season, he was not in Buckley's plans and told him reserve football was no use at his age. "He understood and said I could have a free transfer in recognition of my service, which was great. Then Mark Lever broke a toe, I came back in and things have gone well for myself and the team."

In tandem with a Hansenesque young Scot, Peter Handyside, he has helped Grimsby knock two top-flight clubs out of the Coca-Cola Cup - Sheffield Wednesday and the holders, Leicester - as well as nailing Norwich 3-0 to earn a day out at Elland Road.

"The gulf between our level and the Premiership is vast, but we've shown that you've got a chance if you play above yourselves and they underperform. I'm not saying we'll win, but we're playing some excellent stuff. The pressure's all on Leeds."

Rodger, of course, has first-hand experience of Cup psychology. Reflecting on his finest half-hour, he pictures the Coventry apprentices (including Steve Livingstone, who now leads Grimsby's attack), "going mental" as Kilcline raised the trophy; and he hears the crowd crowing "Are you watching, Jimmy Greaves?" to the media pundit and ex-Spurs striker who tipped their demise at every stage.

"I was there, I was part of it and no one can ever take that away from me," Rodger beamed, while admitting he could probably walk through the centre of Coventry unrecognised. If Leeds are humbled, he will have no chance of doing likewise in Grimsby.

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