It says something about the gap between football’s haves and have-nots that Grimsby Town’s players will stroll out at Wembley before tomorrow’s Conference play-off final wearing suits bought by a pair of fans who had the good fortune to win the EuroMillions lottery jackpot.
Grimsby-supporting couple Lee and Sue Mullen donated £10,000 to ensure that Paul Hurst’s squad look smart on the big day but for a real windfall the team must go out and beat Bristol Rovers.
The reward for the winners may be a drop in the ocean compared with the estimated £120m for reaching the Premier League, but it is still considerable. When Rovers slipped out of the Football League for the first time last May, their playing budget was cut by nearly £1m and, according to Grimsby director John Fenty, this is the sum at stake tomorrow when the two teams step out in front of an anticipated 46,500 crowd – the biggest for a Conference play-off final.
“Promotion is arguably worth around £1m, with the contribution towards the youth set-up and the additional TV moneys,” Fenty said. “It gives you a little respite.”
Since ending a 99-year stay in the Football League with relegation in 2010, Grimsby have reached the play-off semi-finals in each of the previous two seasons and there is a feeling on the south bank of the Humber that now is the time to deliver. “This is it” was the headline on the cover of the Grimsby Telegraph’s Wembley pull-out – a sentiment echoed by manager Hurst on Thursday. “I just hope it is our time,” said the 40-year-old, who arrived at the club in 2011 as part of a joint-management duo with Rob Scott, then took sole charge two years later.
Hurst has recruited cleverly, bringing players with the right mentality and motivation into a squad of free agents and cast-offs. Captain Craig Disley, a League Two play-off final winner with Rovers in 2007, has shone as a goalscoring midfielder since his release by Shrewsbury Town. Club player of the season Carl Magnay is a full-back schooled at Chelsea and offloaded by Gateshead after losing last year’s Conference play-off final.
For Grimsby, Fenty explains, restoration of league status would provide a significant boost to the club’s plans to build a £22m community stadium. A site has been identified at Peaks Parkway, two miles from Blundell Park, and the club are seeking enabling partners from the retail and housing sectors. “We are not sustainable at Blundell Park,” Fenty said of their home for the past 116 years. “We need to relocate but we do need political support and public backing. A promotion would have a big impact on accelerating that support.”
While he talks up the area’s potential – “80 per cent of the fish eaten in the UK is prepared in Grimsby” – their opponents tomorrow have a more immediate stadium-related question to resolve. Yesterday, officials from the Bristol club were in the High Court for the first day of a hearing to settle their dispute with supermarket giant Sainsbury’s over a £30m deal to buy the Memorial Stadium – a sum Rovers need to go ahead with a 21,700-capacity ground beside the University of the West of England in Stoke Gifford.
Both sets of supporters are unhappy with the price of Wembley tickets – and an online booking system which has increased the cost further – yet Rovers will still take over 25,000 fans, and for manager Darrell Clarke, the match is the chance for swift redemption. The 37-year-old wept on the pitch after relegation eight games into his reign last May but he has led Rovers to second place, a point below champions Barnet and five clear of third-placed Grimsby.
Clarke was filmed singing with fans in the Queen Vic pub outside the Memorial Ground after the semi-final win over Forest Green Rovers but knows the biggest hurdle awaits against opponents with whom they drew 0-0 at home on the opening day before a 1-0 win at Blundell Park in February. “We have had a good campaign,” he said, “but we can be proud of what we have done only if we win the final.”Reuse content