Conference

The Rise and Rise of Shaun Pearson

In July 2011, Grimsby Town signed a 22 year old central defender from Conference North side Boston United named Shaun Pearson.

Five and a half years later, Pearson captained the side in his 250th appearance for the Mariners.

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Picture by Getty Images

He’s been on quite a journey so far, yet there could still be much more to add to his story in years to come. So far in his career he’s had promotions from two play-off final victories, a play-off final defeat, three more play-off semi-final defeats, two FA Trophy final defeats and two Lincolnshire Senior Cup wins. He’s played at Wembley 4 times and represented his country at England C level.

And at 27, he’s still probably another couple of years away from hitting his prime as a professional.

It is worth making sure that Shaun is congratulated for reaching what is a great milestone of 250 appearances for one club, especially in modern day football when players (particularly in the lower leagues) seem to move clubs more frequently than in years gone by. There was a short piece in the Grimsby Telegraph on Monday about Shaun’s achievement but I’ll go into Shaun’s time at GTFC so far in a bit more depth.

He arrived in the summer of 2011 following Town’s first season in the Conference had ended with a disappointing 11th place finish. Rob Scott and Paul Hurst had been appointed Joint Managers at the Club midway through that season and were now able to rebuild the squad to their liking in pre-season. Pearson had played for Scott and Hurst at Boston and they wasted no time in bringing him to Grimsby at the earliest opportunity.

Debut

His Town career didn’t get off the best of starts. After being an unused substitute in the season opener against eventual champions Fleetwood, Pearson made his debut 3 days later in the infamous 5-0 away defeat at Braintree. Have a look at Town’s starting line-up that day:

town-v-braintree-16082011

Shaun was in and out of the team in his first season in full-time football. He made 33 appearances (including sub appearances) as he competed for a place with Darran Kempson, Scott Garner, Charlie I’Anson, for a little while Will Antwi, and from January onwards Ian Miller. By the end of the season, Shaun had established himself in the team as part of the first choice central defensive partnership with Ian Miller. Town finished 11th after flirting with the play-offs with a great middle third to the season, but having a poor last 2 months.

I think the Town fans took to Pearson quite well. His all-action style as a defender who would throw his body in front of shots to prevent a goal, and who would put his head where some wouldn’t put their feet, helped Town’s faithful warm to him.

For the following two seasons Town would be much more consistent and reach the play-offs in successive years only to be knocked out in the semi-finals. Pearson played a big part in this as part of a well organised defensive unit. At times during these seasons Town actually looked like they might challenge for the Conference title and I remember Shaun being obsessed with clean sheets and coming in after games checking to see how many goals other teams had conceded to see if we still had the best defensive record. This competitive mentality is part of what has made Shaun successful.

I think he was seen by fans, in general, as a great conference defender. Not a great deal of pace but a good reader of the game with great bravery as mentioned above. I also think he was, a little unfairly, seen as being poor on the ball. In my opinion this was down to his tall, gangly appearance that doesn’t look as natural on the ball as some others. However I do actually think he was always better on the ball than given credit for.

Yellow Cards

One of the early deficiencies in Shaun’s game was the amount of yellow cards he picked up. He picked up far too many bookings for dissent and spent too much time arguing with referees. He got a massive 16 yellow cards in the 2013-14 season but I believe that year was the turning point for him. His 16th yellow card was in the 1st leg of the play-off semi-final against Gateshead which caused him to be suspended and miss the 2nd leg (which Town lost). The following season he improved on his number of bookings and was only booked 9 times. In Town’s promotion season he was booked just 3 times and so far in League Two he has picked up just four yellow cards.

Pearson had played at Wembley for the first time in his career when Town lost on penalties to Wrexham in the 2013 FA Trophy Final, and was back at Wembley with the Mariners in 2015. Pearson had formed a good partnership with Toto Nsiala all season and stayed in the team despite the late-season signing of Josh Gowling. Unfortunately Town were again defeated at Wembley in a penalty shoot-out.

Loyalty to GTFC

Pearson was now out-of-contract at Grimsby and rumours were circulating that he was about to leave the Club. I think BBC Radio Humberside had reported that he was in talks with Barnsley. Sure enough, Shaun signed a new 2-year deal with Town and had another crack at getting Town promoted to the Football League.

In the 2015-16 season though, he would spend most of the season just deputising for the first choice pairing of Nsiala and Gowling. He did still make 32 appearances, with many of these coming as a substitute or in games where Nsiala was deployed at right-back. Throughout the season, we would never hear of Shaun complaining about lack of starts or asking to move. He was the ultimate professional during this time and performed well whenever he was playing. The season ended with success at last for the Mariners as we triumphed over Forest Green at Wembley to earn promotion to the Football League via the play-offs. Pearson was to come on as a late substitute for the goalscorer of Town’s third goal, Nathan Arnold. It was probably fitting that when the final whistle went to confirm Town’s promotion, Pearson was on the pitch along with Craig Disley and James McKeown, two guys who also started at Braintree in 2011, and who had all been through the heartache in recent years.

The Football League

So on to the Football League. Another step up for Shaun to make after moving from Stamford to Boston, and then Boston to Grimsby. Grimsby had now become a League Two Club and Pearson was now a Football League player. I have to confess, I personally wondered whether there would be a future at GTFC for Shaun Pearson last summer. He had spent most of last season out of the team and I wondered whether his lack of pace/mobility would be more evident at this higher level.

I’m delighted to say that in the months that have passed since, I have been proved wrong, and then some. Pearson was on the bench for the opening game against Morecambe. He played at Derby in the cup a few days later and had Darren Bent in his pocket but was then out of the starting line-up for the next couple of league games. Then he got back in the team for the home game with Leyton Orient and despite a slip that couldn’t be helped leading to an Orient goal, Pearson had a solid game. He deservedly stayed in the team for several weeks before being strangely dropped by Paul Hurst after the EFL Trophy game against Leicester City u23’s. Pearson had gone in goal during this game after McKeown had been sent off so it seemed strange to see him out of the team in the next game after he’d previously been in good form.

He spent the next 3 games out of the team before Hurst left for Shrewsbury. Then caretaker boss Dave Moore kept Gowling and Danny Collins as the central defensive pairing for his 2 games in charge. Marcus Bignot came in and also kept faith with Gowling and Collins for his first 5 league games, before Pearson made an unexpected start away at Doncaster in December. Shaun has been in the team ever since.

In his current run of 12 straight starts, Town’s number 5 has been in contention for Man of the Match on several occasions, has barely put a foot wrong and has been dominant against League Two forwards he’s faced. He has looked comfortable in both a back three and a back four, and ensured his name is probably one of the first on the teamsheet at the moment for Manager Marcus Bignot.

Remember that line-up for his first appearance in black and white?

Compare that to the team he led out as captain on his 250th Town appearance:

town-v-mansfield-18022017

Individual Development

Shaun’s development as a player over his five and a half years at GTFC is plain to see. Comparing the two line-ups of his 1st and 250th games, and the company he now finds himself in tells you a bit about how far Shaun has come. For starters he’s playing alongside a former Welsh international with around 150 Premier League appearances to his name.

In terms of his own game, he’s no longer just seen as a brave defender who’ll throw his body in front of shots and head the ball out of dangerous areas where boots are flying in.

His reading of the game has improved year on year. Very rarely do you see him having to make last-ditch tackles, because he doesn’t get into a position where he needs to.

His ability on the ball is an area he has always been improving. As I said earlier, I think he was better on the ball to begin with than he appeared to some, but there’s still no doubt this is an area of Shaun’s game that has made great strides. In a recent game against Notts County, he had his manager comparing him to Franz Beckenbauer after the way he brought the ball out of defence and pinged long range passes out to the wing-backs. Against Luton, he left a defender for dead in the opposition penalty area after a quick stepover. But that wasn’t the first time we’ve seen skilful moves like that from him. At Alfreton away a few years back he set up a goal after a bit of skill and again away at Southport. But his general ability on the ball and composure in travelling with the ball out of defence is helping him look more than at home in the Football League.

He’s also much more disciplined in terms of keeping his name out of the referees book these days. As touched on earlier, he was seeing far too many yellow cards in his early days at GTFC, but rarely now do you see him back-chatting referees and getting needless bookings for dissent.

Finally, has he also developed physically too? It does seem like Shaun is maybe a bit sharper now, slightly quicker and fitter than he may have been, certainly after his step up from part-time football with Boston.

Shaun “GTFC” Pearson

On top of his great service to Town on the pitch, and his great personal development, Shaun has also done more than most for the Club off the pitch. He helps out with the FITC and the GTFC Academy and is always seen doing bits in the community. This only adds weight to the thought that Shaun Pearson is writing himself into GTFC history and on his way to becoming a Club legend.

He’s only 27 and I’m sure there’s more to come from him – both as an individual and for him to achieve more success with the Club. See you in another 250 appearances Shaun!

“THERE’S ONLY ONE SHAUN PEARSON”

#gtfc

Town not Learning Lessons in Limp Towards Play-Offs

A little under 3 weeks ago, I wrote about how Paul Hurst had got it tactically spot on for a 1-0 home win over Wrexham. What’s happened since strongly suggests to me that Hurst either didn’t plan those Wrexham tactics in as much detail as I described it, or he didn’t understand what made it work. In addition to that, the Town boss has also shown up several Managerial deficiencies that has lead to a lot of fans losing confidence in his ability to lead us to promotion.

Since that win on March 26th, Town have taken just 4 points from the 15 available.

Paul Hurst 2

Tactics Wrong at Moss Rose

The game immediately following the Wrexham game was away at Macclesfield. Hurst stuck with the same lop-sided midfield system with Nolan coming inside to make a central 3. This was never going to be as effective and Hurst was tactically naïve to think it would. Robertson came in for the injured Horwood at left back and Robertson, for as solid a defender as he is, doesn’t have the legs to get up the pitch quickly to provide the width on that side if the midfielder in front of him is asked to drift into the centre. Not forgetting the main reason Hurst had used this system against Wrexham – the 3 man midfield we were up against – was no longer a problem with Macclesfield’s 4-4-2.

No Reaction with Game Slipping Away

Next up for the Mariners was an away trip to the leaders – Cheltenham. Refereeing decisions went against both sides during the game but Town were not at the races for the first 40 minutes, during which time they went a goal down. Having got an equaliser early in the second half, Cheltenham soon went back in front which immediately knocked the stuffing out of Town. We couldn’t get any sort of play going but Hurst made no changes until after Cheltenham got a third goal, sending Bogle on for Arnold in the 78th minute. This was hugely frustrating to watch Town struggle to even get a foothold in the game yet Hurst allowed the clock to run down without injecting new life/energy into the side or changing our shape. Only when it was too late did he try and do something about a game that was slipping away from us ever since Cheltenham got their second goal in the 58th minute.

Lack of Invention

The following three games had highs and lows but that only adds to the frustration Town fans feel. We came back from 0-2 down to win 4-3 away at Aldershot and this appeared partly down to the introduction of Omar Bogle and Jordan Stewart at half time. It was unusual of Hurst to make substitutions at half-time and it later transpired that Monkhouse and Hoban had been struggling with knocks.

Saturday saw Eastleigh come to Blundell Park and Hurst stuck with the same eleven that started the second half at Aldershot 4 days earlier. Most would have agreed with the line-up and it was only poor finishing and/or an excellent goalkeeping display by Ross Flitney that denied Town 3 points as they settled for a point against the 10-man Spitfires.

Again though, only 2 like-for-like substitutions in the 72nd minute against a side playing with 10 men since the 49th minute showed a lack of invention from the bench.

That lack of invention was also evident on Tuesday when Braintree were the victors at Blundell Park.

Insanity

Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

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I could apply this apparent “insanity” to the management of GTFC in two ways.

  1. We have consistently struggled to break down sides that come to Blundell Park and are fairly well organised and set up to frustrate us. We know teams will come and do this. Yet we haven’t attempted at any point to come up with a different idea of how to approach these games and continue to predictably struggle against a deep defensive block set up by a well-drilled side.
  2. During an individual match, Hurst and the players either do not recognise when something isn’t working or the management only want us to play in a certain way and not differentiate from that. Sometimes we play dozens of long high balls up to the front two with very little success. Yet we continued to launch it forward. Were we expecting Amond and Hoban would grow 6 inches during the game and suddenly become a match for Braintree’s dominant centre halves in the air? And if a flat 4-4-2 isn’t working to break a team down, we never try something else to change shape or give the opposition different problems to think about.

Where Did We Fail Against Braintree?

Braintree are known for being in tight games with few goals and their defensive record is second only to Cheltenham in the National League this season. It was clear to everyone how they would come and play. Keep it tight, keep a deep defensive block with 5 in midfield, clear their lines early playing percentage football and looking for set-pieces.

Yet Town played predictable football with no invention from the bench or on the field. In all honesty Town could’ve played for 3 hours and wouldn’t have scored. Braintree were always going to get one chance, and they took it to deservedly take the points.

Shape

It’s a trait of Hurst’s sides to keep their shape very well. This is no bad thing. The problem is, we also keep to our shape when in possession. The rigid lines of the 4-4-2 leave few passing options and it is easy to defend against a team so inflexible when in position. Keeping our shape when we don’t have the ball is imperative, but when we have the ball we need to have players coming out of their disciplined zones. On Tuesday there was no-one creating space, either for themselves or for the team. We didn’t stretch a team that were always going to be happy for us to play in front of them. There was no movement to drag Braintree’s well-drilled players out of their positions, not enough third man runs (only Tait offering this from full-back). Arnold could have drifted infield between the defensive and midfield lines to pick up the ball. Monkhouse moved to receive the ball but when he gets it he needs an early pass to be on as he can’t carry the ball forward himself. One of the forwards could pull wide or drop deep. Look our shape when we’ve got the ball and compare to when we haven’t. There isn’t a lot of difference. And there’s no intelligence of movement or patterns of movement to break away from the 3 straight lines of the formation. Because of this, the gap between our midfield and strikers is always too big, with no midfielder or forward getting in the space between the opposition midfield and defence.

Front Two

Even the strikers stuck rigidly to the shape on Tuesday, both playing level together in a line, right up against the defenders. With Amond and Hoban both having a defender right up their backside whenever the ball was played up to them they would struggle to hold it, let alone be able to receive and turn, where they might be dangerous. I could’ve counted on one hand the number of times that either of them came short to show for a ball into their feet in a no.10 sort of position. If one of them drops short like this, his marker could also go with him and create more space for the striker in the no.9 position against the other central defender left in the back line.

Defenders taking the flak

There were a lot of occasions on Tuesday were it seemed Nsiala and Gowling were being criticised for playing too many long balls forward. I certainly think a lot of the time our centre-backs were left with no option. Nolan always wanted the ball but sometimes couldn’t make an angle for a pass, was tightly marked, or was rotating in midfield for Disley to come short. When Braintree had the midfield closely marked, there wasn’t enough movement as individuals in midfield or desire to want to get on the ball. And there wasn’t much coming short from the strikers as mentioned earlier, so there was sometimes no passing option available.

Width

One thing we should’ve been attempting to do is stretch the game as wide as possible to stretch the defensive unit of Braintree and open up bigger gaps. The problem is Monkhouse isn’t the type of winger he was when he was giving Iain Ward the run-around in the late 90’s/early 00’s in his early Rotherham days. He likes to come infield, he’s an intelligent player but needs pace or movement in the team around him to flourish. On the other side, Nathan Arnold has been badly out of form for several months and in truth might as well not have been on the pitch on Tuesday. He didn’t look like he wanted the ball and didn’t do anything when he had it either. So we had neither winger getting wide to the touchline.

Changes?

It was obvious to many that we weren’t going to score from very early in the second half. Again though, there was no changes in the offing. Bogle and Jennings stayed on the bench until the 72nd minute and Pittman had somehow jumped ahead of Bogle in the pecking order to come on ahead of them in the 62nd minute. All three of Hurst’s subs came before Braintree’s winner, but none of them altered the way we were playing or the predictably rigid shape of our team that Braintree were dealing with comfortably. And “comfortably” is an understatement. Remember the “insanity” quote? What we were doing was getting us no-where and we were only ever going to draw the game at best. But we changed nothing except for the personnel asked to carry out the specific roles in the team as we continued with the same shape and methods. Could we have gone 4-3-3, 3-5-2, or 4-3-1-2 with a player linking midfield and attack? Could we have substituted Arnold and left our 30-goal striker on?

Chances

We had one real chance and that was in the 93rd minute. Very worrying. If we make the play-offs, surely whoever we face in the semi-final only has to look at the blueprint that many have used in the last couple of years to take a point or three away from Blundell Park?

Lessons Learned?

Would we suddenly find a way to play against such tactics and break down a well-drilled low defensive block? Nothing I’ve seen gives me any confidence that we would. When asked by Mike White on BBC Radio Humberside what he learns from a game like that, Hurst’s response was: “I’m not going to get too hung up about the game, I think we move on.”

That comment, coupled with the same way we go about approaching these types of games (and often fail), is why it seems like Hurst doesn’t actually learn from the mistakes he makes both with preparation and game-management. It leads me to believe that the next time we come against a Braintree or a Guiseley at home, we’ll just play the same way and probably get the same disappointing result. I know we’ve had a lot of positive results at home too, but the teams that are well organised and efficient enough to execute a defensive plan like Braintree can easily make it difficult for us.

Outlook

After the apparent tactical successes against Wrexham less than 3 weeks ago, it unfortunately appears as if it wasn’t quite so thought-out as I interpreted it in previous analysis. Because what’s followed has been a few strange selections (Bogle in, out and shaking it all about), omissions (Stewart waiting 6 years for a game then “rested” from the 16 to play a reserve game 24 hours later) and lack of tactical ideas and imagination.

Could we still get promoted? Yes.

Am I confident we will? No.

UTM.

 

 

Hurst’s Tactical Adjustment Takes 3 Points for Town

Grimsby Town took on Wrexham on Saturday afternoon as two of the Vanarama National League’s form sides came head-to-head at Blundell Park. The Mariners welcomed a Wrexham side who had kept 6 clean sheets in a row and featured a few familiar faces in their line-up. Former Town trio Connor Jennings, Simon Helsop and Jamal Fyfield were joined by ex-GTFC loanee Javan Vidal who came on as a second half substitute.

Paul Hurst

The game also saw bosses Paul Hurst and Gary Mills renew acquaintances in opposite dugouts. Hurst has had mixed success against Mills’ teams in recent years. Despite the odd success for Hurst (6-1 away win at Gateshead), Mills has generally had the upper hand. His York side had the better of Scott & Hurst’s Town side 3 times in 2011/12, he got the better of Hurst when Gateshead progressed to the Play-off Final at our expense in 2014, and a 2-2 draw for Gateshead at Blundell Park end any hopes of our title challenge in 2015.

Gary Mills

Mills always has his sides playing 4-3-3 and they usually play good football, building from the back, passing and moving with players comfortable in possession.

Today, Hurst strayed from the usual straight-forward 4-4-2 in a tactical move that helped Town deal with the problems that a side playing 4-3-3 poses for a 4-4-2. The result was Wrexham looking anything like a “Gary Mills team” in terms of style and Town taking all three points after a 1-0 win.

Town v Wrexham 1

Hurst made two changes to his starting line-up, bringing Toto Nsiala in for Shaun Pearson at centre-back and Craig Clay in place of Danny East in midfield. Nsiala was seemingly brought in as the more athletic defender to combat deal with the pace of Wrexham forward Kayden Jackson. Clay’s inclusion allowed Nathan Arnold to switch back to the right of midfield and saw Jon Nolan take up an unusual position on the left side of midfield.

The graphic above shows the starting positions of the Town line-up – with Nolan narrow on that left side. However, if Opta or whoever provides all the stats for Premier League football were to produce heat maps for Conference football, then the average positions of the team would look a lot different to the above.

Mills’ 4-3-3 often leaves Hurst’s 4-4-2 outnumbered in midfield, so Hurst’s plan was for Nolan to drift infield and to create a 3v3 in the middle of the midfield. As he did this, Evan Horwood got forward well to offer the attacking width on that side. This was most evident from James McKeown’s goal kicks, when Horwood would up a very high position ahead of the midfielders. To compensate, Richard Tait’s forays forward from right-back were limited as he needed to sit alongside the centre-backs whilst Horwood pushed forward on the other side.

Nolan not only drifted infield to even the midfield numbers, but he was usually the one midfielder that broke lines and got forward to support the Irish strike pairing of Hoban and Amond.

When Town did lose the ball in the middle third, we were often able to win the ball back quickly in defensive transitions because we already had that three in the middle.

Town v Wrexham 3

This second graphic shows the more realistic positions that the town players took up during the game, and how it lined up against Wrexham’s first half set-up. As well as Tait’s more conservative game today, Disley also generally sat deeper to allow Clay and especially Nolan to support attacking moves.

This approach completely nullified Wrexham’s ability to play out from the back and they invariably hit long balls over the top for the quick forwards to chase. At half time, Gary Mills made a substitution and changed to a back three, and whilst his side put up more of a performance in the second half, they were still unable to really test McKeown in the Town goal as the home side remained more threatening.

The goalmouth scrambles after Wrexham set-pieces in injury time was the first time the Town goal was under threat since Hoban headed off the line late in the first half. Wrexham remained direct in the second half and were now going long to substitute Wes York more often than not but Tait stood his ground well at right back.

The match-winning goal came in just the 7th minute when a Grimsby corner made it to the far post where Nathan Arnold calmly cushion-volleyed down for Craig Disley to smash home from 6 yards. The goal just cemented what was a good start to the game from the Mariners, and they went on to play some good stuff throughout the half. Hoban had a shot blocked after a cut-back from Horwood and Nolan mis-hit a shot after a nice lay-off from Hoban as Town pressed for a second.

After half-time it was still looking more likely that Town would double their lead, with Hoban guiding a header goalwards that cannoned back off the crossbar, Clay hitting a volley over and Nolan shooting just wide when 1v1 with the goalkeeper after a great first touch from Amond’s reverse ball.

But after Town saw out those final few minutes of injury time (where the referee found 4 minutes to add on I’ll never know) it was Paul Hurst celebrating in the home dugout. After facing criticism at times during his reign of being out-thought by rival managers (even as recently as Cheltenham at home this season), Hurst should be praised for his tactics today.

Gary Mills is a good, experienced Manager and Wrexham will cause other teams problems in the run-in. And Hurst rightly saw this as an important win judging by his reaction after the full time whistle. Yet we can also take confidence from Hurst seemingly winning a battle of tactical minds with a rival Manager. Potentially a good sign with a Play-Off campaign probably coming up in May that’ll hopefully involve 3 games? Time will tell.

Grimsby Town 1-0 Wrexham

Disley ‘7

Att: 4581 (315 away supporters)

 

 

 

Reacting to Play-Off Final Defeats: Will 2015 be different to 2006 for Grimsby Town?

At the end of the 2014/15 season, Grimsby Town suffered Conference Premier Play-Off Final heartache in the cruellest fashion with a penalty shoot-out defeat to Bristol Rovers.

Nine years earlier, Town lost to Cheltenham at the Millennium Stadium in the League Two Play-Off Final to end the 2005/06 season in disappointment.

I’ll look at the how there are massive differences in how it came about, the reaction following the two matches and more importantly, the likelihood of the following seasons after both Finals going the same way.

The Season of Play-Off Failure

In the season before Russell Slade’s Mariners reached the League Two Play-Offs, the side finished a lowly 18th. So it was quite a transformation in fortunes. The season was a one-off in terms of it being sandwiched between years of fighting at the bottom end of the table. Town spent most of the season in the automatic promotion places but ended up finishing 4th after just 2 wins in the last 9 games allowed Leyton Orient to steal third place.

Whilst Slade’s side faltered towards the end of the season, Paul Hurst’s Grimsby Town side grew stronger as the season went on. After losing 7 games and drawing 8 up to New Years Day, Town lost 3 and drew 3 after January 1st. Positivity and belief amongst supporters grew in the second half of the season and this passion helped the side put themselves in contention to actually win the league at one point.

The Play-Off Final

In 2006, Town didn’t really turn up. We had beaten Cheltenham twice during the season and maybe complacency was an issue. There was also uncertainty over Russell Slade’s future at the Club after a contract renewal went wrong earlier in the year. Whatever possible distractions there may have been, the game that day was a damp squib from our point of view and we kind of went out without a fight. Key striker Michael Reddy had to be substituted after less than half an hour and the usually strong back 4 looked shaky in the early stages. Steve Guinan scored when his cross ended up in the back of the net and a Steve Mildenhall penalty-save prevented Town from falling 2-0 behind. We never really got going, despite having a penalty shout turned down, and resorted to pumping high balls into the area in the latter stages to try and get back into the game.

In contrast, Hurst’s Mariners put in a respectable performance at Wembley in 2015. Generally seen to have been slightly the better team on the day, Town competed well and looked threatening in the early stages. Bristol Rovers were lucky not to go down to 10 men when Town still led 1-0 and there were no suggestions of Town not turning up for this one. The support from the 13,000 Mariners fans inside Wembley was incredible and despite being outnumbered 2-to-1, made sure the positivity continued by making the most noise at the highest attended Conference Play-Off Final in history. Ultimately, it ended with defeat in the narrowest of margins after a single penalty miss in the shoot-out allowed Bristol Rovers to earn promotion at our expense.

Supporters Reaction to the Final

In 2006, the feeling of deflation was huge. After being amongst the automatic promotion places for much of the season, there was a sense of feeling that we had thrown it after away having our destiny in our own hands for so long. There was a sense of anger amongst many that the team had not turned up despite the thousands of Town fans spending their hard-earned cash (in some cases not so hard-earned) to travel to Cardiff in support of the team. The team’s performance on the day was not even a shadow of the displays seen earlier in the season and the only feelings of supporters afterwards were negative.

Again, in stark contrast to nine years ago there was a different reaction from supporters in the aftermath of the Final. There was still the devastating disappointment and a really downbeat mood after a feeling that it was “our time” developed in the latter months of the season. However, this time there’s been a huge sense of pride amongst the Town support. To outsiders this may seem strange after such a disheartening end to the season, but as has been commented on social media since, the fans feel that after this season, “We’ve got our Club back.” The supporters and the team are closer than in recent memory and this was evident with the fantastic noise created by the Black and White army at Wembley. Since the end of the season, fans have rallied in an attempt to make sure the positive atmosphere from the last few months doesn’t fizzle out and there’s been a surge of new members for the Mariners Trust.

Squad Retention

In 2006, Manager Russell Slade left the Club to take over at Yeovil. Following that, EIGHT of the matchday sixteen from the match at the Millennium Stadium were no longer with us by the time the following season started under Graham Rodger’s leadership. You could class that as NINE when you consider Ben Futcher was also gone by October. Another massive blow to the Club’s preparation for the new season was dealt by Michael Reddy. The Irish striker, who had scored 14 goals for the Mariners in the 05/06 season, handed in a transfer request just a couple of weeks before the start of the new season. This put a dampener on any hopes for the new season and Reddy only played 10 more league games for Town without scoring a goal, before retiring after failing to recover from a hip injury. So in reality, we played the following season with just SIX of the sixteen that were in the matchday squad at Cardiff just a few months previously.

All of Paul Hurst’s business has not yet been completed for the season following the latest Play-Off disappointment. However, so far it is going down a much different route to that of 2006. To start with, we’ll still have the same Manager to lead the charge this time. There may have been quite a few people disappointed with that if we look back 6-8 months, but the general consensus now seems to be that Hurst deserves another crack at it. As far as the players are concerned, eight of the matchday sixteen from the Conference Play-Off Final have already signed new deals with the Club. A ninth (James McKeown) is still under contract for another season and a tenth (Josh Gowling) has signed a new deal having missed Wembley through injury. And most of the players who have left the Club so far (Parslow, Hannah, Bignot, Jolley) have done so having been released. Only Nsiala and Magnay are yet to make decisions on their future and only Lenell John-Lewis has so far rejected a longer stay at GTFC in favour of another Club. This compares to 2006 when Rob Jones (Hibs), Andy Parkinson (Notts County), Steve Mildenhall and JP Kalala (both Yeovil) turned down GTFC to move to new Clubs, as well as Reddy who tried to engineer a move away and Futcher who left 2 months into the season.

The Season Following the Play-Off Defeat

Teams often find there is a big hangover after such massive disappointment at the end of a season and many Clubs struggle the following year in this scenario – as we did in 2006/07. Town finished 15th in 06/07 and finished lower and lower each year until eventually being relegated to the Conference in 2010. We never recovered from the lingering disappointment hanging over the Club from May 2005 and the dissection of the bulk of the squad that were regularly involved.

The Verdict for 2015/16

Whilst the 2005/06 and 2014/15 seasons both ended with Play-Off Final failure. That is just about where the similarities end. The supporters reaction and feeling around the Club this summer has kept the positivity flowing. A record surge of new Mariners Trust members ensued and there are now healthy expectations of season ticket sales for next season. Player retention has been positive so far and there will be no upheaval required. There will be no last minute transfer request from a star striker as everyone except our goalkeeper has signed their deals this summer. The wave of positivity around the Club and the pride amongst the fans cannot be underestimated. There is also a belief and steely determination that the Club can and will mount a serious challenge for the Conference title for the first time next season. This is coming from both fans and players alike as the bond between the two that established over the latter few months over the season looks like it will continue. If Town can start well in 2015/16, it could be our year.

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Grimsby Town Predictions for the 2014/15 Vanarama Conference Season

Here are some of my thoughts and predictions on the coming season for Grimsby Town and the Vanarama Conference 2014/15 season.

League Winners: Gateshead/Barnet

Gary Mills’ Gateshead went close last season after ending our own promotion challenge. And I expect them to be serious challengers this year. My alternative tip is Barnet. Martin Allen has made some good signings to add to the decent squad they already had. John Akinde and Charlie Macdonald up front looks a potent strike-force and I believe Bees Manager Allen has the mentality needed to be successful in this league.

Where Town will finish: 3rd

I think Town are set-up to remain consistent with previous years and achieve a place in the play-offs. We’ve made good additions in wide areas and we remain solid in central defence, but the lack of a prolific goalscorer will prevent the Mariners from winning the title.

Town’s Top Scorer: Ross Hannah

I would have been tempted to go for John-Paul Pittman but concerns over his fitness leave me unsure as to how many sustained runs in the starting eleven he will get over the season. He looks to be a real threat with his pace and power, and what possibly gives him an edge on Hamnah is that he looks to be able to create a chance for himself. Hannah is more reliant on service in the 18 yard box, but our improved quality/depth in wide areas should see him get plenty of chances to better his goals tally of last season.

Town’s Key Player: Lenell John-Lewis

I’ve gone for “The Shop” because as a regular in Hurst’s starting XI, if he can improve his goals record it could make all the difference this season. Most fans recognise the good work he does for the team. And the sensible amongst us will realise teams don’t often have 2 out-and-out goalscorers in their front two. In the past we’ve had the likes of Steve Livingstone, who never scored more than 10 goals in a season but played important role for the team and was widely adored by fans. Anyway, if John-Lewis can improve on his 6 league goals of last season, and get to 10-12, it could prove valuable in Town’s promotion push.

Key Summer Signing: Scott Brown

The central midfield area has been seen as the area needing improvement for years by GTFC fans. Scott Kerr was a very tactically intelligent player and comfortable on the ball last season. But with his declining fitness we probably signed him a few years too late. Brown looks like a player in a similar mould to Kerr, only much fitter and busier in the middle of the park. In the little I’ve seen of him so far, he looks very mobile, keen to get on the ball and use it well. He’s linked well with other clever players that are clearly on his wavelength, namely Scott Nielson, so I think he’s capable of living up to the fans’ expectations.

Town’s Most Carded Player: Shaun Pearson

Easy choice this one. Shaun Pearson as a regular first choice player should play all the games he is available for. He likes a tackle but unfortunately it is his mouth that gets him the most unnecessary bookings by way of dissent to the referee. Pearson is an excellent defender and we need him available as much possible. So I’m really hoping his suspension that caused him to sit out the decisive 2nd leg of the play-off semi-final has made him realise it is the silly bookings for dissent towards officials that cost him the chance to influence that important game. If Shaun can eradicate this part of his behaviour on the pitch, he could be a future Captain of the club because he already has the leadership qualities required.

Young Player to make an Impact: Paul Walker

The young right back appears physically ready to be thrown in at the deep end already. He didn’t look out of place in his appearances last season and right-back is again an area where we don’t have an outstanding player for the position so he has every chance of breaking through. His determined style rampaging up and down the right will win him plenty of fans no doubt.

Assist King: Jack Mackreth

I expect the pacey new right winger to make fools of many a left back in the Conference this season. His pace and direct running should get him into plenty of dangerous positions and then it will be down to him to pick out the head of John-Lewis, Hannah lurking in front of goal, or Disley arriving late in the box.

Do you agree or disagree with any of these predictions? It’d be good to hear some thoughts – leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

Focus on the Race to the Football League

As the Blue Square Bet Premier season edges towards its decisive last couple of months, we review the challengers for that all-important top-spot to guarantee promotion to the football league.

BBC Sport table

Table graphic courtesy of BBC Sport

Not since 2009, when Burton Albion were crowned champions by a 2-point margin, has a title race in England’s top non-league division been so open. That year, just 7 points separated he top 5 at the end of the season. As things currently stand, 8 points separate the top 6. And all of those 6 will believe that they can be the side to hit form at the right time and take the championship at the end of April.

The current top 4 have been in the mix since the early weeks of the season. Fourth-placed Kidderminster and sixth-placed Mansfield came into form a little later, but have now given themselves a great chance to challenge for automatic promotion.

Current leaders Grimsby Town haven’t lost since a 3-2 defeat away to Hyde on November 6th. They boast the meanest defence in the Conference with just 21 goals conceded and away record of only one loss on the road all season. However, part of the Mariners’ plan going forward will be to turn some of their away draws into wins, having won just 5 of their 13 away games so far. What could work in Grimsby’s favour is their record against the other sides around the top. They’ve beaten Wrexham (1-0), Forest Green (1-0), Luton (4-1) and Mansfield (4-1) at Blundell Park. Whilst goalless away draws at Newport, Kidderminster and Wrexham have added weight to the view that Grimsby have been the most difficult side to beat so far. With Andy Cook turning into one of the divisions most effective strikers, and the likes of Ross Hannah and Richard Brodie chipping in with important goals, Grimsby have as good a chance as anyone to seal a return to the Football League at the third attempt. They may even be able to call upon striker Liam Hearn in the final weeks of the season. He recently joined the squad for light training after missing the entire season so far through an injury sustained in pre-season.

Wrexham will be hoping to avoid ending up in the play-offs this time around after the only challengers to Fleetwood in last season’s title race. Andy Morrell’s men are a good quality footballing side, and perhaps have the smallest squad out of the challenging pack. This hasn’t halted their progress so far this season. They have a strong, settled side, and haven’t lost since the away defeat to Grimsby in front of the Premier Sport cameras on December 21st. In Dean Keates they boast one of the most cultured midfielder’s in the division, and Danny Wright is a handful for any team whether he plays through the middle or on the right side of a front three. The Reds have already played rivals Newport twice, beating them 2-0 at the Racecourse, and playing out an entertaining 1-1 draw at Rodney Parade. They’ve also taken 4 points off Forest Green, again winning at home (2-1) and drawing away (0-0). Wrexham have been consistent throughout this season, their record of 5 defeats is only bettered by Grimsby (4) and there is no doubt they have the quality to challenge for the title.

Forest Green Rovers currently find themselves in 3rd place, although the teams below them have games in hand which could force them out of the play-off places if results don’t go their way. After new financial backing arrived last year, many were tipping Rovers to go all the way this season. Their transfer activity in the summer also suggested they would be challengers, as they signed quality players who already had experience in this division. They’ve been in the top 5 most of the season, but have struggled against the other top sides. They beat Kidderminster (1-0) during Harriers’ winless start to the season, but have since won only once against any of their rivals. That said, it was a fantastic 5-0 away win at Newport County on New Year’s Day. But they have lost at Grimsby, Wrexham, Mansfield and at home to Newport. They’ve got a strong, physical side and great options in attack. James Norwood can’t stop scoring this season, Jan Klukowski currently has 12 from central midfield, and in the pacey Matty Taylor they have one of the better strikers in the division. To stay in contention and make up the ground on the leaders, Rovers will have to become harder to beat on the road, and hope they can take points off the teams around them in the coming weeks.

Newport County, who were the early pace-setters, are the divisions top scorers, netting 64 goals in their first 30 games. Many Blue Square Premier fans doubted whether Justin Edinburgh’s side would maintain their early-season form, but they’ve managed to stay in contention despite losing 5 of their last 15 league games. 19-goal striker Aaron O’Connor is arguably the best striker in non-league at the moment, with the former Luton and Mansfield man relishing being played through the middle in an attack-minded side. Newport will be hoping to have him back from injury soon, to get their promotion challenge back on track after those recent defeats and several postponements halting their momentum. The Exiles have had a mixed bag of results against other teams around the top, drawing at home to both Grimsby and Wrexham, beating Mansfield twice, taking 3 points from 6 against Forest Green and losing away to Wrexham and Kidderminster. Justin Edinburgh will be hoping to tighten his side up defensively, as none of the top 8 sides have conceded as many as Newport. Being harder to beat will help them challenge for the title if they can keep the likes of O’Connor, Jolley, Minshull and Sandell fit.

Kidderminster Harriers didn’t win any of their first 10 games, but have only lost 3 of their 21 games since they got their first win against Cambridge in late September. Steve Burr’s side stormed into the top half of the table and are now real challengers. Whether they can maintain such a good run of form remains to be seen, but they’ve even coped well with the loss of striker Jamille Matt in the transfer window to Fleetwood. Only Grimsby have a better defensive record than Harriers. They have already beaten Wrexham (2-0) and Newport (3-2) at the Aggborough Stadium and held Grimsby to a 0-0 draw. They will need to keep taking points off the teams above them but the main challenge for Kidderminster will be maintaining their excellent form all the way through to the end of the season.

Mansfield Town were also slow starters but their run in the FA Cup, which saw them run Liverpool close in the 3rd Round, appeared to give them momentum and they currently sit just outside the play-off places with games in hand. Since that cup defeat to Liverpool, the Stags have won 5 of their 7 games, losing the other 2 against rivals Newport and Kidderminster. Paul Cox has put together a hard-working side, spearheaded by 14-goal striker Matt Green. But they have a lot to do after defeats this season at the hands of Grimsby, Newport and Kidderminster. They have beaten Kidderminster and Forest Green. Pressure will be on Mansfield to win their games in hand, and they, like Newport, will need to tighten up defensively if they are serious about challenging for the title.

Head-to-head guide for games between the top 6:

Courtesy of statto.com

Graphics courtesy of statto.com

Verdict

Based on how the season has panned out so far, Grimsby, Wrexham and Newport seem to be the serious contenders for the title that are likely to last the distance. These 3 sides have all been top of the table at some point in the last few months, and may trade positions again between now and the final league games on April 20th. Expect Grimsby and Wrexham to battle it out for top-spot, with superior strength throughout their eleven, and game-changing options from the bench, edging them slightly ahead of Newport. If Newport do keep up their challenge with the top 2, then there is potentially a final-day title-decider come April 20th when they travel to Grimsby. Grimsby and Wrexham may also meet in the final of the FA Trophy at Wembley in March, after the two title challengers built up good 1st leg leads in their respective semi-finals, but this added fixture shouldn’t prove too much of a distraction at this stage.

Forest Green should be strong enough to comfortably make the play-offs, but their form against the rest of the top 6 will ultimately cost them. Mansfield and Kidderminster have left themselves a lot of work to do in the final 9 weeks of the season. Kidderminster are the more likely of the two, with a decent record against the rest of the top 6. But both should end up battling with Macclesfield and Luton for the last play-off spots.

Five players to watch in the Blue Square Premier

As the fifth tier of the English football pyramid continues to bridge the gap in quality to that of League Two, here is a selection of five players to watch. As promoted teams from the Blue Square Bet Premier Division continue to impress once they reach the football league, the rest of the division is also steadily improving. Many teams in the top half of this league would feel comfortable pitting their wits against many of the outfits in League Two, with clubs such as Luton, Grimsby, Wrexham, Mansfield, Lincoln and Stockport all capable of attracting bigger gates than plenty of teams in the Football League. So whilst the division as a whole improves, here are the five players to look out for next season:

Matty Blair (York City)

Courtesy of yorkcityfootballclub.co.uk

The York City winger is comfortable on either flank and is at his best when running with the ball at the full back. He does possess a trick and keeps full-backs guessing whether he’ll cut inside or hit the by-line to deliver a cross. He has that special commodity of pace, which combined with his undoubted ability, makes him destined for a career in the Football League sooner or later. York have had a good season and are on course to make the play-offs, where they will stand as good a chance as any of reaching Wembley and winning promotion. Blair has already reached double figures in goals for the season and will look to add to that to help his side to promotion. York will be pleased they signed him on a 2-year deal when he arrived from Kidderminster Harriers last summer as they may receive an enquiry or two for the talented winger.

Jack Mackreth (Barrow AFC)

Courtesy of barrowafc.com

Part-time Barrow’s 20 year old right winger has had a great first season in the Blue Square Premier. After being released from Tranmere Rovers having not made an appearance at the club, Barrow signed the scouse talent on a one-year deal last summer. Very slight in build, the young winger is lightning quick and terrorised several left backs in the division. He has been an important part of a Barrow team that had only lost at home twice up until the beginning of March – when they began a terrible run of results that has seen them slip into the bottom half of the table. Whilst only managing a handful of goals this season, his fearless approach to attacking the full-back and dribbling past players has certainly not gone unnoticed. There is sure to be a queue of clubs wanting to offer him terms as his contract expires in the summer.

Aswad Thomas (Braintree Town)

Courtesy of shropshirestar.com

After joining Charlton Athletic as a trainee, Thomas had loan spells at Accrington Stanley, Barnet and Lewes before signing on a free transfer for Woking in 2009. He spent two seasons with Woking before signing for Braintree after they clinched promotion to the Blue Square Premier last summer. The 22 year old left back has shone in a Braintree side that has adapted well in their first season at this level. He’s a classy, pacey full-back who loves to get forward, as shown by his five goals this season. He’s certainly one to watch as full-backs in this mould are often in demand higher up the leagues, possibly even more so with left footed full backs who seem a slightly rarer breed. Braintree will do well to hold on to a player who is comfortable defending against tricky wingers and shows his pedigree in the elegance with which he controls the ball in possession.

James Norwood (Forest Green Rovers)

Courtesy of forestgreenroversfc.com

At only 21 years of age, Norwood has already proved to be one of the most dangerous wingers in the division. His senior career started at Eastbourne Borough, where he made just a handful of appearances before signing for Exeter City. He only made a handful of appearances in the Football League with Exeter and was loaned out to Sutton United, Forest Green Rovers and Eastbourne Borough during his two year spell with the Grecians. In the summer of 2011 he signed on a permanent deal for Forest Green Rovers and hasn’t looked back since. He has been a regular in the side all season when available, and has shown huge promise as a right footed attacker on the left of a three. His goal return isn’t great as he won’t get close to double figure for the season, but for a first full season of football it has been a big success for the former Brighton and Crystal Palace trainee. He is strong on the ball, skilful and can run with the ball under control at speed. There are sure to be bigger clubs impressed by Norwood, but he may opt to stay at Forest Green where financial security has been secured under new owners. Either way, he has a bright future in the game and is destined to play at a higher level.

Liam Hearn (Grimsby Town)

Courtesy of chelseanoticiasbr.com

As the only centre-forward on this list, the 26 year old Hearn has been a huge success for Grimsby Town. At the time of writing only Football League-bound Jamie Vardy has scored more league goals than Hearn – a great achievement for a man playing his first season in full-time football. Hearn has worked hard to climb the footballing ladder, playing for Hucknall Town, Eastwood Town, Chasetown and Quorn before a fantastic spell at Alfreton Town forced bigger clubs to take notice of his talent. Grimsby paid a fee thought to be in the region of £30,000 for him last summer. As he began to adapt to his first season at this level, Hearn failed to score in his first ten games. His performances showed signs there were goals to come though, and after notching his first Grimsby goal against Wrexham at the end of September, he hasn’t looked back. He has hit 3 hat-tricks as well as smashing four past previous club Alfreton in October. His confidence has grown as the season has progressed and he helped Grimsby get over a terrible start to the season to force a late attempt to gate-crash the play-offs. With his first full season under his belt and the rate of improvement he has already shown, Hearn will be a key part of Grimsby’s next attempt at returning to the Football League.

Pictures courtesy of yorkcityfootballclub.co.uk, barrowafc.com, shropshirestar.com, forestgreenroversfc.com and chelseanoticiasbr.com.