Relegation, promotion and unbelievable drama – welcome to the Grimsby way | Jason Stockwood
“There’s a hard way, there’s an easy way … and then there’s the Grimsby way.” The commentator on BT Sport called the final whistle and our team, Grimsby Town, were promoted to the EFL after an almost unbelievable sequence of playoff games.
We finished the National League season in sixth position and entered the playoffs very much as underdogs. In our first eliminator, we equalised against Notts County in the 96th minute before winning in extra time; in the semi-final, against the expensively assembled squad of Wrexham, a 119th-minute goal took us to the final at the London Stadium versus Solihull, where it took us until 111 minutes to complete a Grimsby fairytale. On 5 June, 12 months since relegation and after 14 months of our ownership, we were back in the EFL.
Before our London excursion the chief executive of our local council, Rob Walsh, had set the plans in motion for a civic reception to ensure we had the chance to celebrate the positivity that is building in our town. Not just about football but a new narrative of hope as the “levelling up” agenda is starting to take shape in our corner of north-east Lincolnshire. Two days after our victory, the team arrived on an open‑top bus in front of Grimsby town hall to a packed civic square and a few thousand Grimbarians, enjoying the sunshine and togetherness. A reaction to the two long years isolated in our homes, singing the songs of our terraces and collectively checking we hadn’t all been dreaming for the past couple of weeks. I’ve never seen so much love and joy in the streets in which I grew up.
Then we were back to reality, as the next morning our manager, Paul Hurst, began conversations with the players whose contracts we were not renewing. It was unimaginably difficult for some of the players who picked up winners’ medals and then P45s all within a few days – a stark reminder of the precarious nature of lower league football, balancing the desire to look after people with the reality of having to take the opportunity to keep improving and maintain momentum. The uncertainty and stress this creates for players and their families is something the sport clearly needs to do something about.
We made it a priority to keep the nucleus of the existing squad together. Six players were already under contract and we offered new deals to 10 others. It was vital to keep the team spirit intact to avoid a total rebuild of our culture and values. We are delighted that nine of the 10 chose to sign up again. Paul immediately started to make the calls to agents and the players we want to recruit. There are also new roles to improve the coaching and recruitment capability of the club, a process that finds me talking to the chairmen and CEOs of other clubs.
These are conversations that often surprise me as people are discussed as commodities, trading assets. Unlike the Premier League, where uncertainty is compensated for with generous financial rewards, lower league players make a good living but are not wealthy in the same way. We decided to try to commit to a minimum of two-year deals (not always possible) to give players and their families the chance to think a bit longer term about where they will be. Financial precariousness in the medium term is a real issue and we hope a little more certainty can help players perform without that stress.
My business partner Andrew Pettit and our chief executive, Debbie Cook, set off for the EFL two‑day conference to meet the other club owners and directors as we learned of the new policies, commercial deals and regulations that have come into force in the 12 months since we lost our league status. One of the main benefits of promotion back to the EFL are the legal protections for our academy. If you drop out of the league you are unable to sign schoolboys to legally binding terms that protect you from league clubs poaching players without recompense.
To add to the wonderful chaos we are experiencing, we announced a new shirt sponsor with a local tech business called MyEnergi. On the first day of shirt sales we sold more than we did in the first month of last year – the demand left us astounded, off guard and out of stock. We launched our new season ticket campaign and sold more than 5,500 for the first time in the club’s history, beating the previous best season, 2021-22, by nearly 2,000. And we ended up arranging to take the squad to Tenerife – both to train and as a thanks for their efforts during the relentless 11‑month season we have just finished.
While this literal “levelling up” was happening for our club, I joined 150 people who have come together through the work of the Common Good Foundation to form a non-partisan community action group that aims to revitalise our democracy, the Grimsby and Cleethorpes Community Organisation.
We hosted 80 local business leaders for lunch to promote and hopefully raise funds for the new Onside Youth Zone we are building for the kids in our town. Finally, with my friend Billy Dasein, we got to show Michael Gove and his team around the streets of Grimsby, his second trip to our patch this year, alongside Neil O’Brien, the levelling up minister. They hosted a meeting of local leaders to discuss how the economy and “social fabric” can be repaired and built on. We discussed collectively how a new narrative of hope and aspiration is possible if we come together across business, the council and community to seize this moment and meet the industrial strategy of the Humber estuary to ensure future prosperity works for everyone.
Two days later, the chaos of an imploding government made the end of our season look serene. As the not-so-good ship Johnson started to sink, Mr Gove was sacked, Mr O’Brien resigned and our local MP, Lia Nici, was promoted to a minister for the levelling up agenda. We are ready for our first league game against Leyton Orient this weekend and the political chaos makes our own transition to a new season look not so tumultuous after all.