Every 8.11 days of this year, I attended a sports event. An ice hockey game, a day at the races, and a night of lucha libre, three football games, and 39 baseball games. On Boxing Day, I went to the last of those sporting events, the Blue Square Bet Premier League game between Lincoln City and Grimsby Town at Sincil Bank. The league is, to me, still called the Conference. It’s the fifth tier of English football. What used to be called (and probably still is) “non-League football,” meaning it’s not part of the Football League. It’s all quite confusing; all you need to know is it’s four whole divisions below Liverpool, Arsenal, etc.
Lincoln City were the first professional football team I watched regularly. In the late eighties, in my late teens, with a job in a supermarket, I had a few spare quid to go now and again to watch them. They had slipped out of the fourth tier the year before, and I watched them play in the Conference and go straight back up. Lincoln City have never really been that good. For all of my life, they’ve never been higher than the third tier, and most of the time, they’ve been in the fourth tier. But, on the last day of the 2010/11 season, they lost and were relegated.
Grimsby Town, their opponents on Boxing Day, were relegated to the fifth tier the season before. Grimsby, for those of you unfamiliar with the geography of the United Kingdom, is also in Lincolnshire. Prior to the Grimsby game, the highest attendance for a Lincoln City home game this season was 2, 448 (on the first home game of the season). There were 5,506 there for the Boxing Day local derby, around 1,700 of which had travelled the 37 miles from the north Lincolnshire coast to the, ahem, big city.
A ticket in the Lincolnshire Echo Stand, along one of the sides of the pitch, costs £18 at the turnstiles (EUR 21.58, USD 28.21, CAD 28.75, MXN 395.31). You can see a Toronto Blue Jays game and have enough money for a beer for the same price. It wasn’t too cold; a bit nippy. Windy, though, so I got a cup of tea from the little place selling snacks and drinks. The milk was already in the tea when it came out of the big urn. Players from both teams warmed up on the pitch. Running little drills. The PA played a few pop songs, stuff that I assume is in the charts. Closer to kick off time, the PA played The Jam’s “A Town Called Malice,” and “All or Nothing” by the Small Faces, who, Wikipedia tells me, played at Sincil Bank in 1966 with the Who and the Kinks.
Closer to kick off, the music ramped up a bit. First, with the Dam Busters March, the theme tune of the film about the World War II operation where No. 617 Squadron set off from RAF Scampton, a few miles outside of Lincoln, on a mission to bust the shit out of dams in the Ruhr valley with bouncing bombs. That was followed by Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. And then we were ready for football!
Being a local derby, there was a fair bit of back and forth chanting between the fans of both teams. Both sets of fans taking turns to shout “Who are ya?” at each other, and minutes later shouting “You’re the shit of Lincolnshire” at each other. That seemed odd, considering they’d both been asking who they were.
On the field, it got off to a frustrating start. Not much space on the pitch. Well, actually, there was a ton of space on the pitch, but like pre-teen children, all the players seemed to be following the ball around. It was all too crowded for anyone to do anything. If any player showed any element of skill, it seemed inadvertent. A nice touch here, a yard of pace, a pass into space: all let down by the team-mates who hadn’t seen what might happen.
Throw-ins and goal kicks would see the teams assume their formations in small areas of the field. Every outfield player is in about a sixth of the field for the free kick that the goal keeper is taking in the photo below. It was depressing to watch. This wasn’t football. And if this style were to somehow sweep the globe so that Barcelona and AC Milan were playing like this, I’d stop watching football all together.
(More depressing than the style of play, though, was hearing someone behind me refer to Lincoln City’s black French midfielder Jean-Francois Christophe as being “just like a gorilla.”)
One good thing, though, was that the ball they played with was like the black-and-white panelled ball you automatically think of when you close your eyes and think of what a football looks like (that is, like this Adidas Telstar ball). I can understand that changing the way a soccer ball looks might be a good boost for sales of balls for Adidas or Nike or whoever, but it seems like a bad idea. A baseball is a baseball, and pretty much looks like it always has. Basketballs, American football balls, tennis balls, hockey pucks: they don’t change every few years. Why should soccer balls change so often?
After ten minutes or so, Lincoln City began to take control of the game. They had more possession, and it was quite often in Grimsby’s half of the field, and just after half an hour, Conal Platt put Lincoln ahead. Lots more chanting from the Lincoln fans:
“We are Imps! We are Imps!” (That’s Lincoln City’s nickname.)
“Sit down, shut up! Sit down, shut up!” (Directed at Grimsby fans.)
“Stand up if you love Lincoln, stand up if you love Lincoln.” (I stayed in my seat.)
And my favourite, the profound, humorous, and subtle “We hate Grimsby and we hate Grimsby, we hate Grimsby and we hate Grimsby, we hate Grimsby and we hate Grimsby, we are the Grimsby haters!”
Lincoln were good for the lead; had a couple more chances too, but, half time score: Lincoln City 1 Grimsby Town 0. I spent the break watching the clouds and some pug-faced Lothario who was chatting up a woman while her companion was away buying tea. I listening to people talk, listening to the Lincoln accent, the half-time analysis, and the post-Christmas chit-chat. The smell of Pukka pies and burgers, instant soups and halitosis. An air raid siren sounds, and the Dam Busters March fires up again. Grimsby Town kick off, Player A touches it to player B, as is customary. Player B passes it a few yards back to player C. Player C hoofs it as hard as he can into the far corner, and his team mates all set up in the defensive formation I’d spent 45 minutes watching before the break. Clearly the Grimsby Town manager must be an NFL fan, cos he certainly doesn’t seem to be a fan of soccer.
On and on. No real skill. The wind picked up and so did Grimsby. Lincoln, who were looking good for a win at half time were doing nothing in the second half. It was all Grimsby, and after just seven minutes, Scott Garner equalised. The visiting fans celebrated. Because the visiting fans’ area of the ground was small, they were compact and loud. They sang that they were the pride of Lincolnshire. They taunted City fans: you’re not singing any more. That was quickly followed up with a take on the old standard chant, “you only sing when you’re winning,” instead re-fashioned to reflect the town’s maritime industry: we only sing when we’re fishing.
The old man sat behind me said to his companion, “It’s not the same game, is it?” He was referring to Grimsby’s utter dominance early on in the second half, but conceptually, he’s right. It’s not the same game at this level. This is, and it bears repeating, not football. Grimsby scored a second goal nine minutes later. And from then on, the City fans were pretty quiet. The Grimsby fans were loud. They sang the team’s nickname in three elongated syllables: Ma-rin-ers. I had forgotten that that was their nickname. And my mind drifted for a while, as my eyes followed the ball on (and quite often, in the air above) the field, my mind drifted to thinking about the Seattle Mariners. That leaping mind trick where a tiny thought chain links other things, places, and events, and I was thinking about my time in Bellingham, Washington. But it didn’t last long: there was a fairly cavalier challenge by a Town player on the edge of the penalty box. Players were in a huddle, pushing each other around, and when a player from either team was subsequently shown yellow cards, the home fans questioned the integrity of the referee. The resulting free kick was at least on target. But the keeper saved it.
It did seem, though, that it had sparked a bit of something in City. With less than ten minutes to go, they looked like they were trying a little. The Grimsby fans, though, were gearing up for victory. All on their feet, singing “Grimsby ’til I die” (a horrendous thought, frankly), and “Mariners black and white army.” The latter chant was sung pretty much solidly over and over and over again for the last seven or eight minutes of the game. It was probably the most impressive thing that I got for my £18.
The final whistle blew up. Imps 1 Mariners 2. I walked into town, overhearing amateur Alan Hansens and Mark Lawrensons dissect the game. Because of the local rivalry, there were a fair amount of policemen gathered along the High Street, especially outside the pubs nearest the ground. But I just trudged home, kind of shocked that the style of football was so bad. It makes me wonder if it was that bad back in the 1987/88 season when I went to a lot of games. I don’t remember it being that bad, but that’s just a biased memory: I don’t want to remember it being that bad because, on the whole, I used to enjoying going to Sincil Bank.
Maybe one day, though, I’ll somehow become a multi-billionaire and I’ll want some sort of sporty plaything, and I can buy Lincoln City, build a fancy new stadium, invest in expensive players and watch them rise swiftly through the divisions, and then one day, they’ll challenge for the Premier League title, and everyone else will hate Lincoln City for being a tacky nouveau riche club; but I will sit there in a fancy coat, with fancy friends, and I will watch Lincoln City beat Manchester United 5-0, as I happily wolf down a Pukka pie.