JUST five weeks after that inaugural visit to the Twin Towers and the Mariners were back there again; this time for the Division Two Play Off Final. The pressure was on for an immediate return to Division One but Town were buoyed by a Play Off Semi Final success over big-spending Fulham.
The 1-0 scoreline does not do Alan Buckley's side justice, as they comprehensively outplayed the Cobblers on a scorching hot May afternoon in the Capital.
GRIMSBY TOWN 1(Donovan) NORTHAMPTON TOWN 0
Nationwide League Division Two Play Off Final | 24.05.98 | Wembley
It was the 68th game of the Mariners’ marathon season and nothing but a win would suffice. Alan Buckley’s men had started the 1997/98 season slowly but eventually their fine cup form had transitioned into the league.
A breathtaking run from November onwards had taken the Mariners into the Play Offs and they then upset the odds by defeating Kevin Keegan’s free-spending Fulham side over two legs at the semi final stage. All that stood between Town and a rapid return to the second tier was Ian Atkins’ Northampton Town side, who themselves were aiming for back-to-back promotions.
Manager Buckley was fortunately able to name his strongest XI for the game, a side that any Mariners’ fan could name in their sleep. Goalkeeper Aidan Davison had broken a club record for number of clean sheets in a season and the back four of John McDermott, Mark Lever, Peter Handyside and Tony Gallimore was easily the best in the division.
In midfield, relatively new signings Dave Smith and Wayne Burnett lined up alongside marathon men Paul Groves and Kevin Donovan. Meanwhile in attack, Lee Nogan and Jack Lester had struck up a fantastic partnership. The presence of experienced trio Steve Livingstone, Kingsley Black and Kevin Jobling on the bench showed the depth in the squad.
Town started the better of the two sides and were the ones making the early probing. The unlikely source of Handyside came closest to opening the scoring on 13 minutes when he whistled a 30-yard drive over Andy Woodman’s crossbar.
In the 19th-minute the Mariners did take the lead and it was a move straight out of their Play Off Semi Final win over Fulham. Donovan picked the ball up on the right and played it to Burnett before forgoing his wing duties to move into the inside left channel.
Burnett accurately lobbed the ball over the top of the Cobblers’ defence, which included current Northampton boss Ian Sampson, with Lester doing the muscle work in the absence of Livingstone.
The ball ran into the path of Donovan and what followed was like time standing still. The Mariners’ top scorer dropped his shoulder on at least two occasions but ‘keeper Woodman would not commit and Donovan kept going wider until he took the gamble, stretched, and placed the ball into the goal.
The 20,000 travelling contingent from North East Lincolnshire may have been outnumbered two-to-one on their second trip to the Twin Towers in five weeks but they were in full voice now.
The Cobblers regrouped after the interval and looked to use the height of John Gayle and pace of Chris Freestone in attack to trouble the Mariners but the most danger Davison faced was a wayward back-pass from scorer Donovan.
Indeed it was the Mariners who were creating the better chances. Just before the hour a trademark ‘around the corner’ ball from Groves freed Donovan and he tormented Ray Warburton and Sampson but found Woodman equal to his effort.
Then came a glorious opportunity to put real daylight between the two sides. Lester found space on the right and ran at Warburton, who could only stick out a leg and foul the Town striker. The normally steady Donovan saw Woodman again equal to his effort though and the Mariners still could not afford to relax.
With just ten minutes remaining they came within a lick of paint of adding that elusive second goal. Substitute Black pulled the ball back for captain Groves to thunder an 18-yard drive off the underside of the crossbar. The Mariners still only had their slim one-goal advantage.
There was plenty of nailbiting going on in the Grimsby end as referee Terry Heilbron signalled six minutes of added time but the Mariners held on for a famous win.
MARINERS: Davison; McDermott, Gallimore, Handyside, Lever; Donovan, Burnett, Groves, Smith (Black); Nogan (Livingstone), Lester. Sub not used: Jobling
COBBLERS: Woodman; Clarkson, Frain, Sampson, Warburton; Hunt, Peer, Heggs, Hill (Gibb); Freestone, Gayle (Seal). Sub not used: Dozzell.
The usual A4-sized Wembley programme was issued for this Division Two Play Off Final and there were plenty of interesting articles on both teams, especially an interview with Lee Nogan who looked back at his role in the memorable Bolton-Reading Division One Final of the mid-90s.