Issue 80 – reality bites (or does it?)

First and foremost, this is not a negative article. After the absolute dross of the last three or four years – it’s been so rubbish for so long that I really don’t know when the rot set in – the 13-league match unbeaten run was a welcome tonic for all Shrimpers. It simply made going to games a pleasure once again. Although the team wasn’t perfect in any way (indeed I would suggest the Three Amigos would say we are very much a work in progress) it was a lovely feeling taking my seat in the West Stand and being optimistic that not only we could match the team in opposition but win. For a change.

Did we score enough goals in this run? Probably not. We aren’t a free-scoring team, yet. There was no thumping of any team we defeated but we scrapped hard, didn’t give up, and got results from games we simply would not have got from the recent past. We have pressed hard, turned the ball over well and overloaded in wide areas giving us more goalscoring opportunities per game. The whole “xG” measure is one of these new things (like half and half scarves and signs asking for players shirts) that I’m not all too convinced about, but this metric did rise and expectation levels rose with it.

Did we keep enough clean sheets? No and probably no, but Super Steve Arnold in Goal (copyright pending) and a defence marshalled by the Big Pole (gone, but not forgotten) did enough to give us a chance of winning games – and at this stage in the rebuilding programme, it was enough. The defence was quite settled during this run, but with injuries, loan recalls, international call ups (go on the Afghan Prince) and most problematic in my opinion, the team simply running out of steam, the resulting dip in performance and results was inevitable.

So where does this leave us? I think the team is above the curve in respect of where the Three Amigos thought we’d be. Promotion from the Conference is a arduous task – am sure everyone reading this would agree – and am sure the recalibrated requirement for this season was to ensure we pull away from the relegation zone, finish as high up as possible and lay the foundations for next season and a push for the play-offs. This, as far as I am concerned, has been done. We are now in no danger of being relegated, and due to the top seven being so consistent and out of reach, a top half of the table finish is possible and that’s grounds for optimism.

Off the pitch regarding the football department – we are in good shape. The famous “wall” with the lists of transfer targets is there with John Still and his band of scouts watching players as well as adding to them I’m sure. The foundations are there for more decent signings and the evidence is in the signings made so far: they are all of the right age profile, in the right positions and all have something to prove coming from lower leagues. Not all have set the world on fire yet, but a good pre-season with the core of the side already in place will set us up for the best possible chance of success. When was the last time we could genuinely say that happened? Under Tilly after promotion from League 2? Maybe?

The Head of Physiotherapy is close to being appointed so our chances of getting players back on the grass will hopefully be better. A new Head of Academy is being interviewed so all the building blocks are being put into place so more optimism there. I could write a whole article on off-the-pitch shenanigans concerning Uncle Ron but I’ll leave that to more learned colleagues but this shouldn’t detract from things actually getting better.

So let’s go back to the title – has reality bitten us after the end of the run? Probably yes, but we are certainly in a better position than we were on Christmas Day. The last three or four games have probably shown the management team more about the character of the squad than the unbeaten run and without naming names, I’m sure a number of players have played themselves out of next season’s squad. Is that a bad thing? No if we can move players on easily but there are a couple of high wage earners contracted for next season, I’m sure will need to be gently eased out of the club. In the Three Amigos we trust. 

Did we ever think we’d ever walk this league? God no. This is my 32nd season supporting the Thames Estuary Galacticos and we’ve had better teams and we’ve certainly had worse. Spring has sprung, the nights are lighter and optimism will be thrown around once things get moving regarding player arrivals and departures. The new season will be on us before we know it.

And I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Simon Dodd

Issue 79 – rotting fish

My cousin-in-law Simon & I were on our way back from a gig after a half lager shandy or two when we realised we didn’t have an away day in the diary. Upon noticing our next opportunity was Grimsby in a fortnight, we had no option but to decide there and then that we’d be attending.

We worked out the details later. Rob very kindly volunteered to drive in order to minimise time away from his heavily pregnant wife, who had very kindly (albeit inexplicably) agreed to the hare-brained idea. Together with Chris & Carder, we planned to leave Billericay at 2pm, after sampling some high-end local cuisine in the form of Wetherspoons’ knock-off take on Nando’s. I was pleasantly surprised: I’ve had far worse actual Nando’s. Whilst the flavours were different, the chicken wasn’t overdone or dry, and for about £8 with a pint it felt like money well spent before a 200 mile drive north to watch a game which was being shown on TV.

Hunger sated, the five of us attempted to hit the road. I use the word “attempted” because unfortunately the motor had other ideas. In 2021 Škoda jokes are well-worn, particularly given they’ve been a wholly-owned subsidiary of Volkswagen for more than two decades. But by Christ, this one buckled worse than we did under Kevin Bond.

Being youngest, Carder had been awarded the middle seat, but the belt’s buckle was nowhere to be seen. Or, to put it another way, it was, but there was no getting to it, having tumbled between two seats like us down the footballing pyramid. After about an hour of four adult men & one 17-year-old haplessly struggling, we admitted defeat & drove to two separate garages (who couldn’t help us). Eventually we accepted it was going to be as tricky to get out of as the National League, and Chris selflessly agreed to throw himself under the bus so no-one went through the windscreen on the A1. “Those solidarity payments really could’ve made a difference”, Simon lamented wistfully.

One man down, we hit the road at 3:45pm, just in time to catch the school run. Google informed us our ETA at the ground was 7:30pm, and Rob put his foot down (whilst adhering to all local laws) to get us to the church (Cleethorpes) on time.

We arrived bang on schedule. During our ten minute brisk stroll through neatly terraced streets to the ground, we saw two separate locals quite literally pissing on their own town. A man confronted the second with a pointed “what are you doing, you mucky cunt?” but by then the floodgates had opened.

We made our way to the away end and climbed a flight of stairs to be greeted by an incredible atmosphere generated by our fans. It felt like it had instantly justified the long journey. We were also just in time to hear Grimsby roundly boo the players taking a knee.

The din made by 214 of us lasted until the Mariners scored in the third minute, a far cry from the usual 21-22 minutes without a goal we usually muster before we’ve collectively roared ourselves hoarse (and nowhere near the full 90 we were to have at Notts County). 

When I went to one of my first away games, at Aldershot in 2010, I heard one of our fans bellow some sickening racial abuse at one of the home side’s players. No-one joined in, but no-one (including me) challenged it either. Sadly, open racist abuse does occasionally still happen at our club (i.e. a 2019 incident targeting Bwomono) but when it does, it is called out & action is taken.

Regrettably the same can’t currently be said about our own fans’ sexism & homophobia. There were a handful of chants aimed at a home supporter whose only crime seemed to be being a woman at football, and some others insinuating another was gay & that for some reason they should be ashamed of it. It was appalling stuff, and came from many of the same fans who at kick off had created the atmosphere. It’s a lot more difficult to call out 50 fans than it is one or two, but maybe that’s just me trying to justify what might come across as cowardice. 

Despite all this I don’t believe banning orders are the answer: we thrive on the passion of our fans, and when we are the worst we have ever been (which I don’t blame on the players, the management team or the football department), getting involved in the atmosphere is pretty much the only way you can somehow still enjoy going to our games. So what is the answer? I am a firm believer in the capacity for human change & hope that in time these fans will see that abusing someone for their gender identity or sexuality is no different than doing so for their race. Shred people as much as you want, but base it on things they’ve done (like habitually having us placed under embargo, or opting to wear a mascot outfit with more than a passing resemblance to a notorious sex offender) instead of those they can’t choose. And if you can’t do that, then fuck off.

I don’t have much to add about the game, because if you’re reading this you probably saw it. But Brunt’s sublime, defensive-splitting pass to Egbri gave me hope for the rest of the season: we were far from played off the park by a team much higher up the table. Even getting home at 3am to find that bean juice from my post-match KFC had seeped through the packaging of my Zinger Tower Box Meal and stained my jeans couldn’t take that away from me.

Justin Dawson