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On This Day: 3 March 1996 – Phil Gray’s long-ranger seals win over Grimsby & evokes fishy tales!

From pink shirts to waterlogged pitches, red cards to screamers from distance, a trip to Blundell Park is rarely a dull affair – and it certainly wasn’t on this day 25 years ago.

Crystal Palace v Grimsby Town - FA Cup Third Round Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Grimsby Town.

They play in black and white stripes, which in itself would usually be reason enough to instantly dislike them.

Add to that the seemingly constant waving of fish from the Findus Stand by people dressed as Captain Birdseye throughout the course of a game and it’s enough to make you think twice about a trip to Blundell Park.

But my visits there have always been memorable.

The first, in 1993, for example. Look at the record books and it seems it was just a run of the mill, bog standard 1-0 defeat, with a late goal conceded after playing the majority of the game with 10 men.

What the record books fail to tell is the lads, under the dubious player-management of Terry Butcher, emerged from the tunnel at the start of the game wearing Grimsby’s salmon pink away shirt.

The rapturous applause from the away end that greeted the team quickly turned to raucous laughter, from which emerged chants of ‘what the f*cking hell is that’.

It’s grainy. But you know it’s pink.

What the f*cking hell was it indeed? I’d never seen such a horrendous shirt, and neither it seemed had Mick Harford. While the other sheepish players reluctantly joined in the laughter, Mick glared. First at the shirt, then the crowd, then back to the shirt.

This was clearly a man who was not happy wearing pink.

Midway through the first half, he’d received a red card for two bookable offences. Whether the shirt had contributed to his antagonistic approach to that particular game is uncertain. But I’ve always believed it had played a part. His second booking was harsh to say the least, but he couldn’t get off the field quick enough.

The following year, live on TV, was that game. You know the one. It seems ridiculous today that a game would attempt to take place just because it was on TV, but it did.

All the way down in the car from Consett it was pissing down. And then pissing down some more. Torrential was the word. And it never stopped.

In the warm up it was clear the ball couldn’t be kicked along the pitch, but the game started anyway. Maybe the ref was expecting the majority of the game to be played in the air. Or perhaps divine intervention. Nothing was forthcoming. Five minutes in the game was abandoned and the hardy souls in the away end were told to vacate immediately.

Sorry about the game thing. Yeah. Don’t forget to gesticulate at the inflatable fishes on the way out. See ya!

Of course, this was in the day of no tickets – we’d all paid cash on the turnstile. And there was no way we were going anywhere.

A good hour passed. Songs heralding Charlie Hurley, Gary Rowell, Bobby Kerr and the like were interspersed with ‘We want money back, say we want money back.’

We were in for the long haul.

Eventually Grimsby came to the party, issuing vouchers for the rearranged fixture. We could have chanted for vouchers, but it wouldn’t have sounded right. The April replay, on a freezing cold night, saw Martin Smith bag the winner making the trip worthwhile. But I’ve never forgotten the cold from that night. April in Grimsby or December in the Antarctic. It’s a close call.

I didn’t make the journey to Cleethorpes in 1996. It was live on TV and I didn’t want lightning to strike twice, so I stayed at home and watched Reidy’s kings do battle. We were building momentum having won our previous three, the nine points we’d gathered had lifted us into second place.

Reidy had strengthened the side with the addition of young keeper Shay Given a few weeks earlier, and the Blackburn loanee had surprisingly been thrust straight into the side. Well, perhaps surprisingly for people – like the majority of fans – who’d never seen him play.

What a keeper he was. Even the deposed Alec Chamberlain would have been nodding along at Given’s inclusion.

Anyway, Shay had kept seven clean sheets in nine games so far, and was again in the line up:

Sunderland: Given, Kubicki, Melville, Ord, Scott, Gray, Bracewell, Ball, Agnew, Russell, Gray. Subs: Bridges, Howey, Hall.

Grimsby, managed by Brian Laws, were missing Italian star Ivano Bonetti. The 31-year-old former Juventus left winger had been a revelation for The Mariners, but was missing out through a fractured cheekbone... sustained after Laws had thrown a post-match plate of chicken wings at him after ‘not trying hard enough’ a few weeks earlier.

Never mind the Manchester United and Arsenal ‘pizzagate’. If you want food-related footballing controversy, Grimsby Town take some beating.

Anyway, the game.

We won 4-0. An eighth clean sheet in 10 for Given and a vital three points.

It sounds comprehensive but it wasn’t really. We’d taken a lead in the first half, Kevin Ball tackling the ball in from a nasal strip out, and – thanks to some stellar saves from Given, which we’d all become readily accustomed to by then – that’s how the game remained until the last 20 minutes when Russell added a second.

A hopeful lob up the field from Bally saw the opposition keeper Paul Crichton run out of his area. Setting himself up to make a routine clearance, he was taken out by his own defender Vance Warner, who for some unknown reason decided to dive headfirst into his keeper’s feet. Crichton kicked Warner’s head rather than the ball, leaving Russ with an open goal, into which he dispatched the ball with enviable calm.

Warner, on loan from Forest, was quickly sent back to Nottingham.

Given again kept Grimsby out before Sunderland added a memorable third in the 89th minute. Ord headed clear to Phil Gray, who shot from more than 40 yards out to seal victory.

It was added to by Michael Bridges seconds later, who fired home Ball’s tackle-come-cross to make it four. Bridges had scored his first senior goal in the fog at Southend a few days earlier, so it was nice for all of us to be able to actually see his strike.

Here are the goals from the game, which are absolutely worth watching, if only for the commentary from the in-house Grimsby chaps. Frankie and Danny eat your heart out.

The game was our fifth consecutive win, and we’d go on to register another five wins in a great run of form that catapulted us firmly into the automatic promotion contention.

Remarkably enough, not only was that long-ranger from Phil Gray his last goal for the club, it was also his last start. Dropped in favour of new re-signing Paul Stewart the following week, he only managed a couple more sub appearances before injury ruled him out of the run in.

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