YoIt’s hard to tell which, in the year 2023, seems more far-fetched. That when Grimsby play Brighton on Sunday they will try to reach the club’s third FA Cup semi-final, not their first; or that the runs leading up to the last four, which included wins over Manchester City and Chelsea, had nothing to do with David or Goliath.
Grimsby’s semi-final appearances in 1936 and 1939 were the highlights of the greatest period in the club’s history. From 1929 to 1948, including a World War II hiatus, they spent 10 out of 12 seasons in the top flight. All three of Grimsby’s England internationals were internationals at the time: insider Jackie Bestall (described in this document as a “shrewd dodger and constructive genius”), goalkeeper George Tweedy and inspirational centre-back Harry Betmead each made a single appearance between 1935 and 1937.
Only two English football powerhouses, and in one case grotesque bad luck, kept Grimsby from reaching Wembley. Their first Cup run took place the season after they had finished fifth, the highest league position in the club’s history. After beating Hartlepool and Port Vale, Grimsby faced Manchester City at home in the fifth round. 15 months from now, City would be champions for the first time, but to describe this game as a match between equals would have been generous only to City: Grimsby were 10th, City 16th.
Grimsby’s emotional 3-2 win at Blundell Park was one of the best FA Cup games of the decade, one that had swaggering reporters raving about the quality of the game and fair play. City’s second equalizer, a graceful team goal by John McLeod, drew the most lustful cheer of the day, and that was from the Grimsby fans. This newspaper said that the two teams had “gave Lincolnshire football one of the greatest stimulants in its history”.
Grimsby manager Frank Womack confused the City defense by rotating their wingers and inside forwards. At the same stage three years later, against Sheffield United, his successor Frank Spencer used a similar maneuver to the same good effect.
Grimsby’s tactical sophistication is one of many recurring themes in their two Cup runs. Others include replays starting at 2:15pm on a Tuesday, forensic reporting of ticket receipts and relevant train timetables in newspapers and , more importantly, the impact of injuries at a time when there were no substitutes.
Grimsby beat Middlesbrough 3–1 in the quarter-final, a game in which Betmead and Ernie Coleman were sent off after a fistfight. It meant, crucially, that Betmead was suspended for the semi-final.
With a pair of Division Two teams in the last four, Grimsby were the 5-2 second favorites to win the Cup. Unfortunately, they drew the shortest straw: Arsenal, league champions in each of the previous three seasons, on Leeds Road in Huddersfield. Arsenal were having an unplanned off year in the league, but remained a symbol of class, glamor and power. The match was a one-sided 1-0, settled by an elegantly simple goal from Cliff Bastin. Grimsby’s hero was Tweedy, who made many good saves and an amazing three.
The game was played on a ferociously hot March day. This was a problem in a packed stadium, especially since removing a suit jacket or even a fedora amounted to indecent display, and dozens of supporters were carried away on stretchers after passing out.
The second major Grimsby Cup race occurred in the last season before the Second World War; although no one realized it at the time, it was the end of the club’s golden age. They thrashed Tranmere 6-0 and beat Millwall and Sheffield United after replays. That was thanks to goals from their combative striker Fred Howe, described after a match-winning performance, in a textbook. guardian typo, such as “tremendous concern”.
They returned to London for the quarter-finals, facing relegation-battling Chelsea. In a Stamford Bridge quagmire, Grimsby controlled the game with a calm authority, even if the only goal came when Chelsea were temporarily down to 10 men.
Luck balances itself, the cliché goes, but once in a while it forgets to stop. In the semi-final, Grimsby faced the most exciting team in the country, Wolves, at Old Trafford. Wolves were the favourites, but only in the betting sense. “No team could be more popular away from Wembley than Grimsby,” read the Times Advance. “They have maintained in these days of large transfers and frenetic negotiations a quiet individuality of their own. It is a club in the best and most intimate sense of the word”.
Grimsby announced their team five days before the game, although the newspapers gave the same number of column inches to the team’s special semi-final diet: fish for lunch and an apple a day. (Wolves preferred soda baths, podiatrist visits, and monkey glands, but that’s another story.) An apple a day couldn’t stave off the flu: 48 hours before the game, Tweedy fell ill and was sent to his bed with nothing but an electrical appliance. Wembley fire and dreams for company. It marked a Grimsby debut for 24-year-old Irish goalkeeper George Moulson.
Grimsby started the match brilliantly with Moulson touching the ball just once in the first 20 minutes. His second touch was his last: of the game and as a Grimsby player. Moulson suffered a serious concussion while making a brilliant and brave save at the feet of Dicky Dorsett. Both players were helped off the field, although Dorsett later returned. Jack Hodgson came into goal and any chance Grimsby had had was gone. They were crushed 5-0, “an absurd exaggeration of Wolverhampton’s merit”, said the guardian – with Dennis Westcott scoring four.
Moulson was treated in the locker room for the remainder of the game. At the final whistle, as the players returned and he heard someone say Grimsby had lost 5-0, Moulson staggered to the gate and announced that he needed to get back on the pitch quickly. He was redirected to the nearest ambulance and spent the next 10 days in the hospital. Moulson’s condition, while not critical, was serious enough that he was not allowed visitors for nearly a week.
He wasn’t the only person to go straight from Old Trafford to Manchester Royal Infirmary. As in the other Grimsby semi-final, dozens of fans fell ill. This time it was not because of the weather – the game, played at the end of March, was decorated by a sleet shower – but because of a dangerous crowd.
The attendance of 76,962 remains an Old Trafford record. Grimsby’s share of the gate receipts was for £1982, 11 shillings and seven pence. The memories, and enduring local pride, were invaluable.