Exclusive: Kevin Donovan on Grimsby Town's Wembley double in 1997/98 season
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For teams such as Grimsby Town, particularly in recent years, moments worth savouring are few and far between – a club forever out of the spotlight with the fans starved of moments to look at the club they support with pride and belief.

However, the 1997/98 season is a point in time that encapsulated the best period in the Lincolnshire club's post-war history and brought those positive emotions back for all those associated with the club.

In their 120 years as a club prior to that memorable season, The Mariners had never been to Wembley Stadium, but by the end, they had made the trip down Wembley Way twice in the space of just over a month.

Grimsby triumphed in both the Auto Windscreens Shield and Second Division play-off final – an incredible achievement remembered fondly to this day by Town supporters.

Slow start

Midfielder Kevin Donovan's 21 goals in all competitions, including the winning goal in the play-off final, were vital to Grimsby's success that season.

Donovan was one of three players bought from West Bromwich Albion along with David Smith and Paul Groves. The latter returned for a second spell at Blundell Park alongside legendary Grimsby manager Alan Buckley after an unsuccessful period with the Baggies.

Overall, Buckley made six signings, with four more players going the other way, and Donovan recalls the team's slow start to the league campaign as the team adjusted to one another.

"We actually started the season pretty poorly, in all honesty," said Donovan. "I think we ended up going six games without a win.

"I think we were playing up in Preston [North End], and we were pretty poor that day, but I think that was a turning point for us, as Alan had a chat with all the players about what needed to be changed.

"I think what people needed to realise is that it was pretty much a completely new team, and we needed time to gel, but we did kick on after that game and started picking up good results."

After the manager's intervention at Preston, Town drew at York City before a Steve Livingstone double away at Fulham handed Grimsby their first league win of the season after four draws and two defeats in the opening six games.

A goalscoring midfielder

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Between that first win in mid-September and the end of March, Grimsby only lost seven games in the league, thanks in large part to Donovan's goalscoring exploits.

The then-26-year-old occupied the right of the midfield four in Buckley's trusted, go-to, 4-4-2 set-up with overlapping full-backs providing extra attacking support and causing an overload on the wings, which was a nightmare to deal with for most teams.

Donovan believes the system that Grimsby played as well as the players he had around him, allowed him to get forward more and into goalscoring positions.

The 49-year-old said: "The camaraderie off the pitch was good, there was obviously a few stalwarts in there like Graham Rodger, Mark Lever and Kevin Jobling, who knew what the club, the fans were about, and the style Alan wanted to play.

"Having John McDermott playing just behind myself at right-back was a big bonus to me because I knew he was always going to be there – he was one of the best defenders I ever played with.

"That allowed me to go forward without many defensive duties, which gave me somewhat of a free reign."

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It was not just McDermott at right-back that gave Donovan the freedom of the Blundell Park pitch, but also the experienced, well-rounded midfielders that lined up alongside him that were able to pick him out in positions to score.

The ex-West Brom and Huddersfield Town player continued: "In Paul Groves, Wayne Burnett and Tommy Widdrington, we had players who were comfortable on the ball in the midfield and could get the ball out to the wide players, which allowed me to get further up the pitch.

"I had played with Paul [at West Brom], so I knew what he was all about. Burnett came in as well, and you could tell after 15-20 minutes of training what sort of player he was."

Buckley's brilliance

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The mastermind behind Grimsby's success during the 90s, in his first spell at the club, guided Town to promotion from the Fourth Division in 1990 - reaching Second Division a year later – where they spent all but one of the next 12 seasons.

In his first two spells at the club, Buckley's Grimsby sides were renowned for their attractive passing game and mounted periodic challenges for the play-offs.

After six brilliant years with the Mariners, the Mansfield-born manager moved to First Division rivals West Brom, where he spent two-and-half frankly uneventful years at The Hawthorns before getting the sack in 1997.

Buckley could not replicate what he did at Grimsby and maintain a promotion challenge with the Baggies, and it was the first time in his career where his managerial methods were questioned.

Returning to Grimsby with his pride hurt, Buckley got back to basics. With the backing of the chairman at the time, William Carr rejuvenated the relegated Mariners to their brilliant best.

As previously explored, Donovan thrived in the Grimsby system. He explained what it was like to play under the legendary manager that oversaw some of the most remarkable years in the club's history.

"It is easier said than done to build a successful team," Donovan declared. "But Alan knew the players he wanted, and he definitely got the money he needed to do that.

"I think you have to put the success of that team down to Alan's knowledge of players at that level, which helped him bring in the right people for each position."

"He could be brilliant; he could be a nightmare – it depended on what day of the week it was!

"All in all, he was a fantastic bloke; he was Mr Grimsby really for what he did at the club during his various spells there.

"He played 4-4-2 every time without fail – I can't remember a time where he changed it up. Two wingers, two attacking full-backs, he always wanted to win with a bit of style."

'The warm-up'

The first of Grimsby's two trips to the Home of English Football in the famous 97/98 campaign was for the Auto Windscreens Shield final against A.F.C. Bournemouth - settled in the most unusual of circumstances.

Over 62,000 fans watched on at the Old Wembley as Burnett scored 'The Golden Goal' to win Grimsby the game in a dramatic fashion, with the game deadlocked at 1-1 after 90 minutes.

The tenacious midfielder's incisive run and finish at the back post from a corner sent the Grimsby faithful into raptures and, as Donovan explains, ended up being excellent preparation for the play-off final that was to come.

The 49-year-old said: "The Auto Windscreens final was a free hit really and gave everyone [in the team] a feel for the surroundings and what the atmosphere would be like.

"In the second game [play-off final], there was a different type of nerves because we knew there were 48 games at stake on just that one final.

"However, winning the Auto Windscreens Cup at Wembley settled everyone down for the play-off game.

"To win the game [Auto Windscreens final] with a golden goal was a crazy experience but one that prepared us well for the play-off final.”

Play-off pandemonium

Despite an unflattering finish to the league campaign where the Mariners only won one of the final nine fixtures, the team still managed to secure third place and a spot in the play-offs.

Donovan played a crucial role in the semi-final against Kevin Keegan's Fulham, scoring the only goal in the second leg fixture at Blundell Park to send the home team through with a 2-1 aggregate win.

Just as he had all season long for Town, the right-sided midfielder popped up with the crucial goal, and he would go on to do so again in the most important game of this historic season.

The build-up to a game at Wembley is like no other, especially for a team such as Town, where experiences such as this are a luxury, to put it lightly.

"I think it's the build-up more than anything that gets you going," Donovan connoted. "When you are driving up towards the stadium, and you see the thousands upon thousands of fans that travelled up for the game.

"Then you get to walk around the stadium, and the cameras are there, you do interviews which makes you realise that it's a big occasion.

"Once the game starts, you forget that you're playing at Wembley, and you focus on what's happening on the pitch and trying to win the game."

This time the opponents were Northampton Town, a team that Donovan had some luck against in the previous two meetings during the season.

The all-important goal came just 18 minutes into the game – a perfectly weighted pass from Burnett went all the way through to Donovan. With just Northampton goalkeeper Andy Woodman to beat, he knocked the ball to his right and slid it under the scrambling' keeper.

"It was just one of those things, really," Donovan exclaimed. "Football works in strange ways sometimes! We'd played Northampton twice in the season, and I scored twice against them.

"For that reason, I was confident of getting a goal [in the final]. You can never be sure, but I don't know why I ended up in the middle of the pitch rather than out to the right [for the goal].

"When I was played through [on goal], I knew I was going to score because of that confidence I had built up throughout the season in front of goal."

He would go on to miss a penalty late on; luckily, it did not matter, Grimsby held on to complete a famous Wembley double and cap off a magnificent season and return for the manager Buckley.

What it meant

Grimsby's first two trips to the famous Wembley Stadium ended in victory, witnessed by thousands of Town supporters, in a season which the club has not seen anything close to in terms of success in the 23 years since.

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Donovan's goals were crucial; however, as is the case with any football success story, it was a team effort, and this one had a genuine connection with the passionate fanbase, which the man of the moment goes on to explain.

"The celebrations were pretty good!" Donovan expressed joyfully. "There was a special connection between the players and the fans at that time, and the club was due for something [special].

"The fans just got behind the club, and the players, the backing for both the games at Wembley was brilliant by our fans, and overall, it was just a fantastic occasion for everybody.

"We’d worked so hard throughout the season to get to that point, so the play-off final victory was the standout game for everyone, myself included.

“The goal at the start of the season was to get promoted, and we did that at the first time of asking, so it was a massive occasion for everybody."

 

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