Grimsby’s FA Cup run reflects town’s ride from outpost to green trailblazer

<span>Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Sacha Baron Cohen is immensely multitalented but since 2016 his popularity in one of England’s landmark coastal outposts has plummeted. Seven years ago Grimsby, a spy-comedy-thriller co-written and co-produced by the actor, hit UK cinemas with the north-east Lincolnshire town depicted as a violent, rubbish-strewn, addict-inhabited ghetto.

No matter that filming largely took place in Tilbury, Essex, it was most definitely not the sort of Hollywood treatment most Grimbarians desired. Baron Cohen played Nobby, a jobless, feckless, Grimsby-bred, football hooligan and father of 11 children, who joins forces with his MI6 hotshot spy brother Sebastian (Mark Strong) in some hair-raising James Bond-esque international escapades.

While preparing for the role, Baron Cohen watched Grimsby play at Blundell Park and, wearing a replica club shirt, subsequently joined fans in pubs. “I wanted to discover what makes them tick,” he said at the time. “Are they really scroungers? What I found is people are on the dole because after the closure of the fishing industry there are no jobs. Huge swathes of the town are derelict. Vilifying these people is wrong.”

A much more nuanced reality would greet Baron Cohen today. The excitement generated by League Two Grimsby’s run to Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final at Brighton is underpinned by the club’s additional new role as a hub for the town’s regeneration and its repositioning at the vanguard of the UK’s burgeoning green economy.

When the midfielder Gavin Holohan spoke to television interviewers after converting the two penalties which secured Grimsby a 2-1 fifth-round win at Southampton he encapsulated a growing sense that old, lazy stereotypes about his adopted home are being consigned to the past. “I’m so proud to play for this club,” Holohan said. “It’s like one big family and it means so much to the local community. Everyone’s in it together.”

Grimsby’s co-owner Jason Stockwood is a dotcom entrepreneur (and Guardian contributor) who along with fellow businessman Andrew Pettit bought the club in 2021 and oversaw last spring’s promotion from the National League. Much as he is delighted by the progress of Holohan and co on the pitch, he embraces a wider local vision.

It places the club at the centre of a series of connected initiatives designed to tackle the town’s economic and social challenges while serving as a trailblazing prototype for local, regional and ultimately national change.

Off the pitch Stockwood has joined forces with Emily Bolton, a social entrepreneur, in forming Our Future, a project creating a new and extremely green economic model for England’s post-industrial communities.

Related: Grimsby’s fairytale FA Cup run epitomises a season of underdogs

Bolton, who previously worked in San Francisco, established the world’s first social impact bond – involving investors funding initiatives yielding social as well as financial returns – and has a broadly similar blueprint for Grimsby. “Grimbarians have great ideas,” she says. “But we need something better than the same old model where a little money comes in but is controlled by people outside the region without a long-term commitment to the town.”

Accordingly the club’s shirt sponsor is myenergi, a local green business whose innovations include the Zappi, a solar electric vehicle charger. “You’re literally driving on sunshine,” says the locally bred co-founder Jordan Brompton, who has rejected several offers to relocate the business abroad or elsewhere in the UK. “The talent in Grimsby is amazing. Other companies might manufacture overseas but if you invest in your local area you get so much more back. I love this town and the football club is its heartbeat. The Cup run is typical of the Grimsby underdog proving the world wrong again.”

Debbie Cook, agrees. Grimsby Town’s dynamic chief executive previously occupied an equivalent role with the regional YMCA and strives to ensure the area’s young people can access enhanced opportunities.

Co-owner Jason Stockwood watches Grimsby Town beat Southampton.
Co-owner Jason Stockwood watches Grimsby Town beat Southampton. Photograph: James Marsh/Rex/Shutterstock

She is a big supporter of East Marsh United, a community housing scheme purchasing rundown, privately rented houses in a particularly deprived area and turning them into refurbished, affordable homes. “If you live somewhere substandard it affects your whole outlook on life,” says Cook. “If Sacha Baron Cohen returned here now he’d find the football club and the town have moved into a new, values-led era. I’d challenge anyone not to feel the passion and the pride.”

Kristine Green, a club director and member of the Common Good Foundation is responsible for the community organising instrumental in creating the ties binding Paul Hurst’s Grimsby team to their hinterland. “Grimsby’s full of strong, intelligent people and the club helps them build trust and collaborate,” she says. “There’s no easier way of bringing people together than football; it gives them a voice.”

Although Stockwood always intended making Grimsby Town a catalyst for change within a community disempowered by years of distant, top-down governance by Westminster-based politicians and remote multinational companies, his introduction to Bolton through mutual friends in 2021 proved a watershed.

Bolton, during a largely housebound, two-year recovery after becoming very ill with Covid in March 2020, dreamed of creating a brave new world. Or more specifically a fresh social contract involving equitable wealth distribution between government, business, finance and philanthropists capable of empowering local communities while also combating the climate emergency.

Now those ideas are coming to fruition in Grimsby. “You get a sense this is your moment,” says Bolton. “We’ve got to seize it.”