• Sam Byrne

"A really important weekend" - Challinor on title race, return to Grimsby Town, Easter double header

County boss Dave Challinor believes the National League is set for a “really important weekend” in the title race, as the league leaders prepare for an Easter double header with promotion-chasing duo Grimsby Town and Solihull Moors.

The Hatters travel to Blundell Park on Good Friday in what Challinor says will be a "tough battle” – whilst the former Hartlepool Utd boss is also set to return to the home of the Mariners for the first time as a manager, following a controversial incident back in 2002 whilst Challinor was playing for County.

In a 3-1 win for Grimsby back in February 2002, the former Tranmere Rovers defender was cautioned by referee Mark Clattenburg for a challenge on Swedish international Martin Pringle, who had recently joined the club on a short-term loan spell from Charlton Athletic.

Pringle was stretchered off the field with a double leg-break which ultimately led to the striker’s retirement from professional football.

Over twenty years later, Challinor has spoken for the first time on the incident ahead of the National League title challengers’ trip to Blundell Park.

“It looks set to be a sell-out on Friday, and it’ll be tough going to a side who have got themselves right back into the picture. This is a really important weekend in the division, teams at the top end play each other – so there is a lot riding on both games.”

“From my perspective, it’s my first time back there as a manager. I’ve been there as a player with other clubs, and I suppose I have never really spoken about the incident.”

“I understand that there’ll be an atmosphere around that on Friday. I understand what a lot of Grimsby’s fans’ feelings are towards me, and I have no problem with that. Of course, there is regret due to what the outcome was with a fellow footballer being injured, but I can really honestly say that my conscience is completely clear.”

Carlton Palmer - then player-manager of The Hatters - was dismissed himself in the match and spoke critically of his side’s centre-back to the press immediately afterwards. Palmer also claimed that Challinor had been fined by the club for the challenge, but the current County boss also clarified inaccurate reports.

Palmer was quoted at the time as stating that he had "brought Challinor to the club to defend, not to break legs".

“I had one red card in over 400 professional games, and that was for a handball which got rescinded," says Challinor.

"With regards to the incident itself – I tried to play the ball, it was a foul, and it had really, really unfortunate consequences. After the game, things were said in the press which have taught me valuable lessons as a man-manager.”

“I’ve used that experience in terms of avoiding emotional outbursts after a game. The story is really simple – there was stuff around me being fined, but I was never fined a penny. The day after the game, there was an admittance of what was said in the press being wrong.”

“If I had gone out to deliberately injure someone, there is no way I would have been allowed – or I would have expected – to go on and captain this football club.”

“I reached out to Martin the next day, unfortunately that was turned down at the time which I completely understood, and I completely understand it now. We had a similar scenario just before I took over as manager here where one of our players made a tackle and it resulted in a serious injury. You do everything you can to avoid such things happening.”

“There is regret over the outcome, but there was absolutely no malice from my perspective. In terms of the comments made after the game (by Palmer), I could have kicked up a stink, but as a footballer, you tend to just get on with things. I was here when the club wasn’t in a good place, and that incident possibly also affected how some County fans viewed me as well.”

“It’s probably time to put my side forward, and people hopefully realise now that I’m by no means the type of person to want that to happen. I do not want my players to do that as a manager, and I certainly never wanted it to happen when I was playing. I do not expect Grimsby fans to change their opinions - I understand that people will make their own judgements and form their own opinions.”

County head into the tough test at Grimsby fresh from a 5-0 thrashing of Southend United at Edgeley Park last weekend, in a win which equalled last season’s club record of eighteen league games unbeaten, achieved by Challinor’s direct predecessor Simon Rusk.

And, with the resounding three points over Southend coming on the back of the dramatic late 2-0 FA Trophy semi-final defeat at title rivals Wrexham, Challinor believes that his players showed their “unbelievable drive” to right the wrongs of defeat.

“It isn’t so much about a reaction when we lose games, more so taking positives in defeat where there are positives to take. We’re obviously a group who are always going to be disappointed by not winning football matches, but the Wrexham FA Trophy game had a load of positives. There are ways of losing games that can be really damaging, but how we lost there certainly wasn’t damaging from our perspective.”

“There were loads of positives, and at the end of the game, some of the objectives we set ourselves for that game were met. The ultimate one of winning the game wasn’t, but we moved on very quickly and we wanted to put things right straight away. The group are really driven, and we don’t feel that we’re under pressure heading into a particular game.”

In the heat of a riveting title battle, The Hatters have been largely quiet amidst a number of bold statements from opposition camps throughout the campaign.

Chesterfield full-back Jeff King made headlines in the New Year with a claim that The Spireites were “the best side in the division”, whilst current title contenders Wrexham made a similar splash when defender Ben Tozer revealed that the Welsh outfit were ‘expecting’ The Hatters to wobble in pursuit of promotion.

But, with just eight regular league games remaining for his side, the County boss believes his side are focussed solely on sending the ultimate message come the end of the campaign.

“In-house, it’s really easy to avoid being drawn into that,” explains Challinor.

“The players understand where we are and where we need to get. Away from the club, of course it is more difficult to control, as with how social media works, players will look at things, and people are always after a story so will always twist words. But we have a dressing room which is full of players who’ve won things previously, and that can only help. It helps for me that the management team have been there before and experienced it all before too.”

“It’s a bit easier from our perspective, because we’re not looking to put pressure on other teams through the media, we’re looking to put pressure on other teams by winning games.”

“We know we have things to improve on, we know we always want to be the best version of ourselves, and the players have been magnificent in that respect - throughout the whole squad.”

Image credit to Mike Petch.