30 August 2014

Made in Dagenham

Saturday 23rd August 2014
Sky Bet League 2
Dagenham & Redbridge 2-0 Mansfield Town
London Borough of Barking & Dagenham Stadium (aka Victoria Road)
Attendance: 1558 (away support 190)

MANSFIELD TOWN's goalkeeper Sascha Studer, midfielder Jamie McGuire and striker Alex Fisher were all in apologetic mood after today's defeat in East London.

Two of the Stags' south-eastern fanbase, Beckenham Stag and Stag of Herts, had hung around after the game.  They nearly found themselves locked in the ground, before they headed out to the car park, hoping mainly to get a quick chat with Alex Fisher, whose shirt the London & South East Stags supporters group is sponsoring this season.

Credit to the players who took the time to engage with the fans, despite their disappointment at the result and peformance, before embarking on the long journey back to the East Midlands.

The London Borough of Barking & Dagenham Stadium, otherwise known as Victoria Road, is a ground which will always hold painful memories for Stags fans.  It was here, where east London meets Essex, that Mansfield bowed out of the Football League, after 77 years, with barely a whimper on 3rd May 2008.

For weeks leading up to that game, it looked like the Daggers v Stags clash could be a classic six-pointer on the last day of the season, where both teams would need a result to avoid dropping into the Conference.  Sadly, from a Mansfield perspective, the game turned out to be a dead rubber when it finally arrived.  Seven days earlier, Dagenham had come from 2-0 down to beat play-off chasing Darlington 3-2 in the north-east, while the Stags were defeated by a freak 40-yard effort at home to Rotherham United.  It was a combination of results which meant that the Daggers were safe with a game to spare.
Three days later, Chester gained the one point they needed to stay up with a goalless draw at home to Stockport, and Mansfield were gone.

Well over 1000 Stags fans had already bought tickets for the Dagenham trip, anticipating that there would still be all to play for on the day.  In the end, at least 300 didn't even bother travelling to east London.  Those who did witnessed an injury-weakened Mansfield team, its morale already sapped, fall to a 2-0 defeat against a Daggers side who, like the home supporters, were in end-of-season party mood.

It felt like the end of the world at the time, and it would be five years before the two team would meet again, after Mansfield returned to the Football League as Conference champions in 2013.  But last season's 0-0 draw in this fixture, combined with Saturday's mediocre performance and another 2-0 loss, have done nothing to make Stags fans feel any better about visiting Victoria Road.

Wearing their all-black away kit for the first time today, Mansfield would be defeated by a goal in each half.  It was on the stroke of half-time, after an even 45 minutes, that the Daggers took the lead.  Jamie Cureton, just five days short of his 39th birthday, found too much space on the right and pulled the ball back to Luke Howell who tapped home from six yards.  Keeper Studer was out of position, having come beyond his left-hand post before hesitating, and colliding with defender Ritchie Sutton as he tried to recover.

The second goal came on the hour mark, again from the Dagenham right, as Ashley Chambers' cross was half cleared to Abu Ogogo, whose shot from the edge of the box flew past Studer with the aid of a deflection off Stags' Lee Beevers.

Whilst the introduction of Sam Clucas and Fergus Bell, and a switch from 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 formation initially seemed to breathe new life into Mansfield's challenge, the visitors never looked seriously likely to recover from the two-goal deficit.

Once again the journey east had taken me on that inordinately long journey out of central London on the District Line.  Replica Chelsea and West Ham shirts of were in evidence on tube platforms, as fans made their way to other games taking place in the capital today.  Meanwhile at Victoria Road, under 1400 home fans were in attendance, a sign perhaps of how Dagenham & Redbridge, despite doing a good job of establishing itself as a Football League club since promotion from the Conference in 2007, will struggle to attract a bigger fanbase in an area where so many clubs are already prominent.

For Mansfield, it had not been a day to remember.  But after a week which had brought two home wins and, mercifully, no more injuries, there is no cause for gloom and doom.  A local(ish) derby against Burton Albion is coming up next Saturday, and with it an opportunity to record a third successive home win.  There will be nothing for the players to apologise for if that happens.

NB. My post-Dagenham thoughts are also published on The Match.

17 August 2014

Pulling Everyone Together

Saturday 16th August 2014
Sky Bet League 2
Mansfield Town 2-1 Oxford United
One Call Stadium
Attendance: 3042 (away support 405)

THE ground erupted in celebration when Adam Murray slammed in Mansfield's 88th-minute winner.  Another roar of celebration, and surely of relief too, came when referee Richard Clark blew the final whistle after four nail-biting minutes of stoppage time..
The Stags’ narrow victory, sealed with that late striker from the assistant player manager, brought a triumphant end to what had been a difficult first week of the season for the club.
Saturday morning had delivered the grim news that new striker Liam Hearn, on whose shoulders Mansfield fans had placed much expectation, would not play again until at least Christmas due to a knee injury - reported to be torn cartilage - picked up after just 15 minutes of Wednesday night’s Capital One Cup tie at Sheffield United.  This latest setback is a devastating blow to the former Grimsby Town front man, and to everyone connected with his new employer.  Hearn had just emerged from a two-year nightmare, during which a ruptured Achilles tendon and a cruciate knee ligament injury have interrupted his career.  The Nottinghamshire-born striker looked like he was ready to get back to what he does best after scoring four goals in pre-season, while being allowed to gradually re-build his match fitness, but sadly must now endure another lengthy spell of rehabilitation.
The playing resources at manager Paul Cox’s disposal had already been reduced during the
opening two games of the season, with striker Ollie Palmer and centre-back Martin Riley also limping off injured, and the Stags boss was left with just 14 fully-fit outfield players to select from going into the first home match of the new campaign.  As Cox would put it in his post-match interview, it was already a case of being “down to the bare bones”.

Given the morning bombshell of Hearn’s lengthy lay-off, plus those shorter-term injuries to other players, and Mansfield having suffered narrow defeats at Northampton and Sheffield United in the past week, some of the buzz around the ground which you associate with the first home fixture may have been lacking as fans gathered under an overcast sky at One Call Stadium on Saturday.  Youth team players meandered around the back of the Ian Greaves Stand, having been given the task of trying to sell the remaining half-and-half scarves from the cup tie versus Liverpool two seasons ago(!).  Even at a pound each, they didn't seem to be popular.  Meanwhile, with almost an hour to go before kick-off, some season ticket holders were left waiting outside the ground as the electronic turnstiles failed to read their smartcards.  If felt like another false start to the season.
But Paul Cox, forced to work with a smaller squad than he might have liked this season due to budget constraints, has shown before that he can grind out positive results from a close-knit group of players when the chips are down.
With Liam Hearn ruled out, Ollie Palmer not fully fit but on the bench, and Matt Rhead serving the fourth and final game of a suspension, Sam Clucas was forced to play out of position in a striker’s role alongside Alex Fisher.  But it was centre-back Ryan Tafazolli who headed Mansfield into a 39th-minute lead.  The talented young defender, who continues to be linked with a possible move to a higher level, was in just the right place to head into an empty net, after Oxford ‘keeper George Long had finger-tipped Chris Clements’ curling 30-yard free-kick onto the inside of his right-hand post.
Tafazolli was to be involved in another key incident in the same penalty area with 11 minutes remaining, when he was adjudged to have brought down the visitors’ substitute Danny Hylton, who confidently drove the resulting penalty low and hard past the right glove of Stags’ number 1 Sascha Studer.
Studer had to dive to his right seven minutes later to parry a rising shot from Danny Brown, as Oxford enjoyed by far their best spell of the game.
But Murray’s late striker would give the Stags the win which, on the basis of possession, they surely deserved on the day.  Within three minutes of coming on as a substitute, ‘Muzza’ was on hand to blast the ball low and hard into the net after a miscued headed clearance fell to his feet 15 yards out.
It was a great personal triumph for Murray too, responding to fans’ criticism of his performance at Northampton seven days earlier.  The match-winner would later acknowledge the solidarity within the Stags’ squad, talking of “pulling everyone together” during these early, testing times – players, management and fans alike.
Ollie Palmer’s introduction as a substitute with 20 minutes remaining was a rare piece of good news on the injury front for Mansfield.  The former Havant & Waterlooville striker had left the field at Northampton in considerable pain seven days earlier, and was expected to be out for two to three weeks with ankle ligament damage.
Paul Cox will be heartened too by having another option in attack for Tuesday evening’s home clash with Newport County, when Matt Rhead will be eligible for selection for the first time this season.
Shortly after the game, Cox also praised the “incredible amount of character” which the players had shown in the face of those recent setbacks – the numerous injuries, the two narrow defeats, and Oxford’s equaliser today which, for a few minutes at least, looked to have derailed Mansfield’s quest for their first win of the season.
With that fighting spirit and will to win within the squad, however depleted in numbers it may be, Stags fans can still be confident of repeating that roar of celebration on a regular basis as the season unfolds.

NB.  Much of this article was first published on The Match, with a little extra content added to the blog version.

10 August 2014

False start

Saturday 9th August 2014
Sky Bet League 2
Northampton Town 1-0 Mansfield Town 
Sixfields Stadium
Attendance: 5202 (away support 900)
“GLAD all over” was the tune blaring out of Sixfields Stadium’s new PA system as fans filed out of the ground after the final whistle this afternoon.  But it was the home supporters, not the travelling Stags fans, who were in the happier mood, as the Cobblers had just edged this opening day fixture with a single first-half goal.

Long before matchday, Mansfield’s away support had already made a fine start to the new season.  The last of the 900 tickets for the South Stand had been snapped up 11 days earlier, and an uncharacteristic bout of optimism had broken out on Stags fans’ messageboards and on social media in the build-up to the start of the League Two campaign.

For the Stags away following, the scene this afternoon must have felt similar to the one they experienced on opening day one year ago.  Then, 1500 of the Stags’ faithful had gathered at Scunthorpe United, in another out-of-town stadium of the late 20th century, to be part of the occasion where their team marked its return to the Football League after a five-year absence.

The 900 who were able to get tickets for today's game were in predictably buoyant mood pre-match.  The sun shone brightly over Sixfields, and fans of both sides gathered for drinks and chat on the grass verge at the back of the West Stand.

Northampton's home ground is currently restricted to just three stands, with the East Stand having been demolished over the summer.  Its replacement, which will also include executive boxes and a lounge, is due to be completed within the next two months, according to the chairman's programme notes.  But today, curiously, just a man and women sat on the concrete steps on that side of the stadium, the former frequently acting as an unofficial ball boy when needed.

Pre-season had gone well for Mansfield this summer.  Supporters’ initial anxiety about budget cuts and a reduction in the size of the first team squad had been quickly forgotten as new faces arrived at the club during July.  Four wins in six warm-up games, the only loss coming against a strong Aston Villa side, had been a major confidence-booster too.  Most supporters who attended those pre-season fixtures had been encouraged by the new signings, and five of manager Paul Cox’s summer acquisitions were in the starting line-up today.

Some of those new faces brought a continental feel to the Mansfield team for this opening day fixture.

In goal was Sascha Studer, the 22-year-old goalkeeper from Switzerland, who has already begun to establish himself as a fans’ favourite following promising performances and three clean sheets during pre-season.

There were also Football League debuts for striker Alex Fisher and midfielder Fergus Bell, two players whose careers have run mostly in parallel for the past four years.  Both spent time at Glenn Hoddle’s academy in Spain, before going on to play together in Belgian and Italian football until their arrival in the East Midlands this summer.

There were first competitive Stags appearances too for Simon Heslop, the 27-year-old midfielder who spent last season with Stevenage in League One before being released in the summer, and Rob Taylor, former Port Vale left-winger, the latest addition to the squad having signed a one-year deal only last Tuesday after impressing as a trialist in pre-season.

For Mansfield Town, a promising pre-season has often not translated into to a good start to the real thing.  Goalkeeper Studer’s full debut in English football was to turn sour when Northampton scored the only goal of today’s game in the 26th minute.  The Swiss stopper ran furiously towards the referee, claiming he had been impeded when attempting to collect a corner from the Stags’ left, as the unmarked Kaid Mohammed sent a bullet header into the roof of the net at the far post.  None of Studer’s team mates joined the protest though, and Paul Cox would later put the goal down to nothing more than poor defending in his post-match interview.

Mansfield’s clearest chance to get back into the match came in first-half stoppage time, when centre-back Ryan Tafazolli’s downward header was kept out only by a brilliant point-blank save from home ‘keeper Matt Duke.  Surprisingly, it was a save that would prove enough to earn Duke the sponsors’ Man of the Match award.

The Stags players remained in the dressing room for several minutes longer than the Cobblers during the half-time interval, but failed to disappointingly to seriously test Matt Duke again in the second period.

The lack of a quality goalscorer was a constant thorn in the Stags’ side last season. But in Liam Hearn, another close-season signing who appeared for the last 35 minutes today, Mansfield may have found the solution.  Manager Paul Cox has gambled on the fitness of a player who has just suffered two injury-wrecked years, but the 28-year-old former Alfreton Town and Grimsby Town striker is now ready to resurrect his career, and has already shown his goal-scoring instincts are as sharp as ever when hitting the net four times during the warm-up games while being eased back into the rigours of professional football.

There was a roar of excitement from the 900 when Hearn was introduced ten minutes after the break, replacing the injured Ollie Palmer.  Another similar roar followed a minute later as the new striker was about to bear down on goal with just Duke ahead of him, until the linesman's flag rudely interrupted what might have become a golden moment for Stags fans.

Sixfield's packed South Stand was becalmed as the clock ticked down, the fans' spirits being raised only as the fourth official announced a minimum of five minutes stoppage time, at which point Mansfield forced a corner which was followed by a crazy goalmouth scramble, before Northampton were able to clear the late danger.

Today will go down as a false start.  But Mansfield will be glad to have another chance to get out of the starting blocks, this time at home, when Oxford United visit One Call Stadium next Saturday.

NB.  Much of this article was first published on The Match, with a little extra content added to the blog version.