13 October 2014

Honours Even

Saturday 11th October 2014
Sky Bet League 2 
Portsmouth 1-1 Mansfield Town 
Fratton Park
Attendance: 15 585 (away support 397)

"FIRST Division Champions 1949", "FA Cup Winners 2008" - the blue and white facade of Fratton Park's South Stand displays these and more reminders of Portsmouth FC's honours, the latter a particularly recent one.

Less than six years ago AC Milan were here for a UEFA Cup tie.  The illustrious Italian side, whose line-up on the night included Andrea Pirlo and Ronaldinho, needed a last-minute goal to salvage a draw after Pompey had led 2-0.

Financial collapse and three relegations quickly followed.  Last season, despite selling over 10 000 season tickets - a record for League Two - Portsmouth flirted with the drop into the Conference.

Today was Pompey's first home game since the Supporters' Trust announced that they had cleared all the debts, less than 18 months after taking over, a cause for celebration as the club continues its rebuilding process.

But on the pitch, a run of one win in six going into today's game was a reminder that there is still much to do for Portsmouth to climb back to anywhere near the heights they achieved in the Harry Redknapp era.

Mansfield arrived at Fratton Park following two consecutive defeats.  The players had been put through extra training during the week, a "back to basics" approach intended to prevent a repeat of the sloppy starts to games which had proved costly against Stevenage and Accrington.

With centre-backs John Dempster and Ryan Tafazolli both ruled out, until Christmas and for for the next month respectively, the Stags were left with just two recognised central defenders in the first-team squad.  Would Paul Cox be forced to abandon his preferred 3-5-2 formation?

That question was answered late on Friday afternoon when Mansfield announced the signing of 20-year-old Jamie Sendles-White on a one-month emergency loan from QPR.  The young defender, who has represented Northern Ireland at Youth and Under-21 level, went straight into the team as part of a three-man central defensive line-up.  Sendles-White went on to give a confident performance in an often intimidating atmosphere, despite barely having had time to train with his new team-mates.

It was also a day to remember for 16-year-old goalkeeper Adam Bishop, promoted from the youth team as cover for Sascha Studer, with Dimitar Evtimov not travelling south due his groin injury.
Mansfield Town went 37 years without visiting Fratton Park until last January, but now they were here for the second time in nine months.  607 Mansfield fans had gathered in the Milton End last season, an uneven terrace on which tightly-packed seats were installed in the 1990s.  Many of those fans had been enticed by the novelty of visiting a ground which hosted Premier League football less than four years earlier, and seeing the Stags play in front of a five-figure crowd.  Fewer supporters made the trip to the south coast today, but the 397 who did backed their team throughout.  
Mansfield enjoyed a highly promising first half in the bright autumn sunshine, with Fergus Bell getting into several shooting positions and Rakish Bingham causing the home defence frequent problems with his mazy runs.  Pompey, despite some early pressure, did not manage a shot on target until the 26th minute.  As they did at Fratton Park last season, the Stags were able to subdue the home crowd.  Several Pompey fans would contact BBC Radio Solent after the game asking for a refund for their team’s performance in the opening 45 minutes.
Mansfield's deserved breakthrough didn't arrive in the first half, but the Stags did take the lead less than a minute after the restart.
When midfielder Simon Heslop, collected a Matt Rhead flick-on from a Kieron Freeman throw, just outside the Portsmouth penalty area, he found space to send a shot low into the bottom corner past home keeper Paul Jones' outstretched right hand.
As the Stags continued in confident mood, only two smart saves from Jones prevented Bingham from extending the lead.
But Portsmouth’s double substitution in the 68th minute, as manager Andy Awford brought on Patrick Agyemang and Nigel Atangana, quickly changed the balance of play.  Within two minutes, Agyemang was able to get behind the Stags’ defence and turn the ball across goal from the byline for Paul Robinson to stab home from close range.
Roared on by the now revived home support , Pompey put the Mansfield back-line under increasing pressure as they threatened to turn the game on its head.
Much the same had happened here last January, with the hosts pressing forward after levelling the scores.  But this time it wasn’t all one-way traffic.  The Stags still looked to offer an attacking threat, and the ever-dangerous Bingham saw another powerful shot beaten away by the alert Jones.

Six minutes of stoppage time caused more nail-biting for the 397 in the Milton End.  Portsmouth's last chance came from a 25-yard free-kick in the 94th minute, Martin Riley having been booked for what looked like a fair challenge.  When Nicky Shorey sent his effort well over Studer's crossbar, a mass exodus from the North Stand followed.

Just like in last season's fixture, Mansfield forced a corner right at the end.  But there was no time to get the ball into the penalty area, as the referee blew the final whistle as soon as the ball was tapped short.

The 397 Stags fans all remained to give the players a standing ovation.  Unlike at Stevenage two weeks ago, none of the travelling support had left early today.

Injury news has been a big talking point at all Mansfield Town midweek press conferences this season, and next week is likely to be no exception.  Matt Rhead, Fergus Bell and Simon Heslop all left the field injured during the second half at Fratton Park.  But on the plus side, creative midfielder Chris Clements returned to the squad a week ahead of schedule today after recovering from a torn hamstring.  He even made a brief and unexpected appearance as a substitute just minutes before the final whistle.

In front of the biggest crowd they will face in League Two this season, Mansfield had been the better team for three-quarters of the game, and showed that they can play football too, with the likes of Bingham and Bell seeing plenty of the ball at their feet.  But Paul Cox's side had also shown resilience when needed to withstand Pompey's late pressure.

In the end, it was honours even at Fratton Park.
NB. prior to writing this blog post, I had already had a review of this fixture posted on The Match.

7 October 2014

The pride of Hertfordshire

Monday 6th October 2014
Vanarama Conference South
Boreham Wood 2-1 St Albans City
Meadow Park
Attendance: 538

"WE'RE the pride of Hertfordshire", sang the boisterous St Albans City fans during the second half at Meadow Park.  But it's neighbours Boreham Wood who are now top of Conference South, after edging out the Saints 2-1 in this local derby.

Wood announced big news just hours before kick-off.  Striker Junior Morias, scorer of nine goals in 14 appearances while on loan to the club from Wycombe Wanderers last season, had signed on a permanent basis, concluding a deal which manager Ian Allinson had been pursuing for the past four months.  The 19-year-old Jamaican was to make a huge impact on his return.

A damp and chilly Monday night was possibly not the ideal scenario for what an unknown source had described as Boreham Wood's biggest local derby in the club's 66-year history.

These south-west Hertfordshire neighbours, whose grounds are less than nine miles apart, were separated in the league table by just four places and three points at the start of tonight's contest, their first meeting since the 2010/11 season.  Back then, Wood were newly promoted at this level, and avoided a swift return to the Ryman League thanks to a major improvement in results after New Year.  Now, it's the Saints who are the new boys in Conference South, following their promotion from the Calor Southern League last May.

Both sides came into this fixture on the back of a defeat on Saturday.  Wood's 2-1 reversal at Havant & Waterlooville saw Allinson's team replaced by the Hampshire outfit at the top of the table, while St Albans City had slumped to a 2-0 home loss against Chelmsford City.

Keen to make up for that setback, Saints started brightly, backed by noisy support at the Broughinge Road end, where three large flags were being waved above fans' heads.  Wood keeper James Russell was almost caught out by Sean Shields' 25-yard shot, struggling to parry the ball which bounced just in front of him around his right-hand post.

Wood began to enjoy more possession as the half progressed, with Saints' full-backs John Kyriacou and Lee Chappell both making crucial goalmouth challenges, but the visitors were a frequent threat with their swift breaks down the flanks. 

There was a long delay when Saints centre-back and skipper Ben Martin needed treatment midway through the first half after sustaining a head injury in a goalmouth melée.  Martin was eventually able to continue with his head bandaged.

Bizarrely, only two minutes of stoppage time were added by the fourth official at the end of the first half.  But that was just enough for Boreham Wood to break the deadlock.  When Lee Angol rose to meet Sam Cox's cross from the right, Saints centre-back Darren Locke used a hand to deflect the goalbound effort onto the roof of the net.  After a lengthy consultation between referee and assistant, the inevitable red card for Locke and penalty for Wood were confirmed.

Lee Angol coolly drove the spot kick low and beyond the outstretched right hand of Saints 'keeper Joe Welch.

Despite beginning the second half a goal down and a man short, St Albans City's joint managers James Gray and Graham Golds initially continued with three at the back, and the Saints levelled the scores just five minutes after the restart.

James Comley, soon to join up with Paul Fairclough's England C squad, placed a defence-splitting pass into the path of Sean Shields, who swiftly rounded James Russell and fired into an empty net.

With both these teams having drawn just one out of 11 Conference South matches so far this season, what were the odds on the points being shared tonight?

There was a warm reception from the home fans as James Morias was introduced as a substitute in place of Austin Lipman in the 62nd minute. 
The new striker had already had one shot on goal blocked by Welch, before his moment of glory arrived in the 78th minute.  Receiving a short pass from Angol 30 yards from goal, he looked up and sent a dipping pile-driver past Welch to put Wood back in front.  It brought many home fans in the main stand to their feet - not a given at Meadow Park when the home team finds the net.

Saints immediately made a change up front, sending on Lee Clarke in place of John Frendo, the man who scored 43 goals last season, but who had been prevented by Wood's solid defence from getting a clear chance tonight.

The home fans had to endure four minutes of stoppage time, during which substitute David Keenleyside sent in a cross from wide on the right which just evaded a crowd of players and bounced past Russell's right-hand post.

There was still time too for Wood to break away, and when Graeme Montgomery crossed into the middle, Morias and Angol both went in for the ball, with Morias managing only to stab the ball wide from point-blank range.

The narrow win takes Wood back to the top of the Conference South table on goal difference, ahead of Havant & Waterlooville who were held 2-2 at Wealdstone this evening.  

As the St Albans players left the pitch after receiving a deserved ovation from their fans, the Wood team gathered in its usual post-match huddle with Ian Allinson in the centre of the pitch, while home supporters congregated at the front of the main stand, waiting to applaud their team from the field.

Now in their fifth season of Conference football, Wood continue to enjoy their underdog status at this level, where they punch at the same weight as many clubs who enjoy much larger local support.  This year the club has already celebrated winning the Herts Senior Cup, staged the official opening of Meadow Park's new West Stand, and seen the continued growth of its sporting and educational programmes.

It had been a lively contest between these two neighbours under the floodlights, fitting of a local derby.  Saints' James Gray was rightly proud of his team's performance, while his opposite number Ian Allinson thanked the home fans for their strong support on the night.

Both teams now switch their attention to the FA Cup 3rd qualifying round this coming Saturday.  The race for that unofficial title of "the pride of Hertfordshire" is on.

29 September 2014

Stags in Herts

Saturday 27th September 2014
Sky Bet League 2
Stevenage 3-0 Mansfield Town
Lamex Stadium
Attendance: 2820 (away support 292)

AWAY trips with Mansfield Town continue to bring no joy to Stags fans based in London and the south-east.  After this latest defeat, it’s now four losses in four outings in this region, following the previous fruitless journeys to Northampton, Dagenham and Wycombe.

As Mansfield supporters gathered under the warm late September sun for pre-match refreshments at the Broadhall Suite, there was an optimistic buzz (often a sign of bad things to come).  Paul Cox’s team arrived in Hertfordshire following successive home wins against Morecambe and Carlisle, and those six points had lifted the Stags to eighth place in the table.

That optimism was blown away within five minutes of the first whistle, as Stevenage raced into a two-goal lead.

First, Chris Whelpdale raced away from Ryan Tafazolli down the inside-right channel to get on the end of Tom Pett’s through ball.  Although Stags ‘keeper Dimitar Evtimov blocked the initial shot, the ball ran free for Whelpdale to smash in the rebound.

Before the Stags had regrouped, ex-Stag Chris Beardsley again found space on the right to cross low for Charlie Lee, who escaped the attention of Liam Marsden and slid the ball past Evtimov.

It was a devastating start, and left Mansfield with a mountain to climb for the rest of the game.

Credit where it’s due - the Stags played their part in a lively first half from then on.  Big Matt Rhead went close with three headers, and strike partner Rakish Bingham struck the base of Chris Day’s left-hand post.

Reggie Lambe had been involved in much of Mansfield’s promising approach play.  The versatile 23-year-old, once on the books of Ipswich Town, signed for the club two weeks ago after experiencing Major League Soccer with Toronto FC and, most recently, a loan spell at Swedish club Nyköpings BIS.

Still working towards full match fitness, Lambe was substituted at half-time, part of a double change which saw the Stags switch to a 4-3-3 formation.

With an hour played Matt Rhead, who had won many aerial battles despite being pushed and pulled all over the place by home defenders, was also taken off.  But even without the height in attack, the front three of Bingham, Ollie Palmer and Alex Fisher still had to deal with plenty of high balls sent their way, and the Stags generally looked less of a threat than in the opening 45 minutes.  At a time like this, Mansfield were missing the creative potential of injured midfielders Chris Clements and Fergus Bell.

As the Stags searched in vain for a way back into the match, Stevenage increasingly exploited the gaps which opened up in the visitors' defence.  A third goal for the hosts had been on the cards for some time when it finally arrived in the 84th minute.

Roarie Deacon beat Liam Marsden too easily on the Stevenage left, racing past the young Stags’ full-back before crossing low to Whelpdale, who swept the ball beyond Evtimov.

That third goal prompted several of the usually loyal Stags travelling support to head for the exits, their team’s fourth defeat in five away matches now sealed.

The dressing room door remained locked for a good 45 minutes after the match, as Paul Cox and the players went through a lengthy post-mortem.

Keeping things in proportion, Mansfield have won five and lost five of their opening ten League Two fixtures in 2014/15, and sit outside the top seven only on goal difference. 
Away defeats like this latest one are hard to take, and today’s performance must rank alongside Dagenham & Redbridge as the worst of the season.  But Cox’s close-knit squad, tipped by many outsiders to struggle this season, has pulled together to put 15 points on the board before the end of September.  It’s not all doom and gloom.

Stevenage and Mansfield were meeting in the Football League for the first time today, their previous four encounters all having been in the Conference between 2008 and 2010.  Back then, the Hertfordshire club was still known as Stevenage Borough, but chose to drop the suffix from its name on promotion to the Football League at the end of the 2009/10 season.

The present-day club was formed as recently as 1976, following the demise of its predecessor Stevenage Athletic FC.  Athletic had a particularly short history, being around for only eight years after replacing Stevenage Town FC, a Southern League club which had gone out of business in 1968.  So the Lamex Stadium, or Broadhall Way, to give the ground its traditional name, has been home to three different Stevenage clubs since Town relocated here in 1963.

Current England C manager Paul Fairclough led the club to the Conference title in 1996, but they were controversially denied their expected promotion to the Football League (and what would have been a fourth promotion in six seasons) when Broadhall Way failed to meet ground grading criteria.  It would take another 14 years, during which time Stevenage took Newcastle United to an FA Cup 4th Round replay, reached a Conference play-off final and four FA Trophy Finals (winning two and losing two), before they finally made it into the top 92 under present manager Graham Westley in 2010.

Following on from the post-match comments from Wycombe boss Gareth Ainsworth two weeks ago, Westley became the latest League Two manager to make reference to Mansfield’s perceived style of play, this time in a pre-match interview: “We know exactly what we will get from Mansfield.  They will be physical and will give no quarter. They will be direct and bang the ball up to Matt Rhead.”

Yes, launching the ball towards the head of Rhead is certainly a key part of Mansfield’s repertoire, but creative midfielders such as Clements, Bell and Lambe – when fit – provide another dimension to the Stags’ game which some managers, and an element of the fanbase, seem to overlook.

Mansfield have a clear week to prepare for next Saturday's home game against Accrington Stanley.  That will be followed by another away match in the deep south - against Portsmouth at Fratton Park.  The London & South East Stags supporters will be eager to end their hoodoo there.

NB. My post-Stevenage review of recent events at Mansfield Town is published on The Match.