15 September 2014

12th Man

Saturday 13th September 2014
Sky Bet League 2
Wycombe Wanderers 2-1 Mansfield Town
Adams Park
Attendance: 3106 (away support 261)

"MANSFIELD are renowned for their physicality and long ball game, and they didn't disappoint".  The post-match comments from Wycombe Wanderers manager Gareth Ainsworth seemed harsh, given the contribution the Stags had made to an entertaining game at Adams Park.

Ainsworth's words left me wondering if today's referee, Darren Deadman, had punished the Stags simply for their reputation, as a series of puzzling decisions had turned the game against Mansfield after they had made a bright start to the contest.

Wycombe's Adams Park, also home to Premiership Rugby team Wasps, must be one of the most picturesque grounds in the country, located on the edge of the Buckinghamshire town and with the steep, green hills of the Chilterns on three sides.

The stadium facilities are excellent too.  Stags fans were offered exclusive use of the Honours Lounge for a pre-match gathering today; some also found their way to the spacious Vere Suite, where the Arsenal v Manchester City match was being broadcast live on multiple screens.

"Mansfield aren't a big club - they don't get many supporters", were the words uttered by one home fan to his grandson (I presume) in the club car park as I made my way round to the Dreams Stand.  How do we define a big club?  According to www.footballgroundguide.com, Wycombe's average home attendance last season was 3681, a little higher than Mansfield's 3385.  Certainly the Chairboys have done well in establishing themselves in the Football League since Martin O'Neill led them out of the Conference 21 years ago.  O'Neill's team then achieved back-to-back promotions, climbing into the third tier (now League One) via the play-offs in 1993/94, and the club remained at that level for ten years, also enjoying a memorable run to an FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool in 2001.

Last season it was at Adams Park that Mansfield Town scored their first goal and recorded their first win since their promotion back to the Football League, Ollie Palmer heading the only goal of the game on 17th August 2013.

And it's thanks to Mansfield Town's help that Wycombe Wanderers are still a League Two club in 2014/15.  On the final day of last season, the Chairboys would have been relegated, despite winning 1-0 at Torquay, had the Stags not beaten Bristol Rovers at the Memorial Stadium.  In the end, Mansfield's win, secured by a 36th-minute goal from Colin Daniel, was enough to send Rovers down to the Conference and save Wycombe.

According to chatter on a Wycombe fans' messageboard last week, the home fans were planning to give a standing ovation to the Stags supporters after 36 minutes of today's game as a thankyou for the result at Bristol.  It hardly materialised in the end, with only isolated and barely audible pockets of applause breaking out around the ground when the time came.

Much had already happened on the pitch by then though.  Mansfield made a dream start to the game, with young striker Rakish Bingham, a scorer on his Stags debut at Exeter last week, having two efforts pushed out for a corner by Wycombe 'keeper Matt Ingram in the opening four minutes.  It was from the second corner, taken from the right by skipper Adam Murray, that Matt Rhead rose unmarked to power home a header and give Mansfield an early, deserved lead.

Despite taking their corner count to five inside the opening 20 minutes, the score remained 1-0, and the Stags were knocked out their their stride just before the half-hour mark by a controversial penalty awarded to the home team.

No-one in the ground reacted when Paul Hayes sent a 25-yard shot well wide of Dimitar Evtimov's left-hand post, possibly with the aid of a slight deflection.  No-one, that is, except for referee Darren Deadman, who immediately blew his whistle, pointed to the penalty spot and showed a yellow card to Mansfield centre-back Martin Riley for handball.  It was a decision which seemed to take everyone by surprise.

Making the most of his good fortune, Hayes took the spot kick himself and drove the ball low, just past Evtimov's left hand.

Stags still appeared shaken by the penalty moments later when a slip by Ritchie Sutton allowed that man Hayes to break clear down the Wycombe left, before crossing to the inrushing Aaron Holloway, who somehow lifted the ball over the bar from four yards out.

It was a galvanised Mansfield team which came out for the second half.  Paul Cox's side would eventually win 16 corners in the 90 minutes, with Matt Rhead providing his usual aerial threat, despite being watched more closely by the home defence as the game wore on.

Wycombe's 77th-minute winner came moments after Stags had appealed for a foul on 'keeper Evtimov, who appeared to have both hands on the ball when challenged on the ground.  As the ball then came back into the box from the Chairboys' left, Hayes sent a header across goal for Peter Murphy to nod in the winner, taking an accidental blow in the face for his trouble.

Two further incidents in the last five minutes added to Mansfield's annoyance.  First, Murray's pull-back from the byline hit the hand of a Wycombe defender, right in front of the away fans, but possibly on the referee's blind side.  Shortly after, a push on Stags substitute Ollie Palmer on the edge of the box saw Mr Deadman surprisingly give a free-kick the other way.

It became too much for Mansfield boss Paul Cox.  As the clock ticked into stoppage time, Stags' Chris Clements hesitated before taking a free-kick; Cox kicked a water bottle in frustration, and was ordered from the touchline by the referee.  In an uncharacteristic show of empathy with their manager, many of the travelling fans stood to applaud Cox as he disappeared down the tunnel.

A game which had started so promisingly had turned sour for Mansfield, and the Stags fans who gathered at the front of the stand after the final whistle certainly vented their anger at Mr Deadman as the officials left the pitch.  This was after those same fans had applauded all the players, suggesting that the Stags supporters were not faulting their team's effort and performance today.

As Mansfield now move on to a week which brings two home games, against Morecambe on Tuesday and Carlisle United next Saturday, the fans will be looking for the Stags to deliver a similar level of performance, but with added end product.  It will be interesting to see what the opposition managers make of that too.

NB. My post-Wycombe thoughts first appeared in an article on The Match

6 September 2014

In Honour of Non-League Day

Saturday 6th September 2014
Ryman League Premier Division

Enfield Town 0-4 Maidstone United
Queen Elizabeth II Stadium
Attendance: 652

"THANK you, sir - enjoy your visit", said the lady who handed me my match programme.  It was a typically warm welcome for fans arriving at the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium on this bright and warm September afternoon.

Yesterday Enfield Town had posted a message on social media advising that their car park could get full well before kick-off, and suggested those driving to the ground should arrive early.  A big following from the visitors, Maidstone United, was expected for a fixture which was likely to attract one of the biggest gates of the season to Donkey Lane.

To add spice, today was also the fifth official Non-League Day, and with neither Spurs nor Arsenal playing this weekend, there was even more reason to anticipate a much larger than average crowd for this game.

Fans approaching the ground could hear the buzz from the elevated Butler's Bar from some distance away, as well as the frequent cry of "Programmes!", encouraging all who came through the turnstiles to part with £2 for a copy of Enfield Town's excellent 36-page matchday magazine.

As fans gathered for pre-match drinks in the bar and on the neighbouring balcony, replica
Maidstone United shirts were prominent - some of the gold home kit, others the white away shirt.  It looked as though home fans could be outnumbered this afternoon.  But a huge blue and white ETFC flag draped over the railings at the front of the main stand seats served as a statement that Towners followers were here in numbers too.

There was an unexpected piece of pre-match entertainment, with the covered stand at the A10 end of the ground being officially renamed the SH Property Agents Stand, in recognition of a local business which has supported Enfield Town FC financially since the club's formation in 2001.

Unfortunately the tarpaulin covering the new sign on the stand roof stubbornly refused to move on cue, and it took a special effort from groundsman Jack Lucas, climbing up onto an advertising board and stretching across perilously, to finally unveil the name of the stand's new sponsor.

For the second time in under a year, Enfield Town are under new management..  Ex-Braintree Town stalwart and, until very recently, Towners' assistant manager Bradley Quinton was promoted to first team boss following the shock departure of George Borg 12 days ago.

Despite Quinton having made a dream start with two wins in the past week, six points which had lifted the Towners to 15th place in the Ryman Premier table, this afternoon's game would be a tough test against the early league leaders and one of the pre-season promotion favourites.  The Stones are a club which - in its previous incarnation - was a Football League member between 1989 and 1992, and after winning seven of their first eight games, already look as though they could be heading for a fascinating dual at the top of the table with their equally ambitious Kent rivals Margate as the season unfolds.

With both teams having a substantial number of vocal fans gathered behind each goal, there was a good atmosphere among the shirt-sleeved crowd under the warm and hazy September sun.

Continuing their strong form, Maidstone were ahead after 15 minutes when Alex Flisher rose at the far post to head past home 'keeper Nathan McDonald following Dean Pooley's cross from far out on the Stones' right.

Flisher was to miss another glorious chance just before the half-hour mark.  Latching on to Tom Mills' through ball, the visitors' number 11 beat the advancing McDonald, but saw his shot drift just past the post.

During the half-time interval, the official attendance of 652 was proudly announced over the tannoy.  Less proudly for Enfield Town, the game was effectively over within five minutes of the restart.  After less than 60 seconds play, the Towners were caught napping,  as Matt Bodkin was allowed to advance unchallenged before drilling a low shot into the corner past the static McDonald from the edge of the box

Four minutes later the visitors were three-up when James Rogers turned in Frannie Collin's right wing cross at close range.

Controversy followed just before the hour mark when Towners' Nathan Livings received a straight red card for what the referee considered a two-footed tackle on Jack Parkinson.  The home players were adamant it was a fair challenge and a mass brawl and countless blasts from the referee's whistle soon followed, with both number 4s, Ryan Doyle and Steve Watt, eventually getting a yellow card each for their part in it.

Enfield Town manager Bradley Quinton subsequently brought himself on as a substitute in an attempt to get his team back into the game, but the Stones were to add a fourth goal 14 minutes from the end.  This time a long throw-in from Flisher on the right, something which had been causing the Towners frequent problems during the afternoon, was headed down and in by Watt.

There was plenty of abuse for the referee as he left the pitch at the end of a game in which the home team had suffered a red card and had a couple of penalty appeals for hand ball ignored.  Fans continued to debate the Livings sending-off, with many believing he had made a fair tackle and been unlucky to be penalised.  Video footage from the camera perched above the tunnel should help in telling the true story.

This was a heavy defeat for Enfield Town, albeit against one of the strongest teams they will face in the Ryman Premier this season.  But on Non-League Day, that sizable crowd of 652 had helped boost the club's finances.  Certainly the away fans, and hopefully all the non-regulars who came to support the Towers too, enjoyed their visit.

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.