4 October 2015

Tales of the Unexpected

Saturday 3rd October 2015
Sky Bet League 2
Dagenham & Redbridge 3-4 Mansfield Town
Chigwell Construction Stadium (aka Victoria Road)
Attendance: 1597 (away support 193)

MUCH like our capital city’s famous red buses, two Mansfield Town away wins in the London & South East region arrived together.

After Tuesday night’s success at Stevenage, the Stags headed back south this weekend to another ground where they had never enjoyed any previous success.

Dagenham & Redbridge’s Victoria Road is the place where Mansfield bowed out of the Football League in 2008.  It’s a ground where they had failed to score a single goal in three previous visits.

But today was a day for creating happier memories on London’s eastern boundary.  In an afternoon of unlikely twists and turns, there was much for the 193 Stags fans in the Traditional Builders Stand to get excited, and exasperated, about.

Mansfield’s first ever goal at Victoria Road arrived after just six minutes – a glorious 20-yard volley from left-back Malvind Benning.

Surprisingly, a Stags defence which had been breached only six times in 10 games before today, then conceded three in a 23-minute spell.

Mansfield’s first goal from a penalty in two years made it 3-2 before half-time.

And with two goals in the last nine minutes, Stags came back from 3-1 down – away from home – to win 4-3.

Those Mansfield fans who made the journey to Dagenham on this fine autumn day had arrived in confident mood after the convincing 2-0 win at Stevenage four days earlier.

That confidence seemed fully justified when the visitors went ahead with only six minutes on the clock.  After Matt Green’s flick-on was headed out to the edge of the penalty area, the ball dropped to Malvind Benning, the Stags’ full-back sending a volley flying beyond the diving keeper Liam O’Brien.

But the Stags were rocked by an equaliser just three minutes later, as Matt McClure found space to shoot from the edge of the box and beat an unsighted Brian Jensen.

Another disappointment for the travelling support came on 11 minutes, as Ryan Tafazolli miscued a free header over the bar from close range after meeting Adam Chapman’s curling free-kick.

Events seemed to be turning in the Daggers’ favour.  Jamie McGuire, attempting to cut out a cross from the right, sliced his clearance against his own upright.  It was a let-off for a Mansfield team which was now losing the initiative.

Tafazolli was unlucky not to put the Stags back in front in the 27th minute.  Again meeting a free-kick from the left, the centre-back saw his downward header brilliantly clawed away on the goalline by O’Brien.

But two goals in two minutes from Ashley Chambers, as he twice got the better of Tafazolli, left Mansfield 3-1 down and with their proud defensive record in tatters.

The fightback began on 37 minutes, and it came through the Stags’ first goal from a penalty in two years.  When Matt Green was tripped as he turned and tried to squeeze between two defenders, the referee pointed straight to the spot.

Green, who had hit the bar from his last penalty six weeks ago, this time saw his spot kick squeeze under the body of O’Brien.

Right on half-time, the home keeper was in action again, tipping Green’s low 25-yard shot around his right-hand post.

There was no time for Mansfield to take the corner, as the referee brought an eventful first-half to a close.

During the break, Stags fans appeared shell-shocked at what they had just witnessed.

Those fans thought their team had drawn level seven minutes into the second half.  Green turned in Tafazolli’s flick-on at the far post, but the linesman’s flag, raised for an offside, abruptly ended the celebrations.

Despite Mansfield continuing to enjoy much the better of the contest, it looked as though it was not to be their day as the second half wore on.

Daggers’ veteran Jamie Cureton, on as a half-time substitute, twice went close to restoring his team’s two-goal lead.  Jensen expertly tipped his first effort over the bar after Tafazolli had been beaten by an awkward bounce from a long ball forward.

Cureton then saw his dipping shot from the edge of the box bounce just wide.

Then, the late turnaround.  With nine minutes remaining, Krystian Pearce’s towering header at the back post from Chapman’s corner brought the Stags level at 3-3.

Within five minutes, Mansfield were back in the lead.  Collecting a loose ball midway inside the Daggers half, Adi Yusuff skipped past a defender and, showing excellent composure, ran into the box before sliding the ball past O’Brien from a tricky angle.

There was still more late drama at the other end.  First, Jensen punched away a cross from the right.  As the ball came back across the box, Ayo Obileye sent his header over the bar, leaving the young Daggers defender punching the turf in frustration.

For the second time in a week, the final whistle brought joyous scenes for Mansfield’s travelling support to savour, as the players celebrated in the penalty area.  Fist-pumping salutes from Brian Jensen and manager Adam Murray added to the moment.

It’s been a good week to follow Mansfield Town away from home, with two hard-earned wins lifting the Stags to sixth place in the table.

In what will be a closely-contested League Two, the season is still in its early stages.  But, to use a phrase from school days, Murray’s team look like they are on the right bus.

30 September 2015

Winning in the County of Opportunity

Tuesday 29th September 2015
Sky Bet League 2
Stevenage 0-2 Mansfield Town
The Lamex Stadium
Attendance: 2509 (away support 163)
THE whole team coming over to applaud the travelling fans; a fist-pumping celebration from the manager - it was the perfect end to a Mansfield Town win in Hertfordshire.

Stags had been the better side in a scoreless first half against a poor Stevenage team.  Two goals within five minutes of the restart put Mansfield in command, after which they seldom looked under threat.

Just over a year ago, Mansfield had come to this ground and found themselves two down with less than five minutes played.  There was a just a brief threat of another bad start this evening.

Two minutes in, Stags keeper Brian Jensen was forced to acrobatically tip Tom Conlon's header over the bar after Ronnie Henry had found space to cross from the right.

It was a first-half of few chances, despite Mansfield enjoying the lion's share of possession.  But there was another scare just before the break, when Ryan Tafazolli blocked a goalbound shot from Chris Whelpdale who had cut in from the Stevenage right.

It was one of those games where you wondered if the Stags might be punished for not making their superiority count.  Those concerns were obliterated inside the first five minutes of the second half.

Two minutes after the restart, Tafazolli rose between two defenders to send a powerful downward header into the net.

Within another two minutes, 18-year-old home-grown midfielder Jack Thomas smashed the ball into the net from close range.  This came after Craig Westcarr had latched onto a quickly-taken free-kick and played the ball across the box when he might have had a shot himself.

Matt Green will be disappointed not to have made it 3-0 after finding himself one-on-one with Stevenage keeper Jesse Joronen, who spread himself to block.

It was a good team effort from Mansfield, described post-match by Adam Murray as "the perfect away performance", bringing a well deserved victory on a ground where the Stags had failed to take a point on three previous visits.

There are early problems though for Stevenage's new manager, former England international Teddy Sheringham, after a third straight defeat.  Two of his second-half substitutions brought boos from the home fans, and there were no positive comments to be heard, either from commentators or supporters, during the post-match analysis on BBC Three Counties Radio.

Having enjoyed their first success in four visits to Stevenage, the Stags will head south again on Saturday for a visit to Dagenham & Redbridge.  That's another ground where Mansfield have failed to win - or even score - on their three previous visits.

With the Daggers lying just one place off the bottom of the table after last night's results, Adam Murray's team will sense another opportunity to get a win on a ground where they have had no previous success.

27 September 2015

A Full-Time Job

Saturday 26th September 2015
Vanarama National League
Boreham Wood 0-1 Altrincham
Meadow Park
Attendance: 351 (away support 60)
ONE week ago Boreham Wood announced that the club is switching from evening to daytime training sessions, effectively turning itself into a full-time professional outfit.

Saturday's home defeat against an Altrincham side which arrived at Meadow Park one place and one point ahead of Wood in the table suggested that Ian Allinson's team may have a full-time job on its hands to preserve its hard-earned place in the National League.

A 10th-minute penalty, needlessly conceded when
Clovis Kamdjo tripped Ryan Crowther, proved enough to decide a poor game at Meadow Park.

Wood generally lacked cohesion, but almost snatched a point in stoppage time when Junior Morias' shot from the corner of the penalty area crashed back off the crossbar.

Whilst Wood are always likely to find life tough against the league's bigger clubs, defeats against the lesser lights suggest that the loyal Meadow Park supporters could be in for a long season.

It's to be hoped that the new training routine will achieve its aim of making Wood a more competitive outfit at this level.

My report for Real Footy Talk is here.

A dark cloud loomed over Meadow Park by the end of the game

25 September 2015

The Oval Ball

Tuesday 24th September 2015
Rugby World Cup, Pool C
New Zealand 58-14 Namibia
The Stadium, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Attendance: 51 820
"WE are pleased to confirm that you have been successful in your application".

It's 11 months since I received the e-mail confirming I had a place at the 2015 Rugby World Cup table.

Not that I follow the sport of Rugby Union closely, or even understand many of the rules, but the sports fan in me felt that being part of a World Cup in this country was something worth doing.  And London's Olympic Stadium, one of the tournament's 13 venues, is visible from my office window.

So, nearly a whole year in advance, 24th September 2015 became a date for the diary.  The event - a Pool C match between reigning world champions New Zealand and the African qualifiers, Namibia.

Fast forward 11 months, and Westfield Stratford City was buzzing on a mild autumn evening.  Fans flooding out of the public transport hub were directed by luminous-coated marshals in the general direction of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and its famous stadium.  Those marshals may not have been as cheery as the popular Games Makers of 2012, but they were efficient enough.

After France's victory against Rumania here 24 hours earlier, the former Olympic Stadium was continuing in its temporary guise as a rugby venue.  The adjacent Fanzone offered live music, food and drink, and a relaxed and convenient pre-match meeting point for the gathering crowd.

Inside the stadium, a green baize covered the running track on which the likes of Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Usain Bolt have triumphed in the past three years.

With the holders of the Web Ellis Cup meeting the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, much of the pre-match focus was on how big the All Blacks' winning margin would be, and how well Namibia, the Welwitschias, would be able to compete.

The early signs were ominous.  Two early tries took New Zealand into a 15-3 lead by the 13th minute.  In the meantime, a penalty - successfully kicked by Theuns Kotze - had at least put the underdogs on the board, and brought a loud cheer from the near-capacity crowd.

With less than 20 minutes played, the dreaded Mexican Wave broke out, after several failed attempts, making its way clockwise around the stadium.  Had the crowd lost interest in the rugby already?  But soon enough, a third try for New Zealand directed the audience's attention back to the pitch.

Right on half-time there was what seemed like an inordinately long delay while the referee consulted with the Television Match Official (TMO), before awarding the All Blacks' fifth try of the game.  Anyone who has been following this World Cup will know that delays like this have been a talking point since England and Fiji contested the opening game.  For someone like me, more used to watching Association Football, those consultations and the resulting hold-ups in play are puzzling and off-putting.

With the favourites going in 34-6 ahead at the break, there was no sign of an upset on the cards here.

By the time the second half began, a mass of press photographers had gathered at the south end of the stadium, which the All Blacks would now be attacking.  It was clear where they expected all the action to be.

But it was an event at the opposite end which brought most of the crowd to its feet in the 51st minute.  A try for Namibia, as Johan Deysel ploughed through several tackles to touch down, was a moment to savour for the underdogs, and one which the majority of the near sell-out crowd were keen to celebrate with the underdogs.

It was a pity the Welwitschias missed the conversion, denying themselves another small success and the crowd another reason to cheer.

Helped no doubt by the bottles and plastic glasses of beer which were being carried between concourse and seats throughout the evening, there was a relaxed atmosphere in the stands.  At an event like this you need to be tolerant of people getting up during the game to go to the bar, but at least there's generous legroom in this stadium for people to pass by without the entire row having to stand up to let them through.

There was no hint of aggravation though - something football could take note of.  It seemed like a family-friendly occasion, with no shortage of children in the crowd, even on a school night.  In terms of atmosphere, it was almost on a par with that heady summer of 2012.

Back on the pitch, and with under 10 minutes left on the clock, there was yet another long delay after Julian Savea went over the line for what would eventually be confirmed as the All Blacks' eighth try of the match.

To fans sitting in the south stand, the try seemed clear enough.  Was a referral really necessary?  By this stage, I was getting the impression that a referee in this sport cannot, or will not, act independently, but has to repeatedly hold up play by consulting the TMO for most decisions.  From a spectator sport perspective, and again with my association football bias, the whole game then becomes too disjointed for my taste.  Given the stoppages and referrals, by the time the match finally came to a close, an 80-minute contest had lasted nearly 100.

Whilst the neutrals in the stadium had enjoyed themselves, the reaction from the New Zealanders at the end appeared more muted.  The final scoreline of 58-14 was probably the minimum the All Blacks had expected from the game.

So, two months on from the Anniversary Games, this author had enjoyed another evening under the bright lights of London's Olympic Stadium.  And over three years after the joys of London 2012, fans are still flocking to the London Borough of Newham to enjoy top-class sporting action.
After the Bronze Final (aka the third/fourth-place play-off) takes place here on 30th October, the stadium will continue its transformation into the home of West Ham United, who are moving in for the start of the 2016/17 football season.  New retractable seating is to be installed on the lower tier, designed to cover the running track and improve the matchday experience when the arena hosts football.  A new playing surface is to be laid, and, according to the words of Hammers' Chief Executive Karen Brady in tonight's programme, the whole stadium is set for a claret and blue makeover to give it a West Ham look and feel.

Not wanting to hang around on this school night, I was soon weaving through the crowds, hot-footing it back to Westfield Stratford City.  The excellent Javelin service soon had me on my way home.

Eleven months after being allocated that ticket, my #RWC2015 experience was over.  Despite my lack of understanding of the sport, it had been worth the wait.

20 September 2015

Lost in Luton

Saturday 19th September 2015
Sky Bet League 2
Luton Town 1-0 Mansfield Town
Kenilworth Road
Attendance: 7939 (away support 262)
LUTON TOWN keeper Mark Tyler was selected as Man of the Match by today’s match sponsors.  It was a reflection of how close Mansfield Town had come to taking at least a point from this encounter at a warm and sunny Kenilworth Road.

Tyler pulled off notable saves to deny Matt Green, Craig Westcarr and Jack Thomas, in a game which was ultimately decided by Craig Mackail-Smith’s penalty just before the hour mark.

Luton Town, among the pre-season promotion favourites, but coming to terms with a poor return of just five points from their opening seven League Two fixtures, began this game seven points worse off than today’s visitors.  But Stags’ boss Adam Murray still considered his side underdogs going into today’s fixture, whilst maintaining that his side would come here with no fear.

Mansfield’s travelling support knew what to expect, based on recent visits to Kenilworth Road: a hostile atmosphere generated by a demanding crowd in this old-fashioned ground, tucked away among the narrow streets of tightly-packed terraced houses.

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