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.

25 July 2014

At Short Notice

Thursday 24th July 2014 
Pre-season Friendly
Boreham Wood 0-1 Watford
Meadow Park 
Attendance: 741

IT pays to be flexible when planning trips to pre-season friendlies.  At the start of this month I had been looking forward to seeing my two favourite south-eastern teams, Boreham Wood and Enfield Town, meet here at Meadow Park on 12th July.  It wasn't to be - due to a change of plan in the meantime, that fixture will now be taking place two junctions clockwise round the M25 at the Towners' Donkey Lane home next Tuesday.

In my native East Midlands, fans of Mansfield Town and Birmingham City were left disgruntled last Friday when their teams' scheduled meeting at One Call Stadium was called off with barely 24 hours notice following police intervention.

And then there was the question of Watford's annual visit to their south Herts neighbours Boreham Wood.  It was little more than 72 hours before tonight's kick-off that the news came through that this fixture would be happening at all this summer, and that manager Beppe Sannino would be bringing a first team squad too.  (We had already known for some weeks that the Hornets will be hosting Coventry City at Meadow Park on 30th July, but that's another story.)

Details were soon available on both clubs' websites.  While doing my pre-match research, I couldn't help but notice that the photograph of Meadow Park's splendid new West Stand which Watford FC used to advertise this fixture looks uncannily like the one I took before the Dorchester Town game last January.

It was a fine summer evening in Borehamwood, with a fresh breeze replacing the particularly sticky conditions of the past week.  I opted to watch the first half from the newly-opened West Stand, among a crowd once again dominated by away fans.  Plenty wore yellow Watford shirts from various eras; some opted for the Hornet's new Notts County-style away shirt, with its black and white stripes at the front and the all-black back - won't this cause a colour clash with the referee?

Showing their Championship credentials, the visitors generally dominated the opening half-hour.  Matej Vydra will have been disappointed to only strike the base of the post when well-placed after 20 minutes, and Ikechi Anya forced a fine save from Wood 'keeper James Courtnage a minute later.  It was shortly after the drinks break on the half-hour mark that Lloyd Dyer earned himself a stern talking-to from the referee after diving over Courtnage's outstretched arm.

Wood's second choice 'keeper would later earn some of the loudest applause of the evening when he parried a Vydra shot from Almen Abdi's near-post corner on 62 minutes, and moments later at the other end Graeme Montgomery's 30-yard volley forced Watford's Brazilian stopper Heurelho Gomes into a flying save.

As on Saturday against Arsenal, Wood finally conceded just short of the 70-minute mark.  This time Vydra found the net with a deflected shot from the edge of the box, the unlucky Courtnage wrong-footed on this occasion.

The Hornets' ex-Nottingham Forest midfielder Lewis McGugan rattled Wood's crossbar with a rasping drive in the closing stages, but the home team, battling to the end, came close to snatching an equaliser in the last minute when Matty Whichelow, once on Watford's books, dragged a shot just past Gomes' left-hand post.

It had been another good test for Ian Allinson's Boreham Wood squad, who have now played four games in eight days, against Premier League, Championship (twice) and League Two opponents.

Boreham Wood is a club which certainly tries to entice fans to its ground in pre-season every year with a string of home games against clubs from higher divisions.  Having already hosted Brentford, a strong Arsenal squad, Cambridge United and Watford, there are still visits from a Reading XI (just 24 hours after the Watford game) and an Arsenal XI to come, (six games in the space of 16 days), not forgetting that Meadow Park is also the venue for that all-Football League fixture between Watford and Coventry City next Wednesday.

If that wasn't enough for the club's staff to deal with, Arsenal Ladies meet Notts County here in a televised game this coming Sunday.  With a busy schedule like that, it's unlikely that Wood chairman Danny Hunter will be squeezing in any further fixtures at short notice before the season proper begins on 9th August.