Craig Priest and Emily Sykes write...
Monday 7th May 2012 late defeat to York City in the playoff semi-final second leg left 5,804 Stags fans in tears and heartbroken. Both of us were watching that day as Captain Adam Murray stood on the pitch in tears having fought so hard to bring success to the club.
Saturday 20th April 2013 a Matt Green penalty saw Stags edge past Wrexham and into the football league as Champions, 6,252 Mansfield fans in tears of joy. Both of us were watching that day as Captain Adam Murray stood on the pitch unable to contain his joy as he held the Blue Square Bet Premier Trophy aloft – what a difference a year makes!
After such heartbreak it’s extremely difficult to pick yourself up and go again, credit therefore must go to Paul Cox who was determined not to fail at the second attempt that said the season just gone wasn’t all glory, for a while it looked like it wasn’t meant to be.
It’s funny to think that back in October/November some supporters wanted to see the back of Paul Cox as we were stumbling in form, now with the title delivered nobody wants to see him go. Despite all the opinion on the terraces there’s only one man whose opinions count, hats off and bow down once more to John Radford whose patience and belief in Paul Cox has paid off – if he’d been rash and sacked the former Eastwood boss would we honestly be sat here writing about our Championship winning season, we highly doubt it – saviour comes in the smallest of forms.
Without doubt this season will be remembered forever, it is a story with a moral we can all live by – even in the darkest of lights you should keep believing and keep working because eventually if you do dark becomes light and failure becomes success.
With promotion comes a million and one different views and different tales, we have purposely kept ours quiet until now to let the euphoria and adrenaline calm – now it has please sit back and enjoy the journey one more time through our eyes, this is the Champions Chase how we got from Leamington to League Two.
July – We have kick-off
The hurt of York was still running deep as pre-season arrived however unlike the previous season there was a sense of readiness about Paul Cox’s side with the majority of the signings already made before a ball was kicked.
What was obvious after the York defeat was the lack of fire power as with Green suspended we failed to find another source of goals – Paul Cox, along with his new assistant Adam Murray and first team coach Richard Cooper, had addressed that by bringing in Kidderminster hit-man Nick Wright and Wrexham forward Jake Speight who between them netted over 30 goals the previous season, Speight of course back for his second spell at the club.
At the back there were spaces to be filled as starlet Luke O’Neill had left for Burnley, centre backs Martin Riley and Exodus Geohaghon both also moved on to pastures new after both turning down the deals offered by Cox. The Stags boss wasted no time in bringing in replacements as two familiar faces in Luke Jones and John Dempster put pen to paper along with former Luton captain George Pilkington and full backs Andy Owens and Lee Beevers.
In midfield there were new additions as Jamie Hand, Jamie Tolley, Godfrey Poku and Chris Clements also arrived – all of the squad new and old with the exception of the injured Jake Speight, Ross Dyer, Anthony Howell and John Thompson played at least 45 minutes at Leamington in the first pre-season friendly.
It was a beautiful day at the New Windmill Ground against the brakes however playing effectively two sides made it a boring game to watch with only the one trialist in left back Sam Benjamin on show – front man Matt Green netted the only goal of the game from the penalty spot in the 80th minute.
Next up it was another spilt game as two sides took on Hednesford, Lee Stevenson and Jamie Tolley on target a match which was followed by a goalless draw at Blue Square North outfit Gainsborough Trinity, the first time Cox had given his players more than 45 minutes apiece.
Further wins against Hucknall, Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Eastwood followed as the Stags boss continued to shape his squad and cast his eye over further trialists such as striker Ryan McGorrigan and defender Pablo Mills.
As July drew to a close Stags were unbeaten in their pre-season matches against both lower and higher opposition however despite positive results there was a sense that Paul Cox still didn’t know his strongest side and with the season’s opener finally approaching that wasn’t a good thing.
August – Caught in the starting blocks
There were three more friendly to fit in before the season could begin properly, to tight schedule went along way to suggesting that the management still hadn’t settled on their first choice squad. A narrow win over Boston was followed by a thrilling 3-2 defeat to Rotherham less than 24 hours later. The final pre-season friendly saw a Stags side romp to a 5-0 half time lead against Sheffield FC in a game which a car full of trialists failed to show for – the second half wasn’t so enjoyable, as the game finished 5-4 to Mansfield.
The preparations were over as the season’s opener with Newport arrived, Paul Cox added one more face in Junior Daniel from Macclesfield he was an used sub as Stags fell to a narrow 4-3 defeat to their Welsh counterparts. George Pilkington skippered the side for the first time on a day to forget especially for striker Ross Dyer who was injured early on. Pilkington would go on to captain one more game as Stags were slaughtered by Gateshead on their Tuesday nights trip to the north east, a game which sure midfielder Jamie Tolley substituted after 15 minutes, Pilkington withdrawn at half time and Lee Beevers sent off.
Paul Cox rang the changes as Stags sat second bottom after the opening two games. John Dempster and player coach Andy Todd were amongst those recalled as Mansfield took on 24th placed Kidderminster at Aggborough, the latter proved pivotal in the game as with 58 minutes played Stags were 2-1 down after throwing away the lead. Todd rallied the troops and set up Lindon Meikle to score twice as Stags registered their first win of the season.
Back at The One Call Stadium a second win was on the cards as Matt Green netted the only goal of the game against newly promoted Hyde, however their fortune didn’t last as two days later they were battered by Grimsby by four goals to one and picked up another red card as Gary Roberts received his marching orders for two bookable offences.
Before the transfer window slammed shut Cox brought back Exodus Geohaghon from Kidderminster a deal which didn’t go down well with the Harriers supporters, the giant defender Cox’s second defensive addition in the transfer window following the arrival of former Southampton Academy man Ryan Tafazolli.
September – Consistently inconsistent
As Green Day once sang ‘wake me up when September ends’ that was a rather apt lyric for Stags as they struggled through busy September. As the month began Geohaghon made his debut whilst Player Assistant Boss Adam Murray made an earlier than suspected return as Mansfield edged fast Woking 3-1 at The One Call Stadium.
Whilst Mansfield continued to show good form at home with a comfortable 2-0 win over Tamworth, away from home things weren’t so great as Paul Cox’s side were battered by Ebbsfleet 4-1 on a day which saw Matt Green and Paul Cox both dismissed and where the sun was so hot you could cook a three course meal off your forehead – things got slightly better with a home win over Braintree however a disappointing 2-2 draw away at AFC Telford saw Stags teetering on average.
The month drew to a close with a disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Hereford, a game in which Paul Cox made six changes which included a return for George Pilkington and a rare outing for keeper Shane Redmond following a training ground injury to Alan Marriott. In transfer movement Paul Cox acquired goalkeeper Liam Mitchell on a month’s loan from Notts County as cover for Marriott and Redmond, the latter shaking off the injury he picked up in training.
October – Get back on the bus
Usually by the third month of the season a team has found its rhythm and you get a feel for how the season will pan out – thankfully the feeling in October wasn’t the same at the end of the season as Paul Cox’s men endured another month of putting the fans through the mire.
The month began at Cambridge with the strange addition of Soloman Taiwo on a month’s contract following two average games for the reserves. Back in a 4-3-3 formation Cox’s men struggles against Cambridge as they played their first game under new boss Richard Money. Stags were marred by two defensive injuries either side of half time and slumped to a pathetic 4-1 defeat which led to a memorable rant by a highly frustrated Craig on air.
Things didn’t really get any better as Lincoln and Forest Green arrived at The One Call Stadium, a goalless draw with Lincoln and a narrow 1-0 win over Forest Green didn’t give supporters much confidence as they prepared for the long trek to Workington in the FA Cup fourth qualifying round – the Stags narrowly defeating the Blue Square North Outfit 2-1 thanks to a Jake Speight brace.
With renewed confidence on the road Stags headed to newly promoted Dartford hoping to end the month with victory, however two catastrophic errors in the space of a minute saw Paul Cox’s men disappointingly beaten again.
November – Poisoned Chalice
Last season November was statistically the poorest month for Paul Cox’s side in the Blue Square Bet Premier and whilst they improved on that slightly cup matches took the majority of the headlines this time around.
First up it was the FA Cup and the visit of one of the lowest ranked remaining teams at the first round stage in Slough Town, the underdogs frustrating Mansfield and holding out for a replay in what was a dull goalless draw at The One Call Stadium. Before the replay ten days later Stags slotted in a trip to Nuneaton and a home game with Southport and picked up four league points, coming from behind to snatch a 1-1 draw at Nuneaton and taking all three points at home to Southport thanks to Ben Hutchinson’s first minute goal.
It was soon time for the replay as Mansfield made the trip to Holloway’s Park to take on in form Slough. With loanee shot stopper Liam Mitchell now back at Notts County, youth team goalkeeper Ryan Hopkins was promoted to the senior squad and made the bench as Stags surrendered a one goal lead and needed a penalty shoot out to progress to Round 2 to face Lincoln City – Shane Redmond the hero as he saved Ollie Burgess’ shot kick.
The month continued as Stags looked to continue their improving league form, Matt Green came from the bench to rescue a 2-2 draw at home to Luton before a controlled and stunning performance from Stags saw them grab their first league away win since 18th August, goals from Matt Green, Lindon Meikle and the returning Luke Jones brushed aside Macclesfield.
The month however came to a disappointing end as another MTFC dumped Stags out of the FA Trophy at the first round stage – The Gladiators came from behind at The One Call Stadium to earn a replay before doing the same again three days later to beat what can only be described as a pathetic, weak and inexcusable performance, Paul Cox had made six changes giving certain players one last chance to shine, this including Gary Roberts who wasted the chance by being stupidly sent off. The match was a real low point in Mansfield’s season as the defeat sparked some ugly scenes between Paul Cox and a group of supporters.
December – Christmas cheer
Everybody loves December with Christmas just around the corner, following that disgraceful defeat to Matlock Paul Cox’s side did their upmost to make it a Merry Christmas as they reached the third round of the FA Cup.
December began with a lunch time trip to Lincoln City in the second round of the FA Cup – the match against our rivals proved both dramatic and highly entertaining as the sides played out a tense 3-3 draw in front of over 4,000 fans. Matt Green opened the scoring 20 minutes in but Stags again failed to hold on as the Imps levelled and then led within four minutes either side of half time as Alan Power and Jamie Taylor both found the target. Louis Briscoe netted a sublimed goal to level on 52 minutes before Power again put Lincoln ahead on 65 minutes. It looked as if Stags would be beaten however they remained determined and snatched a replay through Matt Rhead in the 93rd minute.
The adrenaline from that late goal spurred Mansfield on to take revenge on Ebbsfleet hammering them 4-1 at The One Call Stadium to give them yet more confidence going into the televised second round replay with Lincoln, both sides drooling over the prospect of Liverpool at home in the third round. Over 5,000 watched on as the sides went in level at 1-1 at the break before Louis Briscoe provided the heroics 14 minutes before the end.
Mother nature then intervened as adverse weather saw numerous postponements – Stags finally back in action on Boxing Day losing 2-1 at home to Alfreton as the arrogance of ‘we’re playing Liverpool’ sank in.
January – Happy New Year
Who knows what it is about a Paul Cox side after Christmas they always seem to do well and certainly began the year in style as Exodus Geohaghon, Junior Daniel and John Dempster netted to avenge the Boxing Day defeat to Alfreton.
Next it was the eagerly anticipated third round showdown with Liverpool – a game that will live long in the memory as fearless Mansfield came close to one of the biggest upsets ever against a footballing giant. New Liverpool signing Daniel Sturridge netted the opener after just eight minutes but squandered numerous other chances against the outstanding Alan Marriott allowing Mansfield in return to attack. Liverpool controversially doubled their lead after the break with substitute Luis Suarez’s well documented handball before Matt Green got his dream goal with 12 minutes to go. Stags threw everything including the kitchen sink at the Premier League giants but failed in their quest to get a deserved replay.
It was then back down to earth with a bang six days later as Kidderminster ran out 2-0 winners at The One Call Stadium, a result which spurred Stags on to improve their form for the remainder of the season starting with the midweek trip to Stockport which saw numerous changes including the return of Lee Stevenson who netted one of the three Stags goals as Cox’s men ran out 3-1 winners on a ice cold evening.
A remarkable month drew to a close at Southport as Murray and Stevenson overturned Shaun Whalley’s opener to take all the points home – commitments in the Cup of other clubs plus another spell of adverse weather saw more postponements at the tail end of the month, a only thing to keep Stags fans entertained was the transfer window, Cox sending out various players including Gary Roberts and acquiring just the one as left back James Jennings arrived from Cambridge.
February – Goals Galore
February was a productive month in front of goal for Cox’s men as they netted 21 goals conceding just six. Mansfield put right another wrong by battering Dartford 5-0 at The One Call Stadium before netting another five before half time the following week, a feat which saw Paul Cox given a new car by John Radford – The Stags battering Barrow 8-1 as Matt Green took home the match ball.
The Stags good run of form was soon dented with a mid week trip to Newport, Cox’s men beaten by two second half goals on what was a dreadful pitch in miserable conditions. Defeat didn’t harm the lads as they kicked on once more, an eventual 12 consecutive wins began with a 3-1 win at home to Cambridge and stretched through February as Hyde, Luton and Lincoln were all beaten.
Louis Briscoe with the only goal at Hyde where Stags were frustrated by Chris Dilo in the Hyde goal. Lindon Meikle provided the heroics and dramatics at Luton with a 90th minute winner before Matt Green scored a vital goal late on at Lincoln to perhaps atone for an awful display by the Stags defence.
March – Marching On
Struggling AFC Telford kicked off the penultimate month of the season as Mansfield became unstoppable, Green on target against the Bucks before Luke Jones and Louis Briscoe both netted away at Woking – a game which handed a debut to loan man Adam Chapman and which sparked a near brawl at the end of the match when a thuggish Woking supporter smashed the Stags dressing room window, don’t you just hate sore losers?
New boy Chapman then announced his arrival in style as he became the first player since Keith Cassells to net a hat trick on his home debut as Mansfield saw off Stockport County 4-1. Mansfield were formidable in their climb and showed that it wasn’t just the lower ranked sides they could beat as they brushed past play-off chasing Grimsby at The One Call Stadium with goals from substitute Matt Rhead and Adam Chapman – the win setting a new post war club record with eight consecutive victories.
Forest Green Rovers were next to be beaten by Stags as Lindon Meikle and Lee Stevenson found the target at The New Lawn before the Stags equalled an all time club record for ten consecutive wins as Louis Briscoe’s free-kick saw Nuneaton beaten.
Paul Cox was forced to dip into the emergency loan market to find a left back following the injury to James Jennings against Nuneaton – Greg Taylor arrived from Luton and helped set the only goal of the game at Tamworth as Stags ran out 1-0 winners in front of 1,172 Stags fans as defender Luke Jones scored once more.
April – The Final Chase
The Stags began a memorable April by guaranteeing their place in the end of season play-offs as they thumped Gateshead 4-0 at The One Call Stadium, keeper Alan Marriott claimed his 50th clean sheet for the club whilst the victory equalled the all time Conference record for consecutive wins held jointly between Burton Albion and Hereford United.
Next up for Stags was a Thursday night trip to rivals and FA Trophy winners Wrexham, a night which didn’t quite go to plan as Cox’s side searched for a 13th straight win. In front of a hostile crowd Stags saw a clear goal from Luke Jones ruled out before Matt Green hammered home the opener on 53 minutes. Mansfield were their own enemies as the hosts punished two mistakes, Dean Keates saw a free-kick fumbled into the back of the net by Marriott before Adam Chapman’s error allowed Danny Wright to power home what proved to be the winner with 11 minutes left to play.
Defeat had meant Stags had stumbled with five matches remaining, however being a game in hand over rivals Kidderminster it hadn’t cost them too much – all Cox’s men needed to do was win at Barrow to keep up with the Harriers. On a beautiful day in Barrow goals from John Dempster, Lee Stevenson and two from Matt Green got the Stags through, however it could have been so different had Alan Marriott not heroically saved Richie Bakers early penalty.
Refreshed from the Barrow victory Stags were refocused as Macclesfield came to town, the game another one in hand over Kidderminster – Cox’s men needed a result. Matt Green, Luke Jones and Lee Stevenson put Mansfield into a commanding three goal lead before Pablo Mills netted a late consolation for the silkmen, a huge result which meant if Stags were to win their next match and Kidderminster to draw – Stags were champions.
Things are never that simple and Braintree proved another reminder that arrogance has no place in football, as all the pre-match talk was about parties and league two. Matt Green settled the clear nerves as Stags began in rampant fashion, his eighth minute strike sparked pandemonium in the stands however that excitement soon turned to distraught as Matt Paine and Kaine Sheppard overturned the opener to seal the points for battling Braintree.
The defeat was soon hampered too as Kidderminster beat Wrexham in the evening kick-off meaning Stags had a simple task, to win the league, or at least stand a chance of doing so on the season’s final day against now out of the race Wrexham, they had to win at all costs at Hereford in their final game in hand – it was do or die and the title race, had turned serious.
What Mansfield had struggled with all season long was overturning leads of their opponents so the one thing they needed to avoid was conceding first. 627 Mansfield fans made the trip and made non-stop noise at Edger Street, the volume did decrease though when Ryan Bowman opened the scoring for the hosts on eight minutes.
Stags knocked on the door and were relentless in their assault on the Hereford goal, it was spirited and determined from the players as the passionate cries of the travelling support bellowed out – Matt Green rewarding their faith as he nodded home Lindon Meikle’s excellent cross on 37 minutes.
Momentum was firmly in the Stags camp yet they couldn’t break the stubborn resistance of Hereford who also threatened to turn the tables every time they attacked. Mansfield were battling on despite the loss of the outstanding Lee Beevers midway through the first half and saw efforts from almost everyone either saved or go astray – would the goal ever come, a draw simply wouldn’t be good enough.
Alan Marriott proved one of three heroes in the final minute as he kept out a well hit long range effort from Hereford, his long punt down-field sparked one last attack – Matt Rhead nodded the ball into the path of Green and the rest, is history. The ball dropped and bounced well, Matt Green swung back his size tens and BANG the ball hit the net and Stags had won – the pandemonium, ecstasy and joy was unbelievable, both in the terraces and in the press box, as it was in the final minute.
With one game remaining Mansfield had somehow put themselves in the driving seat, all they had to do was beat Wrexham and they were up. However, should they lose they could also grab promotion depending on what happened at Aggborough as Kidderminster took on Stockport, a side needing all three points themselves to avoid the drop – there were seven possible outcomes of which five would send Stags up, in truth though, they were only chasing the one: THE WIN.
The cameras watched on as the final game unfolded, over six thousand supporters had brought a ticket in the hope of witnessing a momentous day in Mansfield’s history. In truth it was a boring game, especially as Wrexham made numerous changes ahead of the play-off’s three days later. Mansfield were buoyed on and the noise tense, yet inviting – the roof raised for the first time on 40 minutes as Louis Briscoe was hacked down by Glenn Little for a penalty.
Matt Green took responsibility and came up against Andy Coughlin in front of over 150 visiting fans. The whole stadium took a collective deep breath before Green began his run – as the ball hit the net the delight was evident, had Green just netted the winner?
The game progressed and Mansfield’s desperate attempts to score a second failed, in the end they were penned in during the intense last minute which felt like an hour – the full time whistle seemed to take an eternity to blow but when it did, it was a relief – Mansfield Town were back in the football league, they were champions and their journey was over.
In the end it proved a thrilling chase to watch, there were moments when that painful stab inside said we’re not going to do this and then there were moments where the emotion was so high and burned so much with the feeling that it was meant to be.
Every Stags fan will remember how it ended forever, the roof went off when that final whistle blew at home to Wrexham and the buzz from seeing the glisten of the Trophy in the evening sun will carry us forward for a long time coming.
People talk about Champions beating everybody and ‘smashing the league’ but in reality that’s arrogant, a real Champion keeps fighting till the end and always believes in themselves – a true Champion is Mansfield Town FC!
So that’s it, it started with a Matt Green penalty at Leamington and ended with a Matt Green penalty at home to Wrexham, thank goodness he scored. See you in League Two.
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