Craig Priest writes....
After a career spanning 15 years, five clubs and various honours, it came as a massive blow when Rhys Day announced his retirement from the professional game back in April, following another injury set back after 24 months of constant setbacks. The fatal game was back in January at Rainworth MW, a game in which Rhys was on the way back to full fitness at too his own admission, was feeling the best he had for years.
Sometimes that’s the way it goes, however to a man who always gave his all at the heart of the Stags defence no matter what the fixture, you can’t help but curse life’s fate on this occasion as a career ends before its time. Rhys, who arrived on loan from Manchester City back in 2002 during our relegation campaign, helped sure up a leaky defence and helped make the pain of relegation seem less, well painful!
Thinking back, it’s difficult define the moment that Rhys attained legendary status because of his massive contribution in over a hundred games in the Amber and Blue, however I can pinpoint the moment that marked and demonstrated his professional grace and helped the Stags onto a memorable win. The match in question is most remembered for a certain Liam Lawrence’s stoppage time winner in front of the travelling fans, yes you got it – Chesterfield away, January 18th 2003. Former Stags striker Shane Bradley had come on for the enemy and lasted 90 seconds before spitting in Rhys’ face and being shown a straight red by the referee.
It was pretty much the following season when Rhys came into his element, a regular face in the side which reached the play-off final at the millennium stadium, Cardiff, Rhys national stadium.
Moving on in 2006 to Aldershot Rhys achieved promotion and cup successes before moving to Oxford in 2009, where again he achieved promotion moving back to Field Mill in 2010 as one of David Holdsworth’s many signings, however a series of injuries saw Rhys unable to get a proper run in the side, missing our FA Trophy final and the opportunity to once again grace a national stage.
Yesterday was a really enjoyable day the One Call Stadium as former team mates and fellow team mates returned to wish the 29 year old Welsh centre half well for the future and help him say thank you to the fans that have followed his every move. Whilst Rhys remained humble in saying the game for him to say thank you, the 800+ supporters inside the stadium made sure Rhys new that the feeling was more than mutual. The applause for Rhys as he led the teams out onto the pitch holding his new born son in his arms was spine tingling, the photos say it all really, as Rhys struggled to hold back his emotions. The same can be said for what is a frankly defining image – at the full time whistle players from both the legends team and the current crop remained on the pitch to clap Rhys off whilst in the stands, every support stood to give the ovation the Welshman truly deserved. Walking down the tunnel, Rhys turned a final time and held one arm aloft looking towards the crowd, with the tears filling in his eyes, he knew that his playing days were over and that despite the lack of silverware, the days spent in the Amber and Blue of Mansfield Town had been his best, the days he’d cherish forever.
I have been privileged to chat with Rhys on numerous occasion, he talks with passion about the game and his knowledge is second to none, don’t be surprised in years to come to see Rhys in a Stags tracksuit over in the dugout, in charge of either the first team, the reserves or youth football, a place which Rhys eyes as the next step. The say great players don’t make great managers; Rhys will be the exception to the rule – a fantastic player, dominant in the air, strong in the tackle, wise off the ball and a natural born leader. A wonderful guy with excellent knowledge of the game and the banter to match.
Rhys Day defines the term legend, I feel lucky to have watched, worked with and spoken to a true footballing man on many occasion, the name and reputation of Rhys Day won’t stop in playing circles, it will blossom in the wider footballing world.
The match too was fitting of the man of whose honour it was in, a close but open encounter with serious phases of play blended in with comedy and the light heartedness for which Rhys is most known. Kevin Pilkington was on top form between the sticks for the legends, denying Lee Stevenson throughout the first half so much that Pilks actually inspired Stevenson to become a gloves man in the second half! The Notts County goal keeping coach who captained us to the play-off final in Cardiff was also busy keeping out Ross Dyer, Ben Hutchinson and Andy Todd. At the back for the legends, Tom Naylor now at Derby County slotted in like he’d never been away whilst his partner Des Walker lived up to his famous terrace chant ‘You’ll never beat Des Walker’. Down the left hand side, Adam Eaton who retired after his spell at Stags through a knee injury, defended resiliently and had Stags fans wondering ‘what if’. Wayne Corden still showed that magic on the left hand side of midfield however it was on the right where the years were rolled back as Bobby Hassell and Liam Lawrence played together for the first time since the heartbreaking defeat in 2004. The duo were on fire and helped set the opening goal on ten minutes, Bobby Hassell’s pass inside for Lawrence saw him switch play to Corden, who nipped past Todd before crossing in for Jason Lee to bundle home past Alan Marriott for 1-0.
The match remained in the legends favour for the majority of the first half with the aforementioned Pilkington denying Stevenson several times, allowing Hassell and Lawrence to combine attempting to feed Colin Larkin, Lord Barker and Jason Lee. The latter famed for his pineapple hair style back in his Nottingham Forest days soon became villain midway through the first half. The current crop won a throw in on the right and as the crowd chanted ‘Exodus’ for one final long throw, Jason Lee bear hugged the big centre back to stop him from going over to inflict certain damage on the legends team. The current crop were level with ten minutes to go before the break, Liam Lawrence upended Ben Hutchinson in the box, and the latter stepped up and converted the resulting penalty past a static Pilkington for 1-1.
The current crop of Stags star then took hold of the game with an additional two goals in five minutes, A Ritchie Sutton drive down the left hand side helped set Andy Todd up for 2-1 volleying in from the edge of the box before a Jon Worthington corner saw the ball sit for Lee Stevenson who riffled home a thunderous volley beyond Pilkington for 3-1 prior to the half time whistle.
The teams immerged for the second half with a few changes; most noticeably Lee Stevenson took to goal whilst Alan Marriott headed up front alongside Hutchinson. Marriott provided much entertainment showing close control and leaving Tom Naylor chasing a shadow with a great turn on the edge of the legends box, however the finish trickled just wide of Pilkington’s goal. Former Stag Andy White made it 3-2 with a tap in from close range after Junior Mendes had created on the left hand side; Iyseden Christie made it 3-3 with a wonderful curling effort, cutting back from the goal line to smash into the top corner with his left boot. Colin Larkin who scored at Cardiff but saw his effort chalked off for offside showed the on watching Paul Cox he’s got something to offer following his release from Hartlepool in the week, weaving past three current Staggies before drilling low beyond Stevenson for 4-3. The current crop made a few changes and those entering the field wore headbands to try and heal there hangover from the previous nights end of season dinner, it was Matt Green who levelled things with a delightful dink over Pilkington from a Meikle assist, at 4-4 Greens terrific again left Stags fans wondering ‘what if’.
The game then saw its most beautiful moment as Lee Stevenson bundled Christie over for a penalty. Rhys Day came off the bench to take the spot kick, kicking a ball for the final time in his playing career he replicated the antics of Liam Lawrence in that shootout in Cardiff, attempting to chip Stevenson but blazing over. Referee Russell Booth had other ideas and order a retake for an infringement, Day again took the spot kick, finding the top corner of the net meaning his last action was to score a goal in Stags colours, putting the legends in a 5-4 lead. Rhys celebrated with arms held wide, the Amber shirt read ‘Day 5’ as current skipper Adam Murray, playing on the legends side, leapt into Rhys arms for a celebration hug whilst fellow players from both sides, applauded Day’s final action as a professional footballer.
The comedy continued as Andy Todd and Tom Naylor enjoyed a play fight in the middle of the park, Todd was later dragged off the pitch by Pilkington as the player-coach lay down for a nap in Pilkington’s six yard box. Unbelievable misses from Andy White and breath taking plays for some of the old guard followed before the current crop of players played around with formations, wingers played as centre backs, centre backs played as strikers, you get the picture! In the end the gamble paid off, Martin Riley levelled the match to 5-5 with what can only be described as a 12 yard screwed bobbling pass into the bottom corner!
Appearing for the legends: Kevin Pilkington, Bobby Hassell, Tom Naylor, Des Walker, Adam Eaton, Liam Lawrence, Michael Brough, Colin Larkin, Wayne Corden, Jason Lee, Ritchie Barker, Jamie Clarke, Jake Buxton, Craig Mitchell, Adam Murray, Junior Mendes, Iyesden Christie, Andy White and Rhys Day
Appearing for the class of 2011-12: Alan Marriott, Andy Todd, Exodus Geohaghon, Martin Riley, Ritchie Sutton, Ross Dyer, Jon Worthington, Paul Bolland, Anthony Howell, Ben Hutchinson, Lee Stevenson, Adam Smith, Lindon Meikle, Luke O’Neill and Matt Green
The game ended level at 5-5 and whilst it may have been fitting for Rhys’ penalty to prove the winner, in the end a level score line was fair and fitting the occasion and in a way, whether intended or not, Rhys Day had given those at the One Call Stadium sometime to smile about following the devastation and heartbreak just days earlier.
Once again Rhys, we thank you, not only for putting on a wonderful day’s entertainment but for everything down the years, you have been a fantastic servant to the club, I for one wish you well in the coaching game and for the life ahead of you.
Farewell Rhys, and thank you.
There are a few extra’s I’ve saved for last, which you can see below.
INTERVIEW: Click here to hear from the man himself, as I chat to Rhys Day prior to kick off
INTERVIEW: Blackpool centre half Alex-John Baptise chats to me about his return to the One Call Stadium
INTERVIEW: Bobby Hassell chats to me prior to kick off upon his return to the One Call Stadium.
MORE PHOTOS: Take a look at a selection of shots from the match from James Williamson....
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