Craig Priest looks ahead to the season’s curtain raiser with Newport County...
Despite already taking in some 11 games over the course of pre-season, including one youth team fixture, I can’t hide my excitement for the forthcoming season. Again we start the campaign on the back of hurt, this time on our own stage rather than the big one – however this matters little as Paul Cox is not a man who spends his time wallowing in sorrow, he is a driven man who strives for success no matter the obstacles that stands in his way.
I’ve said it time and time again, this close season he’s not sat in the darkness searching for answers at the bottom of a bottle of Jack Daniels (other brands available, please drink responsibly), he’s had a cold shower, swallowed that lingering lump in his throat at strengthened what already was a strong ship – question is are we ready to set sail? In my opinion, yes we are.
Cox hasn’t had it plain sailing in the close season, being dealt some big losses with player and staff departure, however credit to him as what he’s lost he’s regained, maybe to a higher standard. An exit for full back Luke O’Neill was always on the cards with championship sides battling out for his signature, the young full backs set pieces were a key part of our dynamic last term – the two Jamie’s (Hand & Tolley) have proved more than a suitable replacement in that area. It may have been labelled one dimensional by some but it still got results, those worried about the ‘Exodus Theme’ never being heard at the One Call Stadium again need not worry as we replace one long throw merchant with two, hello Andy Owens and Lee Beevers – players who can’t not only replicate the Big Ex magic, but fill our weakened area at left back, especially the former. The solidness of Geohaghon and Martin Riley in the latter half of last term may have been split to Kidderminster and Wrexham respectively but has been replaced as we say hello to George Pilkington, Luke Jones and John Dempster – the trio of new arrivals will battle it out for a place in the heart of our defence with a fresh John Thompson, Ritchie Sutton and potentially Pablo Mills, things aren’t looking too bad. Off the pitch Cox lost his able and knowledgeable assistant Micky Moore to his old college tutor job and a part time role with newly promoted Nuneaton, skipper Adam Murray steps into the breach as his playing career slowly ebbs away with injury whilst Richard Cooper, Cox’s former Eastwood number two, joins as first team coach – let us not forget Andy Todd either!
It’s shaping up to be an entirely new squad with 11 new additions coming on board, well 12 once the paperwork for Macclesfield wide man Colin ‘Junior’ Daniel has finally completed, the 12 new boys along with four youth team graduates are added to 15 surviving faces from last term to form the strongest squad I’ve known Mansfield Town to have in my ten years following them. The competition for places means for once the team does not pick itself, it’s refreshing to be able to say that after so many seasons of ‘Here’s our set 11 and here’s our fringe players that will do a job if we need them’ – A successful club for me is not built around 11 players, a successful club is prepared from top to bottom and are prepared to play in any formation and adapt to any situation – is this the case for the class of 2012-13, having witnessed pre-season I can say yet it is.
Another thing that a successful club has is strong individuals, people who can lead and inspire, step forward John Thompson. Last year is a tale of horror for the Irish defender, injury set back after injury set back all stemmed from one fatal night in Ilkeston – Thompson himself in a recent interview stated he came close to quitting, the fact he didn’t is testament to his character and just goes to show that what doesn’t destroy you can only make you stronger. The battling quality shown by Thompson during his struggle is ideal captain quality, the games the former county skipper has played this pre-season he has looked solid at right back and really up for the challenge of promotion – never under estimate that inner desire.
The captaincy issue, still yet to be revealed, is another of Cox’s happy headaches and like the team news, is still unknown to us supporters. George Pilkington, who skippered Luton last term, appears to be front runner having donned the armband five times during pre-season – the aforementioned Thompson isn’t far behind with three of his five appearances being as skipper. Other captains in pre-season have included John Dempster (2) Jamie Hand and Andy Todd with one a piece.
Throughout pre-season we’ve not been able to tell what Paul Cox judges as his strongest 11 giving players a pretty equal share of the ten senior pre-season outings which has seen eight victory’s, a goalless draw and a very narrow defeat. Cox probably has a rough idea of his side for tomorrow, that said I imagine he’ll have got home from training earlier to find bedding on the sofa from his wife with a polite note saying she will not be awoken by his team selection nightmares! Am I worried that Cox won’t pick the best side possible? Not in the slightest, everyone has quality in our squad.
Our opponents tomorrow are a reflection of ourselves kind of from last season, they faced a difficult campaign last time around and finished just six points from the relegation zone, an FA Trophy final appearance at Wembley the highlight of another tough season for the Welsh outfit, it’s just a shame that they, like us, we’re beaten. Justin Edinburgh has swept the changes bringing in 11 new faces (included two promoted youth team players) and letting 15 move on to pastures new. The additions the former Grays and Rushden boss has made have been strong to the front line with Jefferson Louis adding experience whilst Danny Crowe and former Stags favourite Aaron O’Connor adding pace and goals. Other additions for Edinburgh’s Exiles include experienced midfielder Michael Flynn from Bradford City, goalkeeper Alan Julian from Stevenage and defender Tony James from Burton Albion. The Welsh outfit who have now moved back to Rodney Parade for the forthcoming season have enjoyed a strong pre-season and will be a very tough side to break down, if they maintain momentum they could be enjoying a play-off chasing campaign rather than endure another relegation scrap.
Last Time We Met
Last term as we know at Field Mill as was, it was Anthony Hudson in charge of the Welsh side as they we’re hammered 5-0, in the reverse fixture it was Stags who we’re beaten as Justin Edinburgh’s development of Newport continued, the 1-0 victory for Newport only one of two league defeats for Cox’s rampant Stags (excluding the play-offs) from Boxing Day onwards.
Tomorrow’s BSBP opener will be the third league meeting at the One Call Stadium between the pair, with one Stags win and a draw written in the history books. Mansfield have a good enough record on opening day having yet to be beaten during the spell in the conference, winning two and drawing two of the four openers so far. The visitors Newport have struggled on opening day in recent years, their last opening day victory coming in the 2005-06 season when they began their Blue Square South season with a 4-1 victory over Carshalton Athletic, there two seasons in the conference premier have seen two defeats so far.
Paul Cox as mentioned has a tough task on his hands in picking 11 from the squad he has because of the sheer quality! One man looking doubtful is left back Andy Owens with Lee Beevers or Andy Todd the two back up options should Colin Daniel’s paperwork not be completed. One man defiantly out is Ritchie Sutton who completes his one match ban following that Red card in the play-off semi-final, to my knowledge nobody else is suspended and therefore available for selection.
If your unable to get to the One Call Stadium tomorrow then join Mansfield Matters throughout the afternoon as we bring you regular updates on 106.9FM and on our MM-LIVE page, build up begins at 2pm with Wayne Briggs returning to join me in the press box.
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