May 7th 2011 was an emotional day, I remember vividly being slumped in my seat in the Wembley press box trying to block out the noise and pictures of Darlington lifting the FA Trophy after sealing the game in the final minute of extra-time.
If anyone would have asked me then if, in two years-time, Stags would be a football league club again with a stable structure and a successful manager at the helm, I’d have laughed in your face.
Alas just over two years later, here we are a football league club with a successful manager who tomorrow, approaches a mile stone taking charge of his 100th league fixture as Mansfield Town boss.
From the first minute I met Paul Cox, I sensed success would come as I wrote on the day in my blog. There was just something in his tone which suggested honesty in his answers rather than the usual managerial media speak given by his predecessors, the intention to inspire, achieve and create a real family club was a real positive and I think we can say now that the former Eastwood boss has certainly achieved his goal, well part of it anyway as with Paul Cox you always get the sense that for him at least, the job is never quiet done.
That determination to always achieve more is an admirable quality which I believe a lot of players have brought into – we speak often about what’s the key behind these post-Christmas surges, I believe that a fair percentage of it is the determination to go one step further. It’s a fair point to make that half of the success wouldn’t have happened without the players backing and hard work or the financial input from the board, however it takes a good leader to get the players together and a strong mind to earn the boards trust with finances, especially when one wrong move can complete ruin a football club in today’s world – so hats off to Paul for that.
As Jessie J once sang, nobody’s perfect. Paul Cox will be the first to hold his hands up to mistakes and it’s true that not every player has brought into Cox’s vision – just ask the likes of Matt Bell, Paul Bolland, Joe Kendrick and Marcus Kelly to name a few, however for every error or misjudgement, there’s been a cure. Ask Matt Green two years ago if he ever thought he’d ever be a 30 goal a season striker, Ask Lee Beevers if, under any other manager, he’d bother playing on after popping out his shoulder – what about asking Matt Rhead if he’d ever leave his job at JCB to become a full time footballer and fans favourite? That list too, is endless.
During his tenure of 99 matches in charge, Cox has achieved a win percentage of 59% - he’s surrounded himself with a good coaching team and has listened to ideas and implanted them. I remember Cox telling myself and a few others about his first day at the club, how he felt a sense of doubt at seeing what state the club was in – it’s a far cry from that now with a strong foundation in place from top to bottom, things are going well on that front too and in Cox’s own words, that’s exactly what success is built on – strong foundations. I have a strong feeling that in a few more years, 100 games will be a mere pebble in the ocean as to what Paul Cox will have here at Mansfield Town.
Tomorrow he’ll mark the occasion with a home match against Northampton Town, a team enduring a tough start winning just one match so far after achieving a 6th placed finish last term but loosing at Wembley to Bradford City in the play-off final. Managed by another Stags favourite in Aidy Boothroyd, another member of the Stags 100 club after playing 103 matches in the mid-90s, Boothroyd will know what it takes to win at the One Call Stadium and will have his players fired up for the occasion – I’m sure they’ll be no thought of celebration in Cox’s mind, all the focus will be on making it seven games unbeaten and moving into the play-off places ahead of next weekend’s derby showdown with Chesterfield.
Cox will have a big decision to make too with Chris Clements injured and Martin Riley suspended – doe’s he stick with that defensive five, or three depending on your preference, or does he go with a flat 4-4-2 which seemed to be the undoing of York last weekend and Dagenham in our last home match. Going for a four at the back makes the solution simple for me, Beevers and Jennings back to full back roles with Sutton inside to partner captain Dempster – this doesn’t disrupt what’s proving a solid defence ranked currently 3rd in the division overall. Clucas moves back to the left wing whilst either Briscoe or Meikle takes to the right allowing room for Rhead or Dyer back in upfront leaving one piece of the jigsaw, presumably Howell in for Clements.
Whatever Cox opts for, I’m sure the players will put in a spirited fighting display – let’s be sure to give the gaffer a huge reception as thanks for all his hard work and look forward to the next 100 matches with victory.
LAST TIME WE MET
It’s been a while since the Stags last locked horns with the Cobblers, having last met in March 2006 when Lord Ritchie Barker’s 64th minute strike proved the difference between the two sides. Earlier in the season, Northampton had grabbed the points at the Sixfields Stadium as a sweetly struck free kick undid Stags.
Stags fans will no doubt have fond memories of playing Northampton at The One Call, having won six of their last ten meetings against the Cobblers – losing just the once. These six wins doesn’t include the play-off semi-final penalty shootout victory back in 2004, one of the most nerve wracking and emotion churning nights in football. Stags had taken the first leg 2-0 and looked certain to progress to Cardiff for the final, however Northampton had other ideas and at half time had levelled the aggregate score leading 2-0. A minute into the second half, the visitors completed the turn-around and all of a sudden it was Stags chasing the leveller – Tom Curtis proved the unlikely hero as he drilled home to level and relieve the growing tension. Both teams battled through extra-time and to penalty’s it went, the Stags won the toss and opted for the kicks to be taken in front of the North Stand, the final time home fans were to be housed there. Every spot-kick was excellent, only the brilliance of Kevin Pilkington when the skipper kept out Eric Sabin’s spot kick gave Mansfield the advantage – Laurent D’Jaffo kept his nerve to put Stags ahead, however when Robbie Wilmott netted the Cobblers final penalty, it was down to Colin Larkin to send Mansfield through – the rest is history.
In total, the sides have locked horns 68 times with Stags leading the victories 35-23, they lead they goals 96-77. At the One Call, or Field Mill as was – Northampton have only ever managed three wins to our 22, Stags have netted 58 to the cobblers 21.
Paul Cox is without suspended defender Martin Riley, who serves the first of a three game ban following his straight red card at York City last weekend. John McCombe and Ryan Tafazolli will battle it out for a start if Cox sticks with the central defensive three whilst a full back, the Stags boss has an extra option in Paul Black who completed 90 minutes with the reserves mid-week after returning from an unsuccessful loan spell with Carlisle.
Elsewhere Cox is without injured midfielder Chris Clements who, after more scans, looks set for a shorter 8 week lay-off rather than the feared four months. Anthony Howell will no doubt be first choice however after an impressive display with the reserves, Lee Stevenson will be knocking of the managers door.
Striker Matt Rhead is also back in contention, having served his one match ban for picking up two yellow cards at Newport County two weeks ago – he’ll be joining Stevenson at the managers door, after netting one of the three Stags goals.
For the visitors, Boothroyd will be forced into one change with midfielder Gary Deegan suspended.
Written by Craig Priest
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