_ Fear is gone
Some may look at the title of the piece and wonder about its logic, fact is there will always be fixtures you least look forward to and grounds you don’t enjoy visiting – every football fan is the same. Luton, until last march, was certainly one of them for a high percentage of Stags fans writes Craig Priest.
I can’t exactly pinpoint why we feared Luton at all, clutching at straws I’d say it’s perhaps during both sides’ time in the conference together, Luton had been too strong for Mansfield – especially at Kenilworth Road recording a 4-1 victory in 2009 and a 2-0 victory in 2010, both fixtures being quite hostile with red cards involved in both. With my tin hat on ready for potential Luton missiles, I personally don’t think we feared Luton as a footballing unit, I think we took a disgust to their attitude towards life in the BSBP – one of arrogance. Admittedly during our first month or so in the conference we had a similar attitude towards sides such as Lewes, Grays Athletic, Forest Green Rovers etc, in some cases we may still have a tiny drop – however we soon adapted to life outside the football league and begrudgingly accepted our position. I’m not saying every hatters fan had the hostile ‘we’re better than you, we’re a football league club’ attitude, some shared the pain of relegation but relished the new challenge, what I am saying however is that the sense and smell of arrogance lingered around Kenilworth Road from the first moment I stepped off the coach to whiteness that 4-1 defeat back in 2009 and in my further two visits, rather than fade away with the evening sun – it’s grown somewhat stronger, proved by my visit in last season’s FA Trophy semi-final.
We’ll come to that shortly but I refer now back to the explanation of the blog title, Fear is gone. After beating Chasetown in the quarter final replay of the FA Trophy, we faced Luton over two legs in the semi-final, as soon as the full time whistle blew against Chasetown a good 50% of us, plus a huge majority of those in the footballing network immediately gave us know hope of reaching the Wembley final. By the time match-day had arrived (Sunday 13th March) that 50% had risen to a good 80% if not higher, very few believed in Duncan Russell’s side. I remember waking up that morning so nervous I spilt a good pint of milk onto the sideboard making my morning cup of tea, I shook uncontrollably and had it not been for a large amount of Galaxy chocolate in my fridge would have probably bitten my fingers off rather than just my nails. I wasn’t nervous about the prospect of facing Luton, I fear no team because I firmly believe that the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself. I was on edge, bouncing around at the opportunity to silence the doubters who, in all honesty, had become scream voices/ taunts, inside my head. In those few short months prior to the semi-final I’d personally been given a second shot at achieving a dream, which is something the voices said impossible – from this I knew that the underdog could prevail, alas nobody would believe me. On the bus to town on that Sunday, I remember vividly being in conversation with fellow Stags fans about our chances, out of the three, two said we’d get hammered, the other was unsure. It was pointless arguing with the two that firmly believed we’d lose because when somebody’s so repetitive and without doubt, it becomes less about the subject matter and more about personal egos. What you can do though is plant the seeds of inner-doubt and in a weird, physiological way, get your points across without them initially noticing – this is what I opted for. During the well mannered conversation there had been a lot of ‘he’s not good enough’ type moments, so as I got up to leave I said my goodbyes and dropped in ‘on May 7th we can be at Wembley, it’ll be tough but doable, so long as today we all pull together rather than push ourselves a part’. Weather it worked, I’ll never know – but what I’d said we as a team needed transpired throughout that game, as Field Mill rocked with a positive energy.
We took a one goal lead to Kenilworth Road thanks to Danny Mitchley’s well hit strike, yes looking back David Grof was certainly the busier of the two keepers and chances weren’t fluent for us, but we’d finally got one up on Luton for the first time since 2003. The second leg as we all know was crazy, the atmosphere nasty and hostile. In the middle of the home fans in the press box, I was seated without the comfort of headphones – the abuse, hatred chants, pure cockiness and sheer arrogance from a large section of the support knocked me for six and, I’ll hold my hands up, riled me. Prior to the game a large percentage still didn’t believe and put our one goal advantage down to part of an evil writers plot to suck the life out of us at the very end. We matched Luton throughout the first half with standout performances from Tom Naylor and especially David Grof, who could do nothing about the thunderous aggregate equalizer milliseconds into the second half. Luton, like the big bad wolf, huffed and huffed, but failed to blow the house down and predictably resulted to bully boy tactics, as they had done in the previous two games at Kenilworth Road leading to the dismissals of Scott Gardener and Steve Foster respectively. This time round the hatters we’re caught and paid the price – twice. Despite the two red cards, the hosts still pushed but with 900+ Stags fans in fine voice and believing spirit behind the goal, failed to find a way through. Mansfield tired and somehow kept going through extra time, with those final moments memorable to us all, rather than be lethargic we ran and got the reward – eternal thanks to Luke Graham for giving his former employers a helping hand – literally. Louis Briscoe might have seen his spot kick saved by Pilkington but in smashing home the rebound – broke the fear forever, proving that the underdog can be victorious.
The hate, the arrogance, the threats of physical violence continued far after the full time whistle from one or two Luton fans, one in particular took a blatant dislike to me and launched a torrent of abuse like no other – I still remember wrapping the radio show up at full time before joining in the chants of ‘Que Sera Sera’ whilst the guy behind threw flaming daggers at me (metaphorical ones people – fortunately all he had to physically throw was a programme, which missed by miles and was aimed at the pitch rather than me!) Duncan Russell also got abuse as he headed up for the post match interviews alongside David Grof, Louis Briscoe and Tom Naylor – his response brilliant “nice to see your gracious in defeat”.
I’m sure we all have a personal memory from that day – remember them tomorrow, our first visit back to Kenilworth Road since Louis historic goal.
The sides have met twice since the trophy of course, both at Field Mill – with last season’s league fixture coming weeks after the trophy showdown and in august as this season got steadily underway. Both games we’re draws but the result less important, in both fixtures the fear I’d previously seen had gone completely, almost as if Barry Scott from those dreadful adverts had come along with his pink spray.
Tomorrow night’s game is a totally different fixture from the trophy game, or any other games against Luton for that matter, the principal of believing still applies though. We’re not chasing Wembley, but we are chasing the play-offs and we need to be beating teams like Luton (and Fleetwood etc, just to balance things) in order to achieve what we desire. We have players oozing the ability to succeed with our beloved club, from Luke O’Neill to Gary Roberts, from Alan Marriott to Ross Dyer – every area is essential. Of late we have been getting the results we need with two consecutive victories at Field Mill, yes there have been mistakes costing us goals but as Paul Cox says its results, not performances that counts. Tomorrow we must do what we never seem to do, transfer our home form onto the road. We’ve not won on the road since the end of September when we saw off league leaders Wrexham 3-1, however in the nine away games since (including cup) Cox’s side have only been beaten three times, twice in the cup, now is the perfect time to turn those other draws into wins.
As I’ve mentioned, tomorrow’s trip to Kenilworth Road will be tough and again they’ll be a percentage that have already written the game off – all I ask is, for whatever clicked in our last visit to one of the strangest grounds in the league, to click one more. We’ve done it before and we can do it again, perhaps this time, rather than be the final piece of the Wembley trail jigsaw, it can be the first leap on our way back to the football league via the playoffs.
To those going, enjoy your trip and wave to the person in the flat above the turnstiles – oh and make some noise throughout, maybe not Que Sera Sera but a nice chorus of ‘Yellows’ wouldn’t go a miss! To those not going, well be sure to join myself and Scott Rogers from 7.20PM for full match commentary.
*Views expressed in this blog are those of the writer, Craig Priest, and not those of Mansfield Matters or its sister organisations.
AUDIO: Last Time at Kenilworth Road
As mentioned in the blog above, the Stags produced a memorable display to reach the FA Trophy final, thanks to Louis Briscoe's late strike, bundling home after Kevin Pilkington had saved his penalty.
TEAM: David Grof, Gary Silk, Tom Naylor, Kevin Sandwith, Dan Spence, Ashley Cain (Adam Smith), Tyrone Thompson (C), Kyle Nix (Stevie Istead), Louis Briscoe , Paul Connor, Danny Mitchley
Audio Highlights can be found below, with commentary (some of it screamed) from Craig Priest and Gareth Hussey.
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