Craig Priest writes…
You know there are strange, often un-explained, things in life – how do you end up with odd socks? How on earth did you land a ‘ten’ as a partner when you’re a ‘four’ at best? How did your keys move from where you left them? And how on earth did Mansfield Town finish yesterday afternoon with just a point.
I honestly can’t remember the last time I left the One Call stadium as furious as I did yesterday – Mansfield we’re commanding the game and looking comfortable but once again failed to see the game through to its conclusion and completely threw it away within the space of two minutes.
It was nothing special from Luton at all, other than they gambled by putting three up front and we simply couldn’t handle it – and that is why, on that evidence over the course of the season – Luton will be a League One Club next Season and Mansfield will be in League Two.
On the whole I was massively impressed with the Stags commitment and energy yesterday, from the first whilst they had fire in their bellies and riled Luton. We played quick and attractive football and at last looked like a side capable of causing some real damage – but then at 2-0 up and in cruise control, we took our eyes of the road and ended up in a ditch – what’s really annoying is, for the second week running we’ve taken our foot off the gas for a split second and been punished, when are we going to learn.
I take my hat off (metaphorically as I’m not a hat person) to Luton as they’d done their homework, let us run out of steam and then gone with it – James Collins [Luton’s #19] is different class, he turned the game on its head for Crawley on the last day of last season and did so again for Luton – us missing out on him in the close season is a huge hammer blow, effectively yesterday he gained Luton a point from nothing, how many more times will he do that this season…. Just like pennies adding up to make pounds, points add up too.
I’ll start with the negatives, Steve Evans got it terribly wrong yesterday with his substitutions – At 2-0 up, we did NOT need to bring a striker on, at 2-1 with Luton on the front foot – we did NOT need to bring a striker on. Mal Benning was at fault for the first goal to get Luton back in with a shout, he was nowhere to be seen and was outpaced – because he was knackered!
You’ve got George Taft, very capable of playing left-back, sitting on the bench – why not bring him on – utilise his long throw to get us out of danger and to keep Collins & co quiet?
Alex MacDonald is a work-horse and, even though he’s not match fit, ten or fifteen minutes just stamping things out and wide and release the pressure would have been fine – instead Rose and Spencer come on, the latter misses a late spot-kick – it was a poor take in my eyes but I don’t lay any blame on his shoulders whatsoever, good on him for having the desire to step-up. I don’t buy Evans line of “we didn’t have a designated taker on the pitch” (clearly meaning Angol, Mellis or Hemmings) – Rose (even though he missed against Rochdale), Anderson and Digby would have been capable of handling the pressure, I don’t think Spencer was to be fair, never stutter your run up! Again this is NOT a criticism – fair play to him for stepping up.
My final negative [before moving back to the positives] is the defence and Conrad Logan – I think goalkeepers are blamed far too often for conceding, and whilst I’m not laying the blame totally on him – it’s clear that the back line don’t trust him whatsoever. There was so much indecision in that box throughout I said it would cost us and it did – especially their second goal.
I counted AT LEAST FOUR times through the game where Logan either should have come out but didn’t or where he did but the defenders got rid instead (discounting both goals in those chances by the way) – are we playing “keeper collects all” or “back line smashes it into row z”? We need to be sure and I don’t think we are and looking back, I think that indecision has now cost us at least five points, if not six.
Onto the positives, the addition of Kane Hemmings has given Lee Angol a boot up the backside, he looked far hungrier yesterday and fully deserved his goal – he won us several free-kicks yesterday and does so every game, so much so when he scored and went to his knees in celebration, he looked to the referee for another free-kick, he can’t switch off!
Joking aside, I’m glad Angol has had that kick – another young and hungry front man on loan with a point to prove and that’s it – our strike force is complete, although I would be banging on the CEO and Chairmans’ office door in January for another crack at James Collins, inflated fee or not – he’d be worth every penny.
I’ve been somewhat critical of David Murfin so far but yesterday I thought for the most part his was tremendous alongside Pearce – strong, vocal and venomous in the challenge, he allowed us to go and play ten/twenty yards further up the pitch which he hadn’t done in previous weeks.
Jacob Mellis was a joy to watch, some of the touches and bursts he had we’re mouth-watering and were what caused Luton to lose their heads, he was the wind-up merchant and I think Luton were very fortunate to finish with 11 men on the pitch. Joel Byrom too in Digby’s absence, was class – in fact had we won, this Blog would be all about him as “The Interception 2: Byrom with a vengeance” but sadly, that split second of not seeing the game through has put that on the back burner for now.
Rhys Bennett, Mr Ever Present last season, was also excellent although I do prefer him at centre back – Luton had nothing from his side, but more than anything on the pitch, I really felt for him – his post-match comment of “I’d swap my goal right now for the win” left a sombre lump in my throat – on the pitch collectively we’d thrown it away, but off it, we knew it and were hurting. Rhys’ attitude and commitment is infectious and that is why on the pitch, whilst despite throwing the game away in such an inexcusable manner – I don’t care as much, because I know that deep within the dressing room, we have ONE voice clearly wanting to put it right – and it all it takes is one voice signing in the darkness to spark a riot. League Two – be warned.
Finally, a lot is said about football supporters and how in games such as yesterday [packed with Drama] the atmosphere can feel hostile between the two sets – as I walked away from the ground no doubt with steam coming from my ears like an overdosing gas kettle, I saw Luton supporters chatting, laughing and being generally friendly with their opposite numbers, which took the edge off to be fair. Couple that with their phenomenal respect during the minutes applause in memory of Duncan Russell and I really do take my hat off to them.
I think as supporters we forget about the opposition and the emotions they go through – their applause for Russ told me that, whilst we learned the lesson that we can fight and achieve against the odds, the Luton fans to some extent learned that over confidence and arrogance can be the biggest downfall.
Steve Evans made five changes to the side which threw away a point at Accrington the previous week, Hayden White was replaced by Rhys Bennett at right back whilst David Murfin replaced skipper Zander Diamond, apparently unable to recover from a knock, in the middle.
Elsewhere in the middle Joel Byrom, who we missed like mad last weekend, returned to replace Paul Digby in the interceptor role whilst CJ Hamilton missed out at the expense of Jacob Mellis . Up front, Danny Rose lost his place to new loan addition Kane Hemmings.
Despite giving the ball away straight from kick-off, the Stags started sharply – the new partnership of Angol and Hemmings [HAA, because in time they’ll be laughing at defenders? No, ok it doesn’t have the same punch as the classic SAS does it] combined well, Angol slipped between the defence and slotted the ball across to Hemmings, the Oxford loanee drifted too far across from goal to really punish – firing over.
A minute later, skipper for the afternoon Paul Anderson showed his work rate once more as Rhys Bennett’s ball in saw Angol connect and the ball defelect into the former Forest man’s path – his effort cannoning up and over Marek Stech’s goal.
A ninth minute corner nearly saw Luton start a counter attack, but hand ball from Collins on half way gave Stags a little let-off before three minutes later another corner, again delivered by Byrom saw the Stags knock on the door, the retuning Rhys Bennett nodding agonisingly across the face of goal and out of play.
Luton rarely had sight of goal but saw a glimpse on eighteen minutes as the moved the ball well to the edge of the Stags box where Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu found space – his unchallenged shot was driven well wide of Logan’s goal, accompanied by jeers of a vocal Stags support.
Luton’s Dan Potts was the first of twelve players to enter referee Ross Joyce’s note book on 23 minutes as he left a leg out for after Lee Angol had knocked the ball beyond him, from the resulting free-kick Mansfield’s Mr Reliable Rhys Bennett edged the Stags into the lead – converting Byrom’s well weighted delivery at the far post, spinning on a sixpence to celebrate in front of the Stags support.
A goal to the good and the Stags we’re hungry for more – Lee Angol and Mal Benning stood over a free kick just past the half-hour mark – the former went in search of his second goal in as many games, but was denied by Stech who stood firm.
Former Stag Alan Sheehan, who came very close to a return to the Amber & Blue prior to joining Luton midway through the 2015-16 season, tested the water with a free kick with ten minutes of the first half remaining – indecision saw neither Logan nor a Stags defender clear, fortunately the ball curled out of play.
Five minutes later Angol tested the water with another free-kick, his initial effort clattered the wall before the ex-Peterborough man hit the rebound over the bar, at the other end on the stroke of half-time, Conrad Logan was called into action – getting down low to deny Andrew Shinnie after Luton found a way through.
After the restart Luton changed up a gear and for a spell of five minutes, Mansfield failed to respond – Danny Hilton, another of Steve Evans’ summer targets, had the beating of Benning in the far corner and delivered for Collins, unmarked – his volley kept on rising much to the relief of the Stags fans.
That proved the wake up call as stags turned up the heat once more, Jacob Mellis’ quick feet opened up an opportunity for himself, denied by a top save from Stech – who thrashed the ball away one handed.
On 50 minutes Joel Byrom was the provider once more after Angol was tripped by Luton captain Scott Cuthbert on the edge of the box – Pearce this time on the end of the delivery but to no reward as he headed into the path of Sheehan who hammered the ball clear of danger.
Three minutes later Mellis swept the ball into the feet of Angol who drilled wide, before on 57 minutes – the tricky attacking midfielder was fouled by Sheehan, leading to another dangerous free kick position which Angol and Benning again stood over.
This time it was the left boot of Mal Benning to hit, he clipped the wall and despite wrong footing Stech with the deflection, the ex West Ham and Sparta Prague youngster quickly recovered to clutch the ball dead.
Kane Hemmings came close to a debut goal on 70 minutes as a tiring Benning drilled low, following excellent hold up play from Anderson – Hemmings a matter of inches from the driven cross.
A minute later though and Lee Angol made it two in two for him and two-nil to the Stags with a cool finish, Byrom the provider with an exquisite through ball, Angol converting left footed.
Three minutes later Hemmings nearly made it three but sent his volley wide as the ball fell to him 25 yards from goal – the Stags looked in full control.
With five minutes to go, the game and atmosphere changed completely, Luton – with now three up front, completed profited from Benning’s tiredness with a ball down the flank. The full back got nowhere near the runner, allowing Jack Stacey to drill low across the box – James Collins doing the rest, steaming in unchallenged from two yards to smash home.
He raced straight back to the half way line and placed the ball on the spot – Luton were not done, and with a minute of normal time to go – we’re level as indecision from a cross from Potts, saw Hilton get there ahead of Benning and nod home – Mansfield had at least two, if not three, chances to clear but nobody took the challenge.
The drama was far from over – in the final minute of 5 added on, Mansfield were awarded a life line as Cuthbert handled Atkinson’s cross – penalty! Jimmy Spencer took the challenge to try and find his first Stags goal – his staggered run up didn’t fool Stech who saved what was very poor spot-kick.
FULL TIME: STAGS 2-2 LUTON
Rhys Bennett – Krystain Pearce – David Murfin – Mal Benning
Will Atkinson – Joel Byrom – Jacob Mellis (Paul Digby 75) – Paul Anderson ©
Lee Angol (Jimmy Spencer 89) – Kane Hemmings (Danny Rose 82)
Unused Substitutes: Bobby Oljenik,Alex MacDonald, George Taft, Omari Sterling-James
ATTENDANCE: 4,655 (987)
REFEREE: Ross Joyce, [Assistants] Gareth Mellor, Matthew Jones, [Fourth Official] David Richardson
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