Craig Priest writes…
With a week to go before the big kick-off at Crewe, The stags took a full squad to Alfreton’s Impact Arena as the players tried to cement their name on Steve Evans’ first team sheet of the season – in the penultimate scheduled pre-season friendly.
The Stags are due to send a side to Rainworth MW on Tuesday evening to compete in the annual friendly and ‘Green Energy Challenge Trophy’ [I presume that’s still a thing?!] – However speaking after yesterday’s match at Alfreton, boss Evans said he’ll let supporters know on Monday what side will travel.
Personally I think it’ll be relatively strong with five or six told to “make me change my mind” from Evans, plus 45 minutes each for Olejnik and Logan, who I still can’t separate.
Anyway, at the time of writing – it’s not been confirmed, so I’m going to treat Alfreton as the FINAL chance for the players to get their name on the team sheet, some did – some didn’t in what for 63 minutes was a scrappy and below par performance [although we still created chances and kept the hosts at bay], if ever you want the definition of ‘Impact Substitutions’ then take a look at what Evans did yesterday on 63 minutes, changing all bar one player [David Murfin, who played the full 90] and in turn, changed the game.
Having split the squads in midweek [At Matlock and Gainsborough respectively] Evans arguably complied an XI of the stand-out players from both games to see if certain partnerships would work, Pearce/Diamond, Digby/Byrom, Sterling-James/Angol – again some did, some didn’t [as I’ll come onto in a later blog when I pick what would be my side for Crewe].
Alfreton, now under new manager following long standing Nicky Law’s departure mid-way through last season, had also made a high number of new signings [I believe it is 16] which included former Stags hero Craig Disley, who skippered the Reds side. The reds were fired up and there were a number of incidents throughout which wound a few players up the wrong way, particularly Lee Angol, however for all the hosts aggression, the game offered little spice and on the terraces, most were left reminiscent of previous clashes with the Reds’ during our Conference Days, in particular the FA Trophy Replay and the game which finished 6-3 during the play-off season.
Back to the present day and I was particularly keen to watch the performances of David Murfin and Jacob Mellis, who I had seen little of in pre-season compared to others in those positions. As I say, and as Evans, have said – the game was below par and patchy in players – perhaps understandable with a week to go, no player wants to go OTT and pick up a silly niggle which may keep him out for a month, especially with competition for places so high and intense, understandable with slightly disappointing as I wanted to see a little bit more competitiveness – yet we did enough to win the game so it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other I guess.
Alex MacDonald wasn’t involved again following his recent operation, perhaps he’ll get 45-60 minutes on Tuesday, whilst Rhys Bennett also missed out having picked up some bruising to his foot, better safe than sorry. Trialist Jordan Slew also wasn’t involved and Evans confirmed post match the club wouldn’t be taking up that option at the moment, with them looking to secure both a permanent deal and a loan this week.
Lining up in a flat 4-4-2, the Stags playing up the slight Alfreton slope had an early opportunity as Hayden White and Omari Sterling-James linked up down the right hand side, the formers’ cross turned behind for a corner by the home defence who dealt with Byrom’s delivery with relative ease inside the opening minute.
Mal Benning put the Stags in danger eight minutes in, the left-back judged to have fouled Chris Sharp whilst jumping for a high ball – from the resulting free-kick, former Stag Craig Westcarr struck the wall as the ball deflected away for a corner. Three minutes later Westcarr had a nother opportunity following Byrom’s foul on the ex-stag, this time Westcarr blazed over, after the initial free kick cannoned back into his path from the sturdy wall.
Mansfield had their first real effort on 14 minutes as Alfie Potter cut in from the right hand side and weaved his way into a central position before driving an effort wide from the edge of the box – a solid run but the ball was always going away from goal, a neat reverse to the looming Sterling-James would have been the better option.
Seconds later at the other End, Conrad Logan pulled off a magnificent save away to his right hand side as the advancing Tom Allen was allowed room to fire a shot through the crowd.
Sterling-James volleyed narrowly wide on 22 minutes after a nice piece of interchanging play from the Stags involving Potter and White with the right-back delivering for Sterling-James – four minutes later, Alfreton gloves-man Chris Elliott did well to deny captain Paul Anderson, who made a smart run to connect with Paul Digby’s well weighted lofted pass.
Joel Byrom then turned provider on 37 minutes as David Murfin connected with his driven corner, the centre back nodded wide of the post as Steve Evans’ men looked to break the deadlock – three minutes before half time Byrom again delivered – Pearce this time heading narrowly wide as the Stags searched for an opener in front of 431 travelling supporters.
On the stroke of half-time, Mansfield dominated midfield play across park, Potter picked up wide and sprayed the ball across to Digby, his acute turn inside wrong footed the tracking defender and opened a pocket of space for Benning, Digby picked him out and Benning pulled the trigger – but the shot, sadly, was always rising.
After the break, Mansfield had cries for a spot-kick turned away as Sterling-James was fouled, but after deliberating – the referee gave a corner, from which Byrom delivered for Pearce to steam in and again connect with, this time finding the keepers grateful hands.
Paul Anderson looked to create for Angol on 55 minutes, the former Forest mans headed flick put Angol in a race with the keeper, Elliott quick out of the blocks to stop Angol adding another goal to his impressive pre-season tally.
Omari Sterling-James has shown he has a decent set-piece in his locker and came close on 62 minutes following a foul on Pearce, Sterling-James curled one from 25 yards up and over the wall, drawing a smart save from Elliott to keep the scores level.
That was the last lot of action for all bar David Murfin, as Evans made ten changes – there were some mismatched positions, Jack Thomas in a right wing back position being one – Bennett’s absence explaining that one.
From behind the goal, it looked like a system change too, with Diamond [who took the captaincy], Murfin and Taft [who was celebrating his 24th birthday] in a back three, with Thomas [Right] and Hamilton [Left] as wing-backs leaving Hunt & Atkinson in deeper central midfield roles and Mellis off the shoulder of Rose and Spencer, let’s say a 3-4-1-2 formation.
Jacob Mellis started brightly in the freedom of central attacking midfield, teeing up Hamilton on 68 minutes before from a corner, setting up Diamond a minute later – the centre back nodding over.
Jimmy Spencer stung the hand of the keeper on 72 minutes, dropping into space to collect Danny Rose’s pass, Rose then nodded wide following Hamilton’s testing cross five minutes later as Mansfield pushed for an opener.
With 11 minutes to go, Rose managed just that, David Murfin stared the move as he cleared a hopeful Alfreton through ball – after a bit of pin-ball on the left touch line, Hamilton cushioned the ball into the path of Mellis who sent Rose on his way down the channel with an outstanding weighted pass. Rose raced through, cutting his way inside onto his favoured right foot and slotting underneath the keeper.
On 85 minutes the Reds had a half chance to left as Andre Johnson set Tom Platt with a hanging cross, Platt heading wide of Olejnik’s post – a pivotal miss as two minutes later, Mellis produced a moment of magic to seal the win.
Olejnik sent the ball long over the half way line which was pumped back forwards by Atkinson towards the left hand side for Hamilton to latch onto. The wide man delivered first time with a cushioned side footed cross which was hoofed away by Tom Allan, the ball landed on the edge of the box for Mellis who, rather than drill one into the top corner as his body position suggested, did something even more magical.
He killed the ball dead with one touch, and then proceeded to dance through four defenders and wrong foot the keeper, slotting cooly into the bottom corner – a truly magnificent goal, and a huge therapy bill for Alfreton, whose defenders will be having nightmares for a very long time.
There was just time left for Hamilton to set Spencer, but the ball ran away from him and out for a throw to the sound of the full time whistle.
Stags: Conrad Logan [Bobby Olejnik 63], Hayden White [Jack Thomas 63], David Murfin, Kyrstian Pearce [Zander Diamond © 63], Mal Benning [George Taft 63], Alfie Potter [Johnny Hunt 63], Paul Digby [Will Atkinson 63], Joel Byrom [Jacob Mellis 63], Paul Anderson © [CJ Hamilton 63], Lee Angol [Jimmy Spencer 63], Omari Sterling-James [Danny Rose 63]
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