Craig Priest takes a look at previous campaigns and how this one differs...
Never at this time of the season have we really had something to play for, at least not in the ten years or so that I’ve been following the Stags. Racking my brains and looking back through my old diary’s, blogs I’ve never shared etc, there are two seasons other than this one, where we’ve had something to play for at this stage of the season – 2003/04 when we reached the play-off final in Cardiff, and 2007/08 when we we’re relegated from the football league.
Stuart Watkiss celebrating sealing promotion in 2002 Pic: (C) Dan Westwell
I don’t count the 2001/02 promotion season under Billy D and then Stuart Watkiss as that season I didn’t really understand football, I didn’t love the club and honestly had no idea what was going off at the full time whistle when the party started! I know, I know – I should be shot or at least severely punished for my noviceness, but perhaps not feeling the emotion from out last promotion will help me savour and embrace every second of this season, as the dream becomes ever closer.
Some would perhaps say the following 2002/03 season was one in which we had something to play for, fighting to avoid the drop. Although from what I can remember about that season, my first growing to love the club and the game, we we’re down long before the final month of the season.
And so that leaves us with two other season where we endured a ‘something to play for’ final month – ‘the Cardiff canter’ in 2003/04 and of course, the heartbreaking ‘great escape’ in 2007/08.
You’ll have to forgive me if the realness and honesty I usually try to write with doesn’t come across as strongly whilst I talk about our play-off campaign. It was the first real season I WANTED to watch the Stags, but still at school I was a troubled soul and often my behaviour in a certain math teacher’s classroom, would result in me being banned from going to watch my heroes at the weekend. I always maintain that if you miss one game, you miss more than 90 minutes – that’s not a dig at people who don’t go, everyone has circumstances which have to take priority and if truth be told that’s exactly the reason why I am a radio commentator, I know the pain of missing a game so I aim to paint a good enough picture over the airwaves so listeners feel they are actually in my seat, watching the game live. My comment was actually a dig at myself for my stupid behaviour – I look at the person I was then and the person I am now and wow – two totally different people. Anyway, as I was saying because I missed a fair share of games, I can’t truly remember the atmosphere surround the club at the time; I can’t quite remember the performances both individually and as a team. For example I missed the trip to Hull City when my hero Neil Mackenzie scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory – I can’t sit here and say that it was a deserved goal, a deserved win, decent performance etc, all I can do is sit here and talk stats – pointless really. I remember the final month of the season, well final two months as the league fixture calendar is different to the conference. I remember plummeting to 7th following a home draw with Cambridge, thinking we might not make it. The game that sticks in my mind is the trip to Huddersfield, the team who would eventually come back to bite us on the backside, if memory serves me right we needed to win to cement our play-off spot with a week left to go.
The day was beautiful, there was a nervousness on the coach to the game, something I’ve only felt once since, the spirits where high once kick off time arrived though, pre-match nerves affect people in a different way I guess, but as ever football solves all. As the players came out onto the pitch I felt this momentous roar from the fans crammed into the away end around me, I felt the stand vibrate as fellow fans trying to replicate the sound of a drum by banging on the advertising hoardings at the back. The sunshine was glorious and just added to the beauty of the whole day – I remember the vibrations continuing and a few fans breaking the seat in front of them as they joined in the drumming – the passion was wild, and until I witness a similar scene, I won’t quite understand why – back then as far as I was concerned I was watching a football match as per, nobody had explained the glory surrounding promotion – nor had anyone explain the pain of relegation.
Back to the game, Mansfield fell behind 14 minutes in and the mood changed, the silence was chilling – ‘we’ve blown it, we’ve blown it – again’ I heard one Stags fan say, I chuckle now to what his mate said to him six minutes later when Rhys Day levelled the game ‘maybe not son, maybe not’ – from the minute the welsh centre halves goal hit the net, there was renewed hope and from then on in, the atmosphere electric again. 18,000+ fans watched that day, it was the 1,754 travellers that undoubtedley made the most noise. None more so than when Junior Mendes put us ahead before half time, I thought it could never get better – Liam Lawrence proved me wrong with his 76th minute strike – pandinmonium.
On the coach home, I don’t think anyone sat down, even the driver at one point joined in the conga.... obviously that’s a joke! Singing all the way home was joyous, it’s just a shame the same can’t be said about the following week’s home defeat to Northampton – with whom we’d become quite aquiainted with as we faced them over two legs in the play-offs.
The playoffs were something special, I had no idea what to expect and can only imagine what the atmosphere was like at Sixfields, unfortunately neither me nor my family could get a ticket and so had to watch from Field Mill on the big screen. There were many inside Field Mill but nothing could replicate being at the game itself. I was delighted with the end result but again wasn’t prepared for what would follow. The second leg was so dramatic even if I were the best writer in the world I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Field Mill was rammed; I watched from the middle of the west lower, in line with the edge of the north stand penalty area and as such had a clear view of the final shootout. Again I remember nothing of the game itself bar the score line and a couple of things that happened late on. 2-0 should have been a lead good enough to take us the distance, however in those type games there’s a fight which comes from within – if you’re not prepared for that then you’re not a real champion. Fortunately a Tom Curtis toe poke got us back level on aggregate and after extra time came and went – our whole season boiled down to nerve, to luck, to keeping your head when all around are loosing there’s. Wayne Corden, Liam Lawrence, Neil ‘Macca’ Mackenzie, Laurent D’jaffo and SUPER Colin Larkin – gentleman I thank you, along with Kevin Pilkington for saving Eric Sabins spot kick!
Super Col: Heroic PIC: (C) Dan Westwell
I couldn’t possibly move on without telling about the two things I do remember, the first is perhaps quite ironic as it involves something that I now do week in week out – commentate! I was watching the game with a friend from school, my brother and my cousin, just as the penalties were about to start he had a phone call from his brother who couldn’t make it to the game because of his children, to cut a long story short, he wanted to know what was happening and couldn’t get to the computer for commentary, a radio being out of the question considering where he lived. The first four spot kicks passed with my cousin Mike at the game telling Darrell (my other cousin on the phone) what was happening – however neither he nor my brother were brave enough to watch Colin Larkin’s penalty and turned away handing the phone to me. I said nothing at first, making small talk as Larkin stepped up (obliviously for any potential employers reading, nowadays my commentary would include stats rather than asking how the wife and kids were keeping!) As Larkin was putting the ball on the spot I said ‘this is it, make or break’ I was silent as Larkin struck before screaming ‘SEE YOU IN CARDIFF CUZ’ before handing the phone back to Mike who turned round to see the ball hit the net before dancing with me, my brother and friend. Funny how these little things come back with a certain irony. The second memory happened on the pitch. Before the game me and my friend (whose name I can’t for the life of me remember) had said to a classmate of ours that if we win, we’d meet in the centre circle and celebrate. As fans streamed onto the pitch we too headed onto the hallowed turf and made for the centre circle to meet Josh who was indeed there waiting to celebrate as we’d planned. We danced with the players and fellow fans before Mike and Gib (my brother) caught up with us and continued to party into the night. It was a brilliant experience, a memory I’ll never let die.
We won’t mention the final nor the seasons that followed, that’s for another time – the purpose of this blog was to compare and look at the final month of the season, as we enter the final month once more, this time under the guidance of Paul Cox, this time with something to aim for, a dream still possible.
Looking back at the ending to that 2003/04 season and the last time we we’re involved in the play-offs – we failed to be true to the season that had past, we had some inconsistent results and finished weaker than we could be. In the end all the hard work we’d put in as a team boiled down to nothing bar an uncontrolable fate – to let it happen once is bad enough, but twice? That’s not a team who really and truly deserves to be promoted – I never thought I’d end up writing that! I think I’m right though, yes I know you can blame the linesman for getting a twitch in his arm and wrongly ruling out Colin Larkin’s goal – but still we should have had the task complete before then. Same with the play-off semi-final really, 2-0 ahead and then to throw it away is somewhat laughable – but hey that’s gone now.
We had a talented bunch of players and despite what people say, a manager that could have gone onto achieve great things with us. I see the comparisons to our squad now – only I think we’re a lot mentally stronger, we have a man manager whose been in the position he’s in now numerous times before rather than a football management virgin. Paul Cox has been through every sinario and learned the hard way what to do – I believe this is his time, this is our time. I said last week in an article for the Chad about not painting pictures of what could be, I see myself as a realist both in life and in football and with what, five games to go now, anything can happen.
I set out to compare the seasons when we’ve had something to play for rather than just a case of rubber stamping things, I picked out two seasons – I’m at the end of the first now so here goes with the second, I apologise for a reoccurrence of pain in advance.
In 2003/04 we lost our heads and let our destiny fall out of our hands in my opinion – do I remember the season and it’s events with a fondness? Yes of course I do, is this season one which will boil down to fate? Both my head and heart say no – this season is unique – I can’t wait to see how it will pan out.
Moving onto the next season we’re we’ve had something to play for in the final month – 2007/08 the failed great escape. I know that right now you’re thinking how can I possibly be comparing the two sides, I’m not – I’m merely comparing the feelings felt then, and those felt now.
Rather stupidly the feeling I’m getting from this seasons events I compare to falling in love for the first time. Many ask what love actually is and I think I know, but couldn’t possibly share for three reasons, the first – everyone falls in love in different ways, there is no pattern, no formula, no right or wrong. Secondly the girl in question might be reading this and thirdly, you’d all call the men in white coats to lock me up! Obviously I’m only having a laugh with the last two reasons; my point is that the love like this season is unexplainable even to the most cultured of minds.
The other thing I was saying about comparing a team destined for the plunge into darkness with a team rising with the morning sun – boils down to adrenaline. There was a half hearted belief that we could survive when Paul Holland took the reins, a couple of half decent results and heads began to lift – despite all the off field stuff there was a moment of togetherness when for a brief moment everyone believed that the impossible was in fact possible.... it’s just a shame that ball flew over Jason White’s head, people stormed the boardroom, Stockport failed to find there shooting boots and emotions took over. Boy those days were ugly.
Rather stupidly I woke up every match day thinking ‘today could be our day’ – I looked in the mirror and tried to prepare myself with Churchill type speeches, reality is whinny my friend that footballs not played on beaches and the only fight we could muster is to keep walking the ball back to the centre circle to start all over again.
Chester V Stockport – Tears in the rain, a funeral type atmosphere at Dagenham, already down – only pride to play for, another beating. Depressing, yes – but I think we can learn a lot from those horrible tear fuelled days – in the face of adversity you should always laugh and smile, because true sprit will always make you stronger than those who try to bring you down. You should embrace the moment and remember as you saw it, not by a headline about off field issues, a photo of a steward strangled a 12 year old or a video of all those goals going in to theme tune from the under siege movies.
Memories are delicate and way to precious in times of need to spoil with the wrong story.
It’s results really that make or break you, not just in terms of the league table, but in terms of mindset – look back at 03/04 a few bad results and heads went down, yeah there was the awesomeness of Huddersfield away but that came from being wrapped up in the moment. Back in 07/08 when everything was doom and gloom, I have a sneaking feeling that had we beaten Rotherham and picked up a few more stronger results, the headlines that emerged would have never have surfaced.
That said, those times are gone – never look back for too long otherwise you won’t notice the lamppost your about to walk into – trust me, it hurts!
Paul Cox, experienced with pressure PIC: (C) James Williamson
This season we should be proud of what we’ve already achieved regardless of what happens from here on in – we’ve accepted reality and appointed a non-league manager who in turn has brought in non-league players. Going to the grounds that used to produce the smell of arrogance from us has stopped, instead we travel looking forward to the mystery and love these grounds bring – in my personal diary I’ve so many stories about probably EVERY ground we’ve visited, one day if you’re lucky, I might share them. This league is horrible, but under that seal lies a beautiful tale that when we do return to the football league, we will be proud to tell wherever we go.
Kettering away, Stockport at home, Hayes and Yeading away, Wrexham at home and finally Kidderminster away – Five games, five more stories, five more chapters in the greatest book ever written.
In the past we have looked too far ahead, we have expected maybe that little too much and whilst the players have tried to deliver, it’s perhaps been too strenuous. This bunch of players have the capabilities to deliver what we ALL desire, and like I said before I refuse to paint pictures of what could be.
Let’s enjoy these final five, let us cherish every second and then we’ll see where we are.
We are a new Mansfield Town, both in terms of owners, managers, players and to some extent, supporters – they’ll be some of you reading this or indeed that will get to hear about this that are like I was ten or so years ago, experiencing the ride for the first time. That’s a great thing, everyone has an individual story, let’s all stay together as we have been doing beautiful over the past few months and ensure that EVERY ending to EVERY story reads the same.
I believe in Paul Cox, I believe in his players and I believe in you, the supporters – together we provide the strong foundations that Paul Cox said success was built on when he first arrived at Field Mill. Our season is not over, nor is it coming to an end – boy, it’s only just beginning, don’t you just love it!
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