_ As Mother Nature and Jack Frost again conspire to ruin another football Saturday, I sit at my desk looking around my room thinking back over the years to who and what led me to Mansfield Town FC. I often hear people speak about their idols and chat fluently about their favourite players growing up, their first game, why they love the Stags etc. Over the past couple of years focussing again on my media work I have started travelling in the car to away games and as such, have missed out on coach conversations which at some point will always revert to the hero’s, villains and idols conversation. Today is a perfect opportunity for me to share with you some memories, explanations and hopefully funny stories with you – hopefully by doing so I personally will be reminded of the real reason Mansfield Town FC is tattooed on my heart rather than the self-inflated ego story some may see me as know days. In turn it may also get you guys thinking about your idols, the players you hate with a passion and of course, the players you will always be happy to by a pint for – the hero.
I know that some of you will have already read my initial reasoning for watching Stags – I like many others at school was bullied, with bright ginger (often out of control) hair, goofy glasses and an extremely short fuse when it came to teachers – it’s easy to see why! It’s remarkable to think that now football’s my life, ten years ago I hated it with a passion. When I was about 8, my bedroom was painted in Manchester United colours, but if truth be told I was more interested in reading an Enid Blyton novel than watching football, I never went to old Trafford nor did I ask to, in fact I remember spending a lot of time under my bed reading my torch light rather than under the glare of united stars plastered on my wall. Before I started at Jo Whit secondary, my parents had split and divorced and I moved house, the blank walls of neutral colours we’re fine by me – see you later glory hunting, my brief affair with football was over. At school I hated most lessons especially PE – imagine my horror one day when the rain lashed down and a teacher was absent, meaning our class of PE no hopers mixed in with the school football team AKA bullies united, who insisted of a warm-up match ahead of their next game against the local rivals. To cut a long, over told story short – as the weedy kid I was placed in goal (rules of the playground) and as the game was drawing to its conclusion – a penalty against us was awarded. Up stepped the bullying head-honcho who then saw his kick saved by, and I quote, ‘The ginger one’. The feeling of beating a bully was enough to re-light the football fire, and after a few weeks of good behaviour (not throwing chairs at teachers) I was allowed to go to Field Mill.
Don’t ask me who they we’re playing, what the date was or what the score was, I had no idea – I’d been before to the odd game but paid little or no attention. This time I was keen to learn and, with my mindset on being a keeper, watching Kevin Pilkington like a hawk. I studied his movement, his commands etc and soon we’re recreating the moves on the local field playing with a few mates. I got to very few games that season (2002-03) due to my temper getting me into trouble, but I worked hard when I could to go again, each time watching Pilkington closely before emulating him on the local field. Soon there came a time where the school set up a lunchtime 5-a-side league, our team ‘Norfolk and Chance’ entered with me as the captain and the keeper, I recall our opening league game with a fondness. At first our team lived up to their re-name ‘No Chance’ (bloody teachers, what did they have against comedic names) as our opponents kept the ball and penned us in, a shot was blazed towards the top corner as the other teamed looked to grab their first goal, I sprung across and tipped the ball away before holding onto the powerful rebound. A quick throw then found our striker unmarked, he converted before setting another two in between a barrage of Priest saves. A penalty was the only thing to beat me, although it went in via my foot – we we’re awarded a penalty of our own soon after, with everyone bar me on the score sheet for ‘No Chance’ the lads gave me the penalty, which I smashed straight down the middle, giving my opposite number no chance, sealing our against the odds victory.
_Needless to say the feeling of scoring my first ever goal arriving before my first clean sheet moved my hawk-eyed focus away from Pilkington and onto someone else. Don’t ask why, but the player to take centre stage, was Neil MacKenzie. Soon I adopted his shirt number as my own and as the new season arrived, was presented with my first ever stags shirt with his name and number printed on the back, sadly I no longer have it, I do have the following season’s away top with his name on though! I remember going to watch Keith Curle’s side during the play-off season on a more regular basis, including away from Field Mill – I remember MacKenzie’s name being chanted where ever we went and along with that powerful penalty in the semi-final shootout, recall listening to the Hull City away game on the radio (I’d been a naughty boy so couldn’t go). Macca scored the only goal of the game, a thunderous volley 6 minutes from time after coming off the bench – the chants of Neil MacKenzie weren’t just sung by the 1,545 travelling fans – they we’re sung by me too.
As the years have passed many more players have become my heroes, I’ll take you through my current heroes later but as I mentioned at the top of this piece, with heroes come villains. Following the suspension and then departure of Keith Curle, Carlton Palmer arrived and immediately loaned Macca to the other MTFC, Macclesfield. In doing so I took an instant dislike to the former England international and wanted his head impaled on a spike! Palmer eventually took full charge and slowly dismantled our side and at the end of the 2004-05 season, was influential in the departure of my goalkeeping hero Kevin Pilkington, who then himself became a villain signing for Notts County and breaking Chris Beardsley’s leg in a 50/50 challenge on his Field Mill return. Many might see me writing that as a dig, it’s not – these things happen in football it is after all a contact sport. Pilkington has twice redeemed himself, returning to Stags last season filling in for Marriott before palming the ball into Louis Briscoe’s path in the FA Trophy semi-final last season! Good times, no joking aside Kevin Pilkington will always be an idol of mine, captain of arguably our most successful and strongest side over the past decade, a fine shot stopper and a gentleman to boot.
Neil MacKenzie made a return to Field Mill too, but delivered little bar kicking a bin after a reserve team game during his brief return. I imagine he had his reasons for that though. Neil has a lot to answer for, he’s stint on channel four’s countdown saw me happily tune in and play along – I scored little more than three on each letters round and always failed at the numbers, after each of his victory’s I longed for the chant’s of ‘Neil MacKenzie’ to be bellowed from the countdown audience, alas there knitting clearly could not be disturbed!
During my ten years as a Stags fan I have, as mentioned, adopted a number of players as heroes, and I’ve seen my fair share of villains, I shall save those stories for another day though. Now days my current hero in the ranks is skipper Adam Murray, along with the playing ability I’d look for when I was younger and hungry to play the beautiful game, it’s his story which seals his place on my hero’s list. Murray openly talks about his past in his brilliant ‘Captain’s Blog’ – the message I get from it is that, no matter what’s happened in the past, with belief, hard work, dedication and desire – you can achieve what you want and more importantly, find yourself and your light in the darkness. I look at ten years ago when I was at school, I had very few friends, I had a temper which saw many a teacher clobbered with a chair (I’m VERY ashamed of this), I had more detentions and exclusions than you’ve had hot dinners. I hated everything about my life and seemingly went from one bad place to another, facing a lot of difficulties it would be unfair to write about. Now I love football, I know what I want for a career and am finally on the right path, I have confidence and have friends – I have found myself because of Mansfield Town FC. That’s why I love them, nothing will ever change that.
Heroes change from one season to the next as do idols as players and managers come and go. I have a constant idol though, always there week in week out – the fans. I’m not mentioning names, the individuals know who they are and why. What I will say is, that in following my career path I often seem to leave you all behind, the coach travel, the pre and post game pub, the long chats and silly O’clock! I miss you all, every game the first thing I look for has always been and will always be you – you all taught me the value of friendship and love, it’s something I’ll never forget.
My team, my friends, and my dream – nothing can beat that combination, every Friday night at 5-a-side I put aside the headphones and go back to trying to be a footballer, passing like Murray, belting the goals in like MacKenzie, keeping them out like Pilkington... falling over like Craig Priest!
That’s the heart of my story, hero’s, villains and idols – what’s yours?
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