Field Day – The Anatomy of Mansfield Town
Whether or not you’d call Mansfield Town’s 2014-15 campaign a success depends on your understanding of what the point of football is. If you’re pragmatic about the game, then you’d probably call it a successful year. This small West Nottinghamshire club ensured a third successive season back in the Football League, eventually avoiding the drop by 7 points. In both transfer windows, they exclusively used the loan market and free transfers to bolster the squad, and made some shrewd acquisitions – though owner John Radford may be forced to part with rather more cash if their Football League status looks in doubt come this January.
If you’re a so-called romantic, someone who loves style as much as success, then this Stags team was not one to satisfy your footballing thirst. Mansfield Town scrambled to safety by playing the dreariest football in the division, and scoring a paltry 38 goals in 46 games. That total was the lowest in League Two, and the third lowest in the entire Football League, with only Yeovil and Blackpool proving more goal-shy, netting just 36 apiece.
Admittedly, under Paul Cox, the Stags weren’t too bad to watch. His tenure this season lasted until just late November, but saw the campaign’s most exciting 90 minutes of action at Field Mill, as Carlisle United were beaten 3-2, with a Rakish Bingham double making the difference. Indeed, the early months saw a few exciting contests for Town fans. Under incumbent player-manager Adam Murray, though, much of the side’s matches were truly turgid affairs.
As with many football clubs, there is something of the town represented in the footballing ethos at Mansfield Town – especially under Murray. This has always been a town built on hard-work and industry, a world away from big-city glitz and rural tranquility.
It’s perhaps forgivable then, that the people of such a town are represented by a football club who play with a pragmatism and toughness designed to frustrate more illustrious opponents. Whilst Tranmere Rovers boasted a stronger squad on paper, Town took four points off the Merseyside club, helping condemn them to relegation. Still, however committed a squad are, many fans are only happy with winning ugly for so long, whether they follow Manchester City or Mansfield Town.
The Yellows’ defensive frailties might offer some clue as to why Mansfield have stuck to employing such an unexpansive brand of football throughout the majority of his tenure. In the few games where Murray has taken the reins off his team, the results have ranged from frustrating to disastrous. A humbling 4-1 home loss against Russ Wilcox’s unremarkable York City and a late collapse in the 3-2 defeat by Exeter City will both have chastened the Stags side.
Indeed, it’s been the tight, compact games where the Stags have typically come out on top. Interestingly, Murray seems to have valued the team effort in these games more than the man on the scoresheet in many such victories. Despite having Mansfield’s best strikerate in the past 12 months, and scoring crucial winning goals against the likes of AFC Wimbledon, Luton Town and Carlisle United, Rakish Bingham has been cast aside.First loaned out to relegation rivals Hartlepool United, and then swiftly sold on, Bingham’s exile from the club was surprising, but reinforces Murray’s comments to the Nottingham Post upon taking up the player-manager role. “I’ve got a good belief and confidence in my own ability”, he stated. And this clearly isn’t a man afraid of making big decisions.
Still, Bingham wasn’t the only (reasonably) bright spark in last season’s Stags side. Vadaine Oliver and Reggie Lambe also chipped in with key goals from attack, and behemoth striker Ollie Palmer continued to be a nuisance for opposition defences. The worry now, lies in the fact that Lambe is the only one of that group to remain at Field Mill. Loanee Oliver has exited for Bootham Crescent and Palmer (inexplicably loaned to Grimsby Town for a brief period) has been gleefully snapped up by Leyton Orient. The club’s departures paint a fairly bleak picture. So, what of the new arrivals?
The many new arrivals at the Stags’ home seem to represent a healthy blend of youthful ambition and solid experience. Talented young defender Malvind Benning arrives from Walsall with a good reputation, whilst Adi Yussuf spent last season tearing up Conference North defences. Veteran Danish stopper Brian Jensen will add a good dressing room presence, whilst former England u-21 international Craig Westcarr offers an intimidating physical preference.
With all that in mind, I’m predicting a modest improvement from Mansfield Town this season. Despite Adam Murray having made some questionable decisions last campaign, at just 33, he has plenty of time to learn and an ability to relate to players more directly than managers twice his age. With an experience of playing in the Premier League, throughout the Football League, and overcoming a battle with alcoholism, Murray’s strength of character and youth signal a manager likely to grow into the role.
The squad which will gather for Saturday’s opening-day clash with Carlisle are, on balance, a slightly stronger and more balanced unit than the one of last campaign. Plenty of tight and scrappy games are still likely to punctuate the season, but expect to see a few more goals, more composure in big games and a final league position closer to mid-table.