Season 2013/14 was a campaign of extreme highs and lows for Mansfield Town Football Club.
But they can justly be very proud of their 11th place finish in the end after a thrilling first season back in the Football League.
The word rollercoaster barely does it justice. An indifferent first few games were followed by a run of success that suggested the Stags could go straight through this division too.
But the comedown was quick to follow as Mansfield did not so much fall from grace as plummet as they failed to win a League game for over three months. From thereon in, Paul Cox’s men flirted with relegation before four wins on the bounce again gave a false glimmer of renewed hope for the play-offs.
For the third successive year with the club, Cox conjured up a powerful second half to the season which did the trick in terms of ensuring safety.
But he had actually been hampered by his side starting too well and bringing extra pressure and anticipation on themselves with some fans starting to believe League Two was easier than it actually was.
Once again a section of the club’s support were quick to want Cox out of the club mid-season, despite him being the hero in getting them out of the Conference just a few months before and worrying fans by being linked with other jobs. For a third year he proved the doubters wrong in the end.
Fans from other clubs and a large number of Stags’ own fans were also unhappy with the direct and physical style of play employed.
But this was a side with little League experience and it was hardly like opponents were looking more like Barcelona every Saturday.
Needs must and for too many years Stags had been out-muscled by opponents in League Two.
Now they can handle themselves on that score and the style certainly created plenty of chances in front of goal.
However, the massive difference between Stags and another successive promotion this season was the loss of goal ace Matt Green to Birmingham. The club would surely have made at least the play-offs had he stayed.
Fans were crying out for a replacement. But goalscorers are the most valuable community in football and don’t fall of trees. Cox was thwarted in his attempts to bring in several candidates who went elsewhere for more money. Then his mid-season attempts were halted by chairman John Radford’s decision to freeze the transfer budget due to financial worries.
Radford’s public insistence that Cox had the division’s third biggest budget did his manager no favours at all, neither did the mid-season row between Cox and assistant Adam Murray.
But in the end Mansfield more than consolidated their place at the higher level and offered rich promise for the future with young players like Sam Clucas, Ollie Palmer and Ryan Tafazolli.
They also had cult hero striker, man-mountain Matt Rhead, show League Two defences could not cope with him much better than those in the Conference.
For now there are more questions than answers. How much will Radford throw at his dream of seeing the club rise to the Championship? What budget can he afford to give Cox this summer?
Also, can Cox lure a proven striker? Is goal ace Liam Hearn over his injuries and willing to join the club to be that striker? How much harder will it be with clubs like Luton, Carlisle and Tranmere in the division next season?
Also can Stags solve their off- field cash issues like the £1m loans being chased through the courts by ex-directors Andy Saunders and Steve Hymas or the lack of necessary attendances to break even?
Summer well folks for the soap opera that is Mansfield Town will be back again in action before you know it and never fails to produce memorable storylines!
In typical opening day bright sunshine, the return to League football got off to an ignominious start with a 2-0 defeat at Scunthorpe where Louis Briscoe missed a penalty kick late on and barely had another kick all season.
Last minute signing, striker Ollie Palmer, made his debut from the sub’s bench.
A midweek 2-0 defeat at League One Tranmere in the Capital One Cup and a 0-0 home draw with Exeter also gave little hint of what was to come as Stags sweated for their first goal.
But Palmer opened his and the club’s account for a 1-0 away win at Wycombe and the month ended with a 2-2 home draw with sleeping giants Portsmouth, Lindon Meikle twice bagging equalisers, and a fine 3-0 home beating of Dagenham & Redbridge.
This was the month Stags’ season really began to hot up. A decent 1-1 draw at Newport, despite Matt Rhead being sent off for two bookables, was followed by a splendid comeback 2-1 win at York, Palmer again the hero, and a 3-0 home thrashing of Northampton – Cox’s 100th game in charge and Ryan Tafazolli’s League debut - before one of the highlights of the season – a backs-to-the-wall defensive display at hated local rivals Chesterfield where Calvin Andrew enjoyed his one moment in the spotlight for the season with the only goal of the game for Mansfield. He failed to score again and was gone by Christmas.
Off the field, skipper and assistant manager Adam Murray fell out with manager Paul Cox, asked to go out on loan, and ended up at Northern Premier League neighbours Rainworth MW.
Amazingly, Mansfield were up there in the top three and everyone was talking about play-offs. So what happened next proved to be a massive reality check on the step up they had made as Stags failed to win again in the League until after Christmas.
The 4-1 home defeat by struggling Hartlepool was a real shock to the system. Suddenly this League Two lark wasn’t quite as easy as it had appeared. A midweek JPT exit at home to Chesterfield also saw the Spireites take a smidgeon of revenge.
Bristol Rovers scored a late leveller for a 1-1 draw at One Call, and 0-0 draws away to Torquay and Bury followed, John Dempster sent off at Gigg Lane and Lee Beevers allegedly bitten by Elliot Benyon at Plainmoor!
The home clash with Plymouth looked to be heading for a third 0-0 on the trot until Trottman, Neal that is, stole an undeserved 93rd minute winner for Argyle.
The row between Cox and Murray continued in the background while the club’s fine start saw reports link Cox with the vacant Sheffield United job.
Chairman John Radford stoked up the pressure by saying he expected the club to finish in at least a play-off place this season and described Stags as a Championship club that needs to get up there.
The trip to Southend was a shambles for Stags as they were outplayed and outfought in the 3-0 defeat. But it might have been different had loanee Stoke striker James Alabi not been harshly sent off by a certain Darren Drysdale after 31 minutes. It was to be Alabi’s only appearance for the club.
Referee Drysdale showed two more red cards, one to Lee Beevers and one to Conor Clifford before the night was out. Sam Clucas netted four goals as an 8-1 FA Cup away win at minnows St Albans offered brief cheer, Mansfield bagging six goals in a magic last 20 minutes
But, with Jamie McGuire red-carded midway through the first half, Oxford coasted to a 3-1 win at injury-hit Mansfield. Stags then went ahead and then came from 4-2 down to level before being pipped 5-4 by a stoppage time penalty in what turned out to be the game of the season at Fleetwood.
The month ended in more misery as a 1-0 defeat at Burton was followed by Morecambe coming from behind to win 2-1 at Mansfield with a late goal, making it six League defeats in a row.
The latest instalment of the Adam Murray row saga saw him reject an offer of a pay-off by the club and state his intent to fight for his place before he went off on another loan to north Notts neighbours Worksop Town. Cox by now had passed the entire affair on to chairman Radford to mediate. But a welcome addition to the backroom coaching staff saw the return of former assistant manager Micky Moore, which made a big difference in the end.
The season of goodwill began with Adam Murray and Paul Cox shaking hands and renewing their partnership, Murray going on to play an important part in steering the club to safety.
Indeed, December began promisingly with a decent 1-1 FA Cup draw at League One Oldham followed by a decent 0-0 draw at AFC Wimbledon. However, Stags were torn apart 4-1 at home in the live televised cup replay with early season star man Clucas limping off injured and John Dempster sent off. Ironically, had Stags got through, lightning had struck twice and paired them with Liverpool for a second successive year.
There then followed an awful finish at home to Accrington Stanley as the visitors, trailing 2-1 with 93 minutes on the watch, somehow turned the game on its head to win 3-2. Stags were rightly booed from the pitch amid angry scenes.
Rochdale away on Boxing Day was a new nadir to the season where Stags barely had a kick as Dale easily saw them off 3-0 to leave them in 21st place – their lowest point of the campaign. It was also a 13th League game without victory, one short of the club record.
Thankfully a trip to Cheltenham on Sunday, 29th then sowed the seeds of revival as a backs-to-the-wall finish saw Mansfield hang on to win 2-1.
Off the field, most of the talk was about Stags’ failure to land a new striker in the transfer window.
With Marlon Harewood and then Emile Sinclair firmly in the frame and Cox working flat out to bring in a goalscorer, chairman John Radford suddenly pulled the carpet from under his manager, stating the club would not be spending any money at all as they were facing a court case against former directors Andy Saunders and Steve Hymas, who it was revealed were demanding almost £1m back in loans.
Radford also sparked controversy by claiming Cox had been given the third biggest budget in the division, but then publicly backed him, saying he would continue until at least the end of the season, despite a section of fans wanting the manager sacked.
On the field, Burton held out for a New Year’s Day away point in a 0-0 draw before Stags again gave their away fans a nervy finish before holding on to their slender 1-0 advantage at Exeter.
Leaders Scunthorpe halted the mini-run with a 2-0 win at One Call, but Stags responded with a battling 1-1 draw at Portsmouth’s historic Fratton Park before almost 15,000 fans.
Still the long run without a home win dragged on, though, and it took a late Palmer equaliser to complete an exciting 2-2 draw with Wycombe.
Mansfield’s impressive away form went on as they comfortably drew 1-1 at Plymouth. Then, after 20 long weeks, the Stags finally won at home, beating Southend 2-1 with Conor Clifford again failing to complete 90 minutes against Stags without a red card to chalk up an unwanted ‘double’.
Oxford ended the four-game away unbeaten run with a powerful 3-0 home win, but a Rhead goal shot down Fleetwood 1-0 in a fine home display and it seemed the home hoodoo was over until Bury turned up three days later with a timely reminder that you cannot afford to be anything less then 100 per cent in League Two as they stormed to a 4-1 win over a tired-looking Stags at One Call with one of the best away displays there of any team all season. That left Stags in 20th place, just six points above the drop zone and having played a game more than their rivals.
A further setback off the pitch saw chairman John Radford announce that he had been told to reduce the loans from his One Call Insurance company to the club from £100,000 to £34,000 a month.
Physio Simon Murphy also announced he was moving on to work at Premier League-bound Leicester City.
A 0-0 draw at Dagenham & Redbridge opened March. Anthony Howell was then the unlikely 90th minute goal hero as Stags saw off Newport 2-1 in an ill-tempered home clash.
But Stags’ Jekyll and Hyde home form continued as three days later York won 1-0 thanks to a Ryan Bowman penalty kick on a night when referee Darren Drysdale seemed to do all he could to anger the home side and fans with a string of strange decisions.
By now Mansfield were slipping towards the relegation dogfight and went to bottom club Northampton in 18th place knowing they had a minimum requirement of avoiding defeat. Thankfully they came away with a gutsy 1-1 draw, despite losing Darryl Westlake to a red card. After a superb showing in a 0-0 home return game with Chesterfield, which attracted less than 6,000 fans, Palmer also missing a golden late chance to become an instant club legend, Mansfield then chalked up a hugely crucial shock 4-2 midweek win at Hartlepool. They followed that up on the Saturday with a scrappy 1-0 home win over AFC Wimbledon, the first back-to-back wins since September, paving the way for safety.
With a fast-growing confidence, Stags extended that winning run to four games with a bruising 1-0 win at Morecambe in a real brawl of a football match, and then an unexpected 3-0 demolition job of leaders Rochdale at home in the club’s landmark 5,000th competitive game, saw them take revenge for that Boxing Day embarrassment.
Opponents had begun whining about Mansfield being rough boys and ‘Land of the Giants’, but the revitalised Stags were soaring back up the table and suddenly, and incredibly, they were not only safe but back within touching distance of the play-off spots again for the first time since October.
However, those faint hopes were finally crushed over Easter as Accrington Stanley bagged a controversial 95th minute penalty to steal a 1-1 draw on Good Friday before a lacklustre Stags succumbed 2-0 at home to Cheltenham on Easter Monday.
The final home game against Torquay saw the Gulls pull off a 3-1 win over a Stags side looking like they had nothing to play for, but it wasn’t enough to save the Devon club from relegation that afternoon. Cox was angry with his side’s display, as were some of the home fans, one of whom launched themselves at Cox on the pitch at the end and ended up grappling with coach Richard Cooper.
At least Stags signed off in some style, a Junior Daniel volley winning the game at Bristol Rovers 1-0 which ended the Pirates’ 94-year stay in the League as Mansfield’s win relegated them, sparking scenes of violence between home fans and police on the pitch afterwards.
The final table showed Mansfield in 11th place, but only kept off ninth by goal difference.
Sam Clucas ended the season voted into the Sky Bet League Two Player of the Year Top 10 while Chad readers voted for Matt Rhead as player of the season as he made a clean sweep of the club and supporters’ player of the year accolades.