Stags survive - season 2014/15 review

John Radford and Adam Murray celebrate the managerial appointment.
John Radford and Adam Murray celebrate the managerial appointment.
  • Murray deserves his chance to build a squad
  • Youth production line key to the future
  • Stags hoping for better luck

Mansfield Town supporters will want to forget season 2014/15 as quickly as possible.

Doubtless that will begin to happen as soon as manager Adam Murray starts to unveil new signings and the fixtures list appears on 17th June.

Murray still has his critics and, after ending the campaign with eight defeats in nine games, some supporters are still calling on John Radford to bring in someone else.

But, like it or not, Murray has earned a crack at next season, no matter how tough a watch it was in the end.

Despite inheriting a struggling side with no money in a tough division, Murray managed to coax enough out of the players he had to work with to make the club safe with two weeks of the season to go.

That has to be applauded. But he will thrive or die on his decisions from here on in as he spends the new few months transforming a Paul Cox squad into an Adam Murray squad.

Former Mansfield Town boss Paul Cox.

Former Mansfield Town boss Paul Cox.

Then, and only then, can people truly make a judgement on his fledging managerial abilities.

It is unlikely much will change for him budget-wise. So it is down to Murray’s contacts book and ability to sell the club to quality players if he is to achieve his ambition of building a never-say-die squad of battlers that are also capable of playing football that is much easier on the eye than much of 2014/15’s fare.

The season has produced much anger and recrimination as well as poor attendances.

Supporters still cruelly labelling Murray predecessor Cox as ‘clueless’ need to forget the first half of last season and remember he remains one of the most successful managers the club has ever had.

Lenny Pidgeley.

Lenny Pidgeley.

Cox took Stags to a play-offs and a Championship in successive seasons as well as giving the club a firm foothold in the Football League with 11th in the first year.

Anyone who belittles those achievements needs to get some perspective.

However, all managers reach a sell-by date and, for Cox, that came in November when a lack of results, an over-reliance on a physical, direct game, and an incredible run of bad luck with injuries, combined to see him forced to walk away.

Indeed, those who spout out the cliché of ‘luck always evens itself out over a season’ need to look at Stags’ injuries over 2014/15.

If luck truly does even out, then it may be worth putting money on a season of success for Stags in 2015/16 as they are still well in arrears.

How different might last season have been had key players like Liam Hearn, Luke Jones and Matty Blair not suffered long term, serious injuries?

A successful pre-season offered much promise with Hearn’s braces against Leeds United and Lincoln City suggesting he may be the ideal replacement for Matt Green at long last.

But within a week of the big kick-off in AUGUST, that promise had taken a blow with a 1-0 defeat in the opening game at Northampton followed by a midweek Capital Cup exit at Sheffield United in which Hearn suffered a serious knee injury.

Assistant player-manager Murray stopped the rot with a late winner in a 2-1 success over his former club Oxford at One Call Stadium, then a second minute goal by Chris Clements earned an unconvincing midweek 1-0 home win over Newport.

But the month ended in misery as Stags were late arriving through heavy traffic for a 2-0 defeat at Dagenham & Redbridge, boss Cox angry they had not been allowed to travel overnight, then they were beaten 2-1 at home by champions-to-be Burton.

There was also uproar as talented winger Sam Clucas was allowed to join arch-rivals Chesterfield, though he didn’t seem to be fitting into Cox’s plans.

Into SEPTEMBER, Cox was upset to see his side booed during and after a 2-0 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy defeat at neighbours Notts County.

His injury list was growing rapidly and they were down to 15 fit players after a fine 2-1 win at Exeter where Rakish Bingham made an impressive scoring debut.

A 2-1 defeat at Wycombe after being ahead was followed by a late winner for Alex Fisher in a 1-0 home win against Morecambe.

Ex-Stags boss Keith Curle’s first match in charge of struggling Carlisle saw his side 3-0 down at half-time at One Call Stadium before a second half fightback almost saw them take a point, Mansfield holding on at 3-2.

But the month ended on a low as Stevenage scored twice in the first five minutes as they easily saw off visiting Stags 3-0.

The injury list grew longer in OCTOBER when a poor display in a 1-0 home defeat by Accrington meant Stags had played 13 games and not yet drawn one.

However, the rest of the month saw four draws, 1-1 away to Portsmouth where loanee Jamie Sendles-White made a debut in an almost carbon-copy re-run of last season’s game there, 0-0 at home to Cambridge, 0-0 away to Tranmere, and 1-1 away to York, where loanee Danny Carr scored and Ritchie Sutton suffered a broken jaw.

The growing pressure on Cox saw him finally decide to walk away in NOVEMBER after a run of nine games without a win.

Stags were poor in a 2-1 home defeat by Southend and outclassed 2-0 at Shrewsbury, where Jamie McGuire didn’t help matters with a needless red card.

The 1-1 home Tuesday night FA Cup draw with Conference South minnows Concord Rangers was the final straw for fans as their boos rang from the stands.

At tea time on Friday, 21 November, the news broke that Cox had gone.

That left Murray in temporary charge and, 24 hours later, he changed the style to give the crowd the football they craved to somehow conjure up a memorable 1-0 win over Plymouth amid an amazing atmosphere.

A gutsy 1-0 replay win at the spartan Canvey Island surroundings of Concord in the rain four days later saw Stags through to round two before a manic week for Murray ended with a 3-0 defeat at high-flying Luton.

It was announced at their AGM that Stags made a loss of almost £1.2m in their title-winning season of 2012/13, but chairman John Radford said he hoped they could break even by this summer.

As we reached DECEMBER, Murray was officially appointed into the hot seat, making him the youngster manager in the Football League.

But his side then twice threw away the lead to draw 2-2 in the FA Cup at Cambridge,

His coronation at home to Cheltenham drew a larger crowd with a cut-price ticket deal, but the Robins spoiled the party with an 88th minute equaliser in a 1-1 draw.

A deflected goal saw Cambridge win the replay 1-0 at One Call before Mansfield pulled off a brave 1-0 away win at AFC Wimbledon, despite Rob Taylor being sent off after just 32 minutes.

But that was to be the only win of the three festive period games for Mansfield as they were held 1-1 at home by bottom club Hartlepool United in a game that saw three red cards just before a major blizzard came down on Boxing Day, Ryan Tafazolli off for Stags, before a tame 2-0 defeat at play-off hopefuls Bury 48 hours later.

Murray made full use of the JANUARY transfer window and immediately brought in five new faces – Adam Smith, Callum Elder, Michael Raynes, Ricky Ravenhill and Billy Kee – who all started in a 2-1 defeat at powerful Burton.

Another new player, winger Matty Blair, then joined them and was on the bench for the 3-2 home defeat by Exeter, a thriller in which the Grecians scored twice in the last 17 minutes to snatch it and leave Mansfield only a point from the drop zone.

Unlucky Stags hit the post three times in a bad-tempered 0-0 home draw with Wycombe.

The next game at Carlisle was another bruiser in which Blair was stretchered off in his only his second start with his season over.

Carlisle fans had to clear the pitch of snow, but Stags looked set to win the day until two goals in the final 18 minutes saw Keith Curle take the three vital points from a real six-pointer.

FEBRUARY proved key to Mansfield’s eventual safety as they took 10 points out of the 15 on offer and unveiled a new star in teenage midfielder Jack Thomas, who picked up a string of man of the match displays.

It began with Murray dispensing with wingers and protecting his defence on a dreadful weather-ravaged surface as Stags beat Stevenage 1-0 with a Reggie Lambe goal. Experienced keeper Lenny Pidgeley made his debut on loan from Newport after Leicester recalled Adam Smith and was largely a solid addition for the rest of the season.

Two points were lost when 10-men Northampton went home with a 1-1 draw from a 93rd minute penalty kick in a game dominated by Thomas’ first start.

But Mansfield redeemed themselves in midweek as they kept up a record of never having lost a league game at home to Luton Town, another handy Rakish Bingham goal enough for a 1-0 win.

Murray was furious with a lacklustre 3-0 drubbing at Oxford as the Luton exertions caught up with the players.

But they bounced back again to beat visitors Dagenham & Redbridge 2-1, Junior Brown’s late winner opening a five point gap from the drop.

MARCH began in scintillating fashion with an unexpected 1-0 win away to high-flying Newport. Lambe’s 87th minute winner completed Stags’ first double since coming up from the Conference and opened the gap to the bottom two to seven points.

It was important they didn’t lose at relegation-bound Cheltenham and Billy Kee’s equaliser made sure of a 1-1 draw.

Stags never got going in a 1-0 home defeat by Bury but bounced back once more in midweek with a crucial 2-1 win over AFC Wimbledon that extended the gap to eight points thanks to another late Bingham goal.

But, anyone thinking Stags were almost safe were soon put right as successive defeats left Mansfield seven points clear of the drop with seven games to play.

A 1-0 away defeat at a Hartlepool United side that had managed to come back from the dead, having spent much of the season adrift at the bottom, was followed by a truly dreadful 4-1 home defeat by a poor York side that even played with 10 men for an hour, Stags rightly booed off for a powerpuff showing.

Nerves really began to jangle in APRIL as Mansfield’s run of defeats extended to five games against a very tough run of opposition.

Despite two excellent displays over Easter against promotion-chasers, Stags lost 2-0 at Southend on Good Friday and 1-0 at home to Shrewsbury on Easter Monday, despite being the better side.

It got no easier away to play-off hopefuls Plymouth, beaten 2-1 and the gap with four games left now back to six points.

Tuesday, 14th April therefore became the biggest game since Stags were promoted as they welcomed bottom side Tranmere for a massive six-pointer.

Reggie Lambe bagged the only goal on a night of high drama and emotion, before being red-carded in the fifth minutes of a nailbiting 14 added minutes by everyone’s favourite referee Darren Drysdale.

The atmosphere was electric and the noise at the final whistle deafening as Stags were all but safe.

Despite an almost inevitable lacklustre ‘After the Lord Mayor’s Show’ performance at Cambridge in a 3-1 defeat four days later, other results meant the job was done.

Before the final home game with Portsmouth, Jack Thomas was handed four end of season awards – including the Chad Readers’ Stags Player of the Season – with Ritchie Sutton winning the other three.

However, Sutton was sent off within 50 seconds and, despite a gutsy showing, Pompey won it 2-1, their big away following taking the home crowd average for the season to 3,021.

On an unseasonally freezing, wet and windy MAY final day at Accrington, Stags bowed out with an eighth defeat in the last nine games, a 2-1 defeat at Accrington, despite a stunning opening goal by skipper Jamie McGuire, to end the season 21st and seven points clear of the bottom two.

Within four days, Murray had axed seven of his squad as he began his promised rebuilding.

He will certainly need to find more goals, the manager admitting the side had not been an attacking threat since they were promoted.

That is shown in a new club record low of only 38 goals scored over the season – the lowest in the division and beating the previous club record of 41 from 1971/72 and 1984/85.

The Stags failed to win a single game by more than one goal all season and they had the worst away record in the division with 13 points, also a new unwanted club away record.

With their lack of penetration, Mansfield also failed to gain a penalty all season, a run now stretching back an amazing 81 league and cup matches since November 2013.

It is a dismal list of statistics and fans who turned out to back their side at almost every game home and away deserving medals.

But, unlike big clubs like Cheltenham and Tranmere, the Stags have survived and live to fight again.

And the club’s renewed youth policy could be the key to their continued survival and blossoming in the future as local talent worth League points and possible big transfer fees begin to roll off the new production line.