LOMAS ON MANSFIELD TOWN: Make-or-break December looming for Stags and under-pressure John Dempster
Mansfield Town’s season and the future of under-pressure manager John Dempster could rest on a make-or-break December of the toughest order.
At any other time, the performance and the narrow 1-0 defeat at leaders Swindon Town last Saturday would have been viewed in much more glowing terms than it has been.
But poor home form and a lack of consistency so far has seen patience wear thin and left the Stags in 15th place as we approach the halfway point of the season next month.
They are already nine points off the play-off places, having played two games more, and 12 points off the top three automatic promotion places.
For a side that was expected to challenge for promotion once again many fans are now getting restless and wondering if the season is almost over already.
The truth is, of course, that there are still 81 points to play for and a transfer window imminent in which to make any needed tweaks.
But Dempster knows he needs to start chalking up results to get his critics off his back.
The rookie boss is learning as he goes along and, as everyone else on the planet, has and will make mistakes along the way.
However, football is a vicious business and the level of some of the vitriol already aimed at him beggars belief.
Sadly, in the modern day bear pit of social media, it goes with the territory.
The same as club heroes like George Foster and Adam Murray before him, years of loyalty and great deeds for the shirt will go out the window if you fail when you become manager of that club.
As has been said before, if you look back on the season so far and look hard at why it’s not taken off you can see injuries and suspensions have not gone for the Stags and vital points have been spilled at times.
Two wins and a draw last week gave them some breathing space, but defeat at Swindon has given Dempster’s critics voice again, even though few sides will play as well at the County Ground as Mansfield managed in the loss on Saturday.
We all know the performance levels, as individuals and as a team, have shot up over the past couple of months, although home results remain short of the mark.
With key players returning from injury, Stags know points gaps can soon be made up by a run of results.
But fans’ patience is getting shorter and it’s impossible to look into the minds of the Radfords right now.
There is some slight respite this week with an FA Cup game away at League One Shrewsbury in which there is no huge pressure with the same going for Tuesday’s Leasing.com Trophy game at Port Vale.
Progress in both or either competition would be welcome but not vital to the season.
What Dempster will be hoping for will be to sharpen up his players over those two games for what looks like a hugely testing December when Mansfield face five games in a row against play-off chasing sides from the top nine.
They host sixth-placed Cheltenham before travelling to third-placed Crewe.
Home games follow against fifth-placed Northampton and ninth-placed Port Vale before ending the year with a trip to seventh-placed Bradford City.
Scunthorpe United, in 16th place - one below Mansfield – are the highest-placed side Stags have managed to beat so far all season.
So it is going to take a big swing in fortunes to emerge from December still in the hunt.
Yet everyone knows this squad is very capable of doing that.
Stags do look improved at the back and the competition in midfield has increased with the return of Jacob Mellis and a full debut for talented youngster Alistair Smith.
So if Nicky Maynard and Andy Cook can start tucking away the chances being created for them up front, the tide could turn in Dempster’s favour.
No one is running way with it this season and, despite the points gap, the visible lack of gap in quality between the sides on Saturday underlines the fact that Stags do not have that much to make up to compete with their December opposition.
If Dempster can get a few more points on the board along the way and reach the January window, it will have been a traumatic initial learning curve to his first job in football management.
Failure to do that will have fans piling on the pressure on the Radfords to press the button and change the manager yet again.