The half of Mansfield Town’s new-look squad that played a full 90 minutes against Middlesbrough last night will have given the home fans even more optimism for the forthcoming season.
The other half of the squad did the business away to non-League Stocksbridge Park Steels the night before – let’s not forget that it is never easy to go away to a ground like that and win 4-0.
But the rest of the Stags had a massive task last night in taking a side of the quality of Middlesbrough, only just relegated from the Premier League.
If Stags had been well beaten, no one could have complained against that level of opposition.
Instead the team shone like beacons with so many fine performances which brought praise from new Boro boss Gary Monk.
Stags started off at a fine pace and went 2-0 up early doors which finally stirred Boro into action to fight back and level by the end of a breathtaking first half, played at a franctic pace, which saw both sides knock the ball around with some aplomb.
After the two Boro replies there was a period of time when the visitors began to keep the ball and look ominously like they would take control.
But, to Mansfield’s credit, they kept their shape and discipline to hold off any further damage – a trait that bodes well for the new campaign.
Inevitably the two sides, both turning in their first full 90-minute displays of the pre-season, could not keep that pace up after the break for a quieter second half that contained few real chances to win it.
The giant figure of Hayden White edged man of the match for me. The right back was immense in his defending, anticipation and rampaging forward and he brought huge cheers with a couple of his big tackles.
George Taft also had an outstanding night over the 90 minutes though was twice beaten in the air by Dael Fry from set pieces, the first a warning as Paul Anderson cleared off the line and the second costing a goal.
As Taft is 3ins taller than Fry he will be disappointed.
But Fry, a member of the England U20 squad that won the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup in South Korea, is a class act and will always score goals from set pieces.
Stags keeper Bobby Olejnik made a couple of fine saves on the night and look assured. It will be interesting to see who gets the nod to start at Crewe between the posts.
Joel Byrom looked like he is going to be able to show his quality much better than last season with the new, improved players around him and his passing was cool and accurate last night.
New boy Paul Digby also impressed in central midfield, always available and always a threat just behind the front pair.
However, with Boro’s superior quality, fans did not see as much of Stags as an attacking outfit as they would have liked on the night with players being forced into more defensive duties than they will have to worry about every weekend during the season.
Omari Sterling-James, being touted as one of the season’s potential stars, had few chances, caught dallying a second too long in a first half one-on-one. But he looked good when he ran at the defence and put some dangerous balls over.
Strike partner Lee Angol had few sights of goal. But it’s significant that the one clear chance he had, he tucked away with some aplomb – the sign of a quality striker.
Jack Thomas and Jordan Slew made late cameo appearances but nowhere near enough to give them time to enhance their claims for a place in the squad this season.
Thomas did make one excellent turn and accurate pass inside while Slew fired a good effort just over the bar before time ran out on them.
Boro’s star performers were Cyrus Christie, Grant Leabitter and the fleet-footed Mikael Soisalo and it was lovely to hear Mansfield fans applaud ex-Stag Alex Baptiste as he left the field near the end. I wonder where the ‘John’ half of his surname disappeared to though?
Doubtless Steve Evans will mix the sides up again this weekend for the games with Stamford and Forest and by the end of next Tuesday’s clashes at Carlton and Gainsborough we should be a bit nearer knowing the likely starting XI.
I certainly wouldn’t want to be picking it right now but, whoever gets chosen to start, you can bet the bench will one of the strongest, if not the strongest, in the club’s history, with mouthwatering options if things are not going according to plan.
If you are not feeling excited now, check with your doctor as you may be dead already!