LOMAS ON STAGS: Whisper it - but this is looking better than 12 months ago already!

Mansfield Town v Sheffield United.'Matt Preston and Krystian Pearce turn attackers in the second half.
Mansfield Town v Sheffield United.'Matt Preston and Krystian Pearce turn attackers in the second half.

Maybe I should only whisper this after last season’s anticipation and disappointment, but I truly believe Mansfield Town are looking far better right now than 12 months ago.

Last summer we had all the excitement of manager Steve Evans’ rush of signings, the hype of statements of ambition by the manager and chairman and, ultimately, the bookies throwing petrol on the fire by making Mansfield promotion favourites.

But, for all the quality they possessed - and there was an abundance of it – things somehow never quite gelled the way we all expected over the campaign - and we all know how the story ended.

This time around the hype is less and Stags are no longer favourites, though are well up there in that pack.

So far we have only seen five new faces as well, with one more likely to come in.

But the quality of football played and the fitness of the players on show in the first two home games has me genuinely excited.

It is telling that, when Mal Benning spoke to us afterwards, he said it had been one of the toughest pre-seasons he had experienced and he was raring to go.

Omari Sterling-James had also told us four days earlier he was 10 times fitter than he was last season.

From those comments and what we have seen on the field I think we can safely assume a David Flitcroft pre-season knocks the spots off a Steve Evans pre-season.

This is penned before Tuesday’s visit of Sheffield Wednesday, but the quality of Mansfield’s football has been a joy to watch against Championship sides of the calibre of Derby County and Sheffield United this week.

Abandoning 4-4-2, Flitcroft has employed wing backs and the Stags have moved the ball quickly and accurately around the team, causing high quality sides umpteen problems.

Of the new boys, Otis Khan is a busy midfielder, always available, rarely gives the ball away cheaply, and is involved in everything with some good set piece deliveries so far.

Craig Davies looks to be an upgrade on the quality of last season’s loanee Kane Hemmings, leads the line very well up front and will definitely score goals at League Two level.

Fellow striker Tyler Walker has shown glimpses of his talent, though not a lot has come off for him as yet. But we have seen his pace and finishing at Championship level with Forest and I am sure he will come good during the season.

Neal Bishop is the consummate veteran midfield general and looks like he will be the pivotal figure this season as expected while Matt Preston is a powerful centre half who looks very comfortable on the ball and eager to distribute accurately and not lump it every time.

All of last season’s players are also looking sharp and selectable, including Calum Butcher who is still transfer-listed but obviously desperate to show the qualities he had at Millwall and blow away the misery of his time under Evans which saw him farmed out on loan.

We still have top scorer Danny Rose to bring back into the equation once fit which is also exciting.

And we can expect another high quality centre half, possibly this week, to complete the squad.

It’s also a delight to see young players like Jordan Graham and Lewis Gibbens given a chance – something that would not have happened under the previous management.

Neither looks out of place and they seem very confident for their tender years.

We all know that what happens in pre-season does not always translate to the real thing once League Two kicks off.

But for now it’s hard not to feel a great sense of optimism about what lays ahead over the next nine months – so let’s enjoy that for now.

Flitcroft took a lot of stick last season for not getting a Steve Evans squad over the promotion line at the death.

This season, it’s his own formation and the start of bringing in his own players as well as giving youth a chance.

From past games against Bury and Swindon, we all know how well and attractively a David Flitcroft side can play.

If he can reproduce that this season with Mansfield, last season’s disappointment – and the previous manager – will be quickly forgotten.