Adam Murray’s first pre-season in charge of Mansfield Town got off to a very good start at a sunny Kirklington Road on Saturday afternoon, as the Stags ran out comfortable 5-1 winners against local neighbours Rainworth.
The game was characterised by a new style of play, where the ball barely came above knee height throughout the entire game.
With anticipation high at the thought of catching a first glimpse of the Stags new signings, around 700 supporters kitted out in shorts and shades made the short journey to see Mansfield in action. The first half line-up was a blend of youth and experience - Shearer in goal, a back four of Marsden, Collins, Krystian Pearce (ex-Notts County player on trial) and Louis Danquah.
Skipper for the day Adam Chapman and youngster Joe Fitzpatrick were the deep-lying midfielders, with Dwyer on the right, Nathan Thomas on the left and fresh-faced Tom Marriott in the ‘No.10’ role and Chris Beardsley the lone striker.
Mansfield were almost completely dominant in the first half and must have had 75 per cent possession.
They kept the ball well whilst perhaps lacking a cutting edge. Chapman and Fitzpatrick were dropping deep to get the ball from the centre halves and the full backs were pushing on as if to form a four with the aforementioned central midfield pair.
Chris Beardsley headed wide from an excellent Liam Marsden cross, who played very well. Chapman was perhaps guilty of trying to force things at times and looked as if he is still easing his way back in following the summer break.
The brightest spark for the Stags in the first half was tricky winger Thomas. From his first touch of the ball, you could see he has something about him and looked to be direct when in possession.
He drifted in from the left to fill spaces between the Rainworth defence and midfield and this led to the opening goal.
He picked up the ball, ghosted past two players before sliding the ball through to Anthony Dwyer, who calmly finished into the bottom corner.
The Stags were only in front for a few minutes, as Rainworth equalised from the penalty spot.
Louis Danquah was caught ball watching and was tapped for toe by ex-Stag Lewis Chambers before he clumsily bundled the wide man over inside the box.
Chambers took the penalty himself and steered the ball just to the right, passed the agonising dive of Scott Shearer.
A couple of fine pieces of play by Thomas and Fitzpatrick nearly put the Stags in front but the sides went into half-time level. Beardsley also missed a second clear headed chance.
The defence were rarely troubled but perhaps concerning to the management will be that on the couple of occasions Rainworth were able to get forward they did cause problems.
Marsden made some excellent deliveries from the right and Fitzpatrick was neat in the centre. Young Marriott struggled to get into the game in the hole, whilst Beardsley missed two good chances and was a bit static when Chapman and Fitzpatrick were looking for movement. Trialist Pearce performed comfortable but was never really tested.
A whole new 11 emerged for the second half, with more of an established ring to it.
The formation remained 4-2-3-1. Youth team keeper Sam Wilson was between the sticks. Captain for the second half was Nicky Hunt at right back, Shires and Tafazolli at centre back, Benning at left back. Clements and Thomas took the playmaker roles, Rose on the right, Westcarr in the hole and Lambe to the left. Prolific non-League striker Adi Yussuf led the line.
Immediately, the Stags appeared more fluid and able to cut open their rivals at will.
It must be said that Rainworth only had four substitutes and it was a searing hot day.
Having moved closer to the Stags dugout, it was interesting to hear the touchline advice given by Murray.
The key words appeared to be ‘patience’ and ‘recycle’, as in recycle possession, do not try and force a pass that is not there.
Chris Clements thrived in the second half, with several sublime pieces of skill combined with effective passing. Murray was also keen to tell Westcarr not to be on the same line as Yussuf, highlighting his eagerness to establish his team with an option between the opposition’s lines.
Mal Benning on the left showed a desire to get forward and carried on where Marsden left off, delivering some excellent crosses.
After Lambe had been denied by a good save, it was Benning’s cross that led to a second goal for Mansfield. A low cross from the left looped into the net via the thigh of Craig Westcarr for a deserved lead for the Stags.
The second goal took the wind out of Rainworth and Mansfield quickly added to their lead.
A lovely passing move ended with Westcarr rolling the ball into the path of Nicky Hunt on the right of the area and the former Bolton man passing the ball into the far right hand corner. Perhaps the keeper could have done better but it was a great move by the Stags.
A fourth goal was added on 70 minutes as Westcarr showed great vision to square the ball to Yussuf - A fantastic first touch and calm finish by the new striker who is clearly high on confidence in front of goal.
Yussuf secured his second on 77 minutes. It was a hat-trick of assists from Westcarr as Yussuf broke the offside trap and again passed the ball into the back of the net. Yussuf did not look the quickest but his movement was excellent.
Murray was clearly pleased with the way his team was playing as he praised his players from the touchline.
The match ended with the score at 5-1 to the Stags. It could have been more as Benning was denied in the final minute by the Rainworth keeper. Mansfield were also unlucky not to keep a clean sheet and were completely untroubled in the second period.
It was a joy to see the Stags keeping the ball on the deck and playing with flair and confidence. Obviously, the quality of opposition has to be taken into account, but the philosophy was attractive to watch and hopefully Murray and his team have started as they mean to go on.
There were so many excellent performers mostly in attacking areas, especially in the second half as Lambe, Westcarr and Yusuf all looked sharp, backed up by the delivery of Benning, the composure and passing of Clements and the desire of Jack Thomas.
All in all, Mansfield did all that they could and performed admirably in testing conditions after an intense first week of pre-season training.
I am already looking forward to next Saturday’s visit to Tamworth, who should provide the stiffest test to date.