LOMAS ON MANSFIELD TOWN: A look back at the Keith Haslam era shows how far Stags have come from the brink
It takes just one read of my ‘Keith Haslam years’ feature on our Chad web site today to understand how far Mansfield Town Football Club has come in a short space of time.
Youngsters and new fans will have little idea of how dark things got for the Stags under the previous owner’s reign.
From the high hopes of Haslam’s arrival, when he bought the club and its huge debts for £1, to his final drawn-out departure with the club in heavy debt and relegated to the Conference, it was a turbulent time the club did well to even survive.
THE KEITH HASLAM YEARS - A DETAILED LOOK BACK AT A DARK TIME FOR THE STAGSSTAGS MAKE FINAL PAYMENT TO KEITH HASLAM THIS WEEK FOR OWNERSHIP OF THE GROUNDOwing money everywhere and at one point locked out of their own ground by Haslam and considering playing at local non-League grounds, no one would have dared to dream of Mansfield Town’s current standing and future prospects.
Fans displaying over-the-top reactions to recent defeats maybe need to read the feature for a reality check.
But that’s football fans all over the world – everybody wants instant success and the natural ‘wobbles’ that occur in every club’s season become an immediate ‘crisis’.
However, there was more than one genuine crisis during the Haslam years as the club lurched from controversy to controversy.
The club was becoming a disaster zone as managers came and went with little money to spend, the better players sold off and Haslam taking increasing amounts of cash out of the club for personal loans or loans to his company.
If his time at Stags were submitted to a TV company for a drama, it would probably be deemed too far-fetched and unbelievable.
Incredibly, even at the end of his reign, the long-suffering Stags fans were told their club may be sold to a man with a disgraceful record of heartlessly asset-stripping companies and then renamed Harchester United after a club in a fictitious Sky TV football drama!
You really could not have made it up.
That sale would have been out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Thankfully, fans let John Batchelor firmly know he was not welcome at Field Mill, at one point being ejected from the ground for his own safety as he tried to mingle with Stags fans at Macclesfield to curry favour.
Haslam grew into something of a caricature of a football club chairman, wearing big Fedora hats and smoking huge cigars, almost casting himself as a pantomime villain and growing a seemingly thick skin to his increasing band of critics.
I will never forget the day he left the directors’ bar, had me pinned by a toilet door and, with his face close to mine, told me my reporting of the protests against him were unfair and I was banned from the club – a ban that lasted less than a week after we told fans about it and he denied it had ever happened.
I also won’t forget when he began to hire bouncer thugs as ‘stewards’, one of who threw me into a wall as I tried to go past him to pick up the press box tea tray that sat behind him.
Many fans also suffered worse at the hands of the increasingly militant ‘stewarding’.
Haslam’s every action increasingly rubbed fans up the wrong way and the town slowly but surely showed solidarity against him.
‘Haslam Out’ Banners and notices began appearing everywhere, not just at games, and a march of over 500 fans from the Civic Centre showed the feeling growing against him.
We know how the main part of the drama ended – with Haslam being beaten up in his own board room by fans as the red mist descended on supporters on that dreadful night that a 1-0 home defeat by Rotherham all but relegated Stags to the ignominy of Conference football.
But the aftermath raged on all summer as offers to buy the club seemingly came and went before the Perry/Saunders/Middleton consortium finally rescued the club and began to bottom out its decline.
There were some good times under Haslam.
We had a promotion, twice made the play-offs, once to the final, and saw three brand new stands rise at the ground, though the stands were done on a shoestring budget, boosted by grants, and were never properly finished.
But the bad far outweighed the good.
When you are selling off players and not investing any money into your club, the decline is inevitable and it was always obvious when Stuart Watkiss got them over the promotion line it was likely to be a short stay in the division above.
Most chairman are in the game for football glory – and that comes at a cost.
Sadly some are in it for other reasons and clubs like Brighton and Blackpool have suffered far worse than Mansfield did.
Never in my 30 years of covering the club have I thought there was a genuine chance Stags could become a Championship club – even for a season.
It had gone stale under previous owners Abacus Holdings and then saw an almost terminal decline set in under Haslam.
So to have the Radfords now steering the ship makes Mansfield the envy of every lower division club.
Their business decisions are sound and their love of football without question.
Haslam’s immediate hatchet job on the club saw him axe record-breaking secretary Joe Eaton just two years short of his retirement and lose other staff as well as cutting back on everything else as a business decision.
It is true the club was losing money heavily.
But at some stage it needed investment and a plan which never appeared under Haslam.
The astute running of Stags by the Radfords has seen them bring the club to a point where it almost breaking even, attendances are rising, the football is good and their plans for the ground are exciting.
League One feels almost within touching distance, though football is a cruel mistress and anything can happen in these last nine games.
But once up, you feel confident the Radfords will not rest on their laurels and have the enthusiasm and business nous to try to get to the next level as quickly as possible.
Their final payment to Haslam on the ground this week does feel like it has brought some sort of closure for everyone.
The future is bright. But it’s not orange. It’s amber and blue!