Mansfield Town’s opening day visitors Newport County are hoping to be in the play-off mix this season after a superb year of progress under boss Michael Flynn last season.
After following up successive 22nd-place finishes in League Two with a climb to 11th last season, the aim is to carry on that progression and sustain a push for the play-offs.
The team were in a good position to challenge for a top-seven spot last season before a dip in form after a successful run to the FA Cup fourth round, which ended in a narrow defeat in a Wembley replay against Tottenham Hotspur.
“We have been able to get footage of three or four of Newport’s pre-season games which is important,” said Stags boss David Flitcroft.
“Newport have done well in those games. They had a super season last season and it will be a continuation of that.
“I have so much respect for what that management team has done on the resources they’ve got.
“Their players want to run and fight for the manager and will put up a massive test. We have to be ready for that from the minute the whistle goes.
“They will be very aggressive. Flynny (boss Michael Flynn) was outstanding last season in what he achieved as a manager. He will have had a good summer to reflect on that and build out from that.”
He addded: “We will give all our competitors the massive respect that every team deserves, no matter what league they are in.
“They will be at it. They’re coming to our home and we have got to make sure we start the game well and continue with what we’ve done pre-season.”
A small squad may make life difficult for Newport, but if they get off to a good start and avoid injuries and cup distractions they may be able to improve on mid-table.
The Exiles have lost Ben White, Ben Tozer, Frank Nouble and Shawn McCoulsky, all of whom were key players last season. And captain Joss Labadie is recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament injury and has yet to sign a new deal.
Flynn has brought in eight players so far this summer – defenders Fraser Franks and Tyler Forbes, midfielders Andrew Crofts, Charlie Cooper, Tyreeq Bakinson and Keanu Marsh-Brown, and forwards Jamille Matt and Antoine Semenyo. There are likely to be at least two more arrivals before the deadline – a back-up goalkeeper and another striker.
The club has been an upward trajectory since Flynn replaced Graham Westley 18 months ago and masterminded the Great Escape from relegation in May 2017.
Although he suffered his first real tough period in February and March, he and the team came through that and finished the season in better form, so the manager still has plenty of credit in the bank and most supporters are fully behind him.
Striker Padraig Amond was last season’s top scorer with 14 goals and he is targeting 20+ in his second campaign.
He is likely to be the main man in terms of goal threat for the Exiles and, fitness permitting, it will be him and one other up front.
This should also be a big season for midfielder Josh Sheehan, who returned to the club in a permanent deal from Swansea City in January after a successful loan spell during the 2016-2017 season.
Sheehan was out for nearly a year with an ACL injury and was not at his best at the end of last season as he worked his way back to match-fitness and struggled to nail down a starting spot, masking finding his form difficult.
After a full pre-season he should be raring to go and fans will be hoping he can replicate the form he showed two seasons ago when he netted seven times and created countless chances for teammates.
For Mansfield boss Flitcroft, to take on Newport for League Two points is a welcome relief from pre-season friendlies.
“You get stimulated by competition and I get excited just thinking about any game of football,” he said.
“With how we’ve progressed pre-season I am really looking forward to it – as I was the day the season ended.
“You want to try to give supporters a team in your mould and your vision – hopefully we can offer that after last season’s disappointment.
“I understand what our supporters want and need. They want to come on a Saturday to watch their team fight for them, run for them and play a style of football that’s they can appreciate.
“I am at an ambitious club and I am ambitious myself. Now I feel I have got a group of players that are equally ambitious as the town. Every player has come for football reasons as we drive to do better than last year.
“The team is definitely more dynamic than last year and the new players have given us an impetus and an enthusiasm.”