Stags build for bright future - a review of season 2015/16
Despite the disappointment of missing out on the play-offs after spending so much of the season in the top seven, Mansfield Town will ultimately look back on 2015/16 as a decent season.
Touted by the bookies as relegation fodder, Stags boss Adam Murray - in his first full season in the job - culled almost all of the previous squad, brought in a brand new squad, and galvanised them into a very useful outfit almost immediately.
Everything about Murray was sharp and modern. He had an eye on developing every aspect of the club from youth to first team, from background staff using every modern method to ways he could extract an extra one per cent that may prove crucial.
In the end they fell short by only winning seven of 23 home games, failing to give returning striker 16-goal Matt Green enough support and also being a quality player or two short in a very small, tight-knit squad.
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It didn’t help to lose skipper Nicky Hunt to Leyton Orient mid-season either.
But, after so many years of misery, Murray has finally given the town hope they can build on Paul Cox’s Conference success and take the club forward up the Football League as well as start to produce home-grown players of quality once more with the advent of a new U21s side next season.
Adam Murray recruited 13 new faces over the summer, 1,740 fans bought season tickets, and two days before the season, a plaque was unveiled at OCS declaring it the oldest professional football ground in the world.
Stags had a promising pre-season, including holding Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City to a 1-1 draw to help galvanise the Foxes for their run to the title!
A decent crowd of 4,146 then turned out full of optimism for the opening day home clash with Carlisle United by which time winger James Caton had been added on loan. And the stadium erupted when debut-making left back Mal Benning scored a spectacular free kick. But Keith Curle’s Carlisle levelled to earn a point.
The inevitable midweek Capital One Cup defeat at Championship neighbours Sheffield Wednesday was most notable for an insect bite on the leg of keeper Scott Shearer which turned very nasty, saw him rushed to hospital with inspection, and fail to regain his place until January.
Also, giant 17-year-old centre half Corbin Shires made his Stags debut in the 4-1 defeat.
A memorable Friday night derby then saw Stags in full control in a 2-0 win at big-spending neighbours Notts County with Mansfield cheered on by an army of 2,767 away followers.
But the following Tuesday saw a tame ‘After the Lord Mayor’s Show’ 1-0 defeat at Accrington Stanley.
A 1-1 home draw with Oxford United in sweltering heat saw returning goal ace Matt Green miss a penalty – ironically Stags’ first spot kick in a record 85 league and cup games.
But Green found his shooting boots a week later with a brace as Stags won 2-1 at York City, ending the month in eighth place.
Notts County took some semblance of revenge with a 3-1 home win to knock a below-strength Stags out of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, then a decent display earned only a third straight home draw, 1-1 to AFC Wimbledon.
But Murray’s new-look side clicked fully as they demolished Crawley Town 4-0.
Luton keeper Mark Tyler was man of the match as the Hatters sneaked a 1-0 home win, Chris Clements picking up a groin strain, before a powerful Plymouth held Stags 0-0 at the OCS.
That game saw winger Matty Blair come on as substitute after an eight-month injury nightmare to huge cheers.
The month ended on a high with a 2-0 win at Stevenage that lifted Stags into the top seven for the first time and with the third best defensive record in the entire Football League.
A decent month saw 10 points added from the six games with Stags going as high as fourth for a couple of weeks and rookie boss Murray signing what was believed to be a two-year contract and also seeing the arrival of his fourth child with wife Lyndsey.
Benning buried a superb early volley and sub Adi Yussuf stole a late winner in a thrilling see-saw 4-3 win at Dagenham & Redbridge in which Stags had gone 3-1 behind after leading.
Matt Green’s penalty success in that game ended a remarkable run of 104 games without Stags scoring from the spot going back to October 2013.
Newport were swept aside 3-0, Benning bagging another fantastic volley, before Stags had Krystian Pearce and Nicky Hunt sent off in an ill-tempered home defeat by Bristol Rovers, keeper Brian Jensen dazed and almost immobile as Matty Taylor grabbed the winner.
Yet Stags had initially enjoyed the man advantage after Jermaine Easter’s dismissal just before half-time.
They also lost in-form left back Benning with a serious knee injury that kept him out until the end of January, the impressive Blair Adams drafted in on loan from Notts County to cover.
In midweek Reggie Lambe left it very late as he struck in a 10th added minute at the end to earn all three points with a 1-0 win at Yeovil Town.
A battling display earned a 0-0 draw at Portsmouth before a 2-0 home setback against Wycombe saw them into November in sixth place.
Off the field winger Lambe was banned from the roads for 17 months for drink-driving.
Interest in the FA Cup was short-lived as in round one, League One Oldham Athletic held Stags 0-0 at OCS before winning the replay 2-0.
In the League, Mansfield lost 1-0 in a tight game at financially beleaguered Northampton Town. How the season would change for the Cobblers as they went on to storm to the title.
After five games without a goal, Stags were back on target as visiting Hartlepool United were beaten 3-1, though skipper Hunt missed out with a hamstring injury that kept him out until the New Year.
But a poor home display in a 2-0 defeat by Exeter City angered manager Adam Murray as they dropped out of the top seven.
With his words ringing in their ears, Stags headed south to bounce back to beat Barnet 3-1 with both sides ending up with 10 men, Chris Clements red-carded for the Stags near the end, as Mansfield ended the month back in the top seven.
December saw the Stags slip to 11th thanks to three successive 1-1 draws.
The first was a home draw with Leyton Orient, a game that went ahead after a morning pitch inspection on the sodden surface.
Next was a decent 1-1 at in-form Cambridge United, Adam Chapman putting Stags ahead with a 35-yard free kick.
With the Boxing Day trip to Morecambe rained off, the month ended with a disappointing 1-1 home draw with strugglers York City.
It meant Mansfield ended the year having won just three of their 13 home games.
It was a month also in which Murray’s early success as a manager saw him linked with the vacant job at League One Walsall, defender Luke Jones finally retired after a long battle with an ankle injury and Liam Lawrence was wrongly rumoured to be rejoining the Stags.
The New Year got off to a bad start as a classy Accrington Stanley side won 3-2 at OCS with ex-Stag Billy Kee among their scorers.
Mansfield bounced back with a 2-1 home win over Stevenage, new loan signing James Baxendale netting on an impressive debut while winger Nathan Thomas quit the club to go home to the North-East and join rivals Hartlepool.
Stags then lost back-to-back League fixtures for the first time all season as they went down 3-1 at AFC Wimbledon and 2-0 at home to Luton Town, a game in which new Fulham loanee left back Shaun Kavanagh failed to impress after a change of manager at Notts County saw Blair Adams recalled.
Green put Stags ahead in a proverbial ‘game of two halves’ at Wimbledon, but the Dons took a grip after the break. Then a poor Stags display against Luton earned the home side what they deserved. It was the Hatters’ first ever League win at Mansfield.
Due to the Stags’ unexpected play-off push, optimism had begun to turn to expectation with fans unhappy over some of the results they felt their side should be winning.
There were angry scenes by the tunnel after the Luton defeat with a section of fans hurling personal abuse at players and management.
Chairman Radford had to step in with a statement to say he was happy with where the club were on the budget set, which helped ease some of the pressure.
Indeed, it worked a treat as they hit back to win two successive away games, 2-1 at Morecambe, with two very late goals set up by Lee Collins, and 1-0 at Crawley Town, Chris Beardsley heading home the winner to put Stags back into the top seven.
Off the pitch, the club proved it was taking massive strides towards being self-sustaining, despite struggling to attract fans through the turnstiles.
At the club’s annual meeting, two sets of accounts showed that the club’s loss of £1.1 million from 2013 had been reduced to £721,000 in 2014 and by last year had dropped dramatically to £74,510 for the year ended 2014/15.
After several years of reporting losses of over £1m, it was agreed this was a fantastic achievement.
There was further good news for the club as it was announced that owner John Radford and directors Steve Hymas and Steve Middleton have all agreed to convert loans totalling around £1.2m into preference shares in the club, wiping more debt off the books.
Stags were dealt a major blow as skipper Nicky Hunt unexpectedly asked for a transfer and moved south to Leyton Orient, but they still made it three wins on the bounce with a 2-1 home win over Morecambe to move fifth, a game in which home keeper Scott Shearer memorably pulled off two penalty saves and boss Murray, unhappy with referee Mark Heywood’s decisions, eventually sent from the bench.
Swansea full back Dan Alfei came in on loan to cover the gap left by Hunt.
In midweek the Stags claimed a superb 2-2 draw at Oxford United, Jack Thomas stealing a late leveller after Matt Green had earlier put Stags in front only to see Oxford go 2-1 up. That point saw Stags already better their previous season’s points total.
The long haul down to Plymouth saw Murray serve a one-game touchline ban for his outbursts in the Morecambe game and an impressive Argyle cruised home 3-0.
The game also saw saw sub Adi Yussuf told where to spend a penny behind the stand as he was caught short warming up – an action that was to cost him far more than a penny.
Then came a thrilling 3-2 home win over Dagenham in which Krystian Pearce was sent off and Jamie Cureton missed a spot kick for the Daggers. Stags’ appeal against Pearce’s dismissal failed.
The game began with a minute’s silence for former Stags winger Johnny Miller, who had passed away.
Then there was a return to the club on loan from Port Vale of another ex-Stags wingman, Junior Daniel.
The month ended with a contentious 1-0 defeat at Newport to a goal that appeared offside on a dreadful pitch almost entirely covered in sand.
Stags were ninth with high hopes of the play-offs as we entered March, But boss Adam Murray later labelled it as the ‘March of Doom’ as Stags failed to win any of their five games and slipped to 13th – a blow from which they never recovered.
A disappointing Craig Westcarr was farmed out to Southport on loan, never to be seen again and eventually released at the end of the season.
Stags were shocked to hear that complaints by Plymouth fans about Yussuf urinating behind their stand had led to a harsh five-game ban from the FA and £700 fine.
Murray was also disappointed to see winger Reggie Lambe accept a call-up to play for Bermuda in the midst of such a crucial run of games.
Meanwhile, unable to play games, Yussuf went off to train with his Tanzanian national side.
A 1-0 win by revitalised visitors Yeovil Town – a 91st minute winner – was followed by a 1-0 loss at promotion-bound Bristol Rovers - the first time Stags had lost three on the trot all season.
A 1-1 home draw with Portsmouth followed with Shearer saving another penalty and Chesterfield loanee striker Mani Dieseruvwe making his debut, but Green’s goal was wiped out by a Ryan Tafazolli own goal.
Mansfield were then the better side at Wycombe only to lose to a fluke goal that was intended as a cross on Good Friday.
Easter Monday saw the visit of champions-to-be Northampton and, after Matt Green’s brace had put Stags 2-0 up inside 16 minutes, Jamie McGuire was sent off in first half stoppage time and the Cobblers hit back to draw against the 10-men in a thrilling game.
Lifelong fan Mark Burton, managing director of local company Ulyett Landscapes, was appointed to the Stags’ board of directors.
Stags went into April in 13th place with play-off hopes hanging by a thread.
And it didn’t get any better as a third red card of the season for Pearce saw Stags down to 10 men after 24 minutes and conceding the first of two home spot kicks as they lost 2-1 at Hartlepool United, Junior Daniel levelling only to lose it late on. That was 12 penalties Stags had conceded this season.
Stags fans were angry to see Nathan Thomas celebrate in front of them in a provocative manner just three months after leaving the club.
Also, before the game, it was revealed that first team coach Micky Moore had been released from his contract early and Murray was now on the look-out for a new No.2.
Much-travelled striker Karl Hawley came in to help coach the forwards on a part-time basis while youth coach Scott Rickards was given some first team bench experience as Murray mulled over who would be his new assistant.
The Hartlepool defeat left Stags 13th, eight points off the play-offs with six games to go.
An excellent 2-1 away win at rivals Keith Curle’s Carlisle United kept faint hopes alive.
Then came the season’s high point as neighbours Notts County were thrashed 5-0 at OCS, four goals coming in 26 magic second half minutes, the gap closed to six points.
Notts brought an unruly element among their huge 1,741 following and three of them were arrested, one for running onto the pitch. Also the North Stand toilets were trashed.
It later transpired up-for-sale Notts had also failed to pay Stags the £20,000 owed for their advance ticket sales.
Mansfield reeled off a third straight win in midweek, 3-2 at in-form play-off chasing Exeter, Ryan Tafazolli completing a brace with the 81st minute winner. But rivals AFC Wimbledon also won and no ground was made on the six points.
However, it was a 10th away win of the season, just one short of the club’s League record.
Play-off hopes finally ended with a 1-1 home draw with Barnet, Chesterfield loanee striker Mani Dieseruvwe hitting his first ever League goal for Stags’ equaliser after an early error by Shearer had let the visitors take the lead.
The final away game painfully saw ex-Stag Ollie Palmer grab the winner in a 1-0 defeat at Leyton Orient in a lacklustre affair.
Ryan Tafazolli cleaned up in the pre-match player of the year awards and Stags’ youth team paraded their championship trophy in the warm sunshine before Stags and Cambridge United played out a dull, almost chanceless, 0-0 draw to end what was overall a decent season for Mansfield.
Stags gave a glimpse of the future with a debut as sub for striker Zayn Hakeem.
The game also saw chairman John Radford unveil the former North Stand clock on the Bishop Street gantry, donated back to the club by director Steve Hymas in memory of his late daughter, Kim.
So Murray’s men finished a decent campaign in 12th place with so much promise for next season and the future.
But a total of 77 bookings and seven red cards did leave Stags bottom of the League Two FA Fair Play table, another issue the manager must address for next season.