What could possess someone to get up at 7.30am on a Saturday morning, head into town and drink Guinness out of a plastic cup surrounded by men with neck tattoos and Stone Island clobber? An away day, of course!
Yes, I’m in a pub in Nottingham city centre, initiating proceedings in the time-honoured fashion – beer, stories and score predictions. It’s not just any away day, it’s the one we’ve all been waiting for – Notts County. As we sup slowly, blowing off the morning cobwebs and trading views on cricket, relationships, morality and more, talk inevitably falls upon the collective feeling of pride we’re almost reticent to invoke… but superstition be damned, Stags are STILL unbeaten!! Sixteen games and the only club in the top four divisions not to have tasted defeat in any competition. It’s a truly remarkable achievement, and one that the four of us can’t quite believe has happened, but today’s opponents surely represent the toughest challenge to that record.
Notts are unbeaten at home, scoring freely, playing expansive attacking football, and are top of the league. Meadow Lane will be a pressure cooker, with nearly 17,000 expectant fans present and the eyes of the country tuned in via Sky Sports’ live coverage. Nottingham has been a happy stomping ground for Mansfield in my lifetime as a supporter. We have won and drawn here on many occasions and I’ve only seen us lose the derby once in 20 years (home and away) - the last encounter between the sides, in 2019. This however, is a different Notts team – one that has won under pressure at Wembley and taken that momentum to the summit of League 2. Best get another round in – the nerves are starting!
A second pint and I’m going to have to break the seal earlier than I’d wanted. I shuffle past the crowd at the bar and shudder as a group of blokes line up tequila shots. Into the loos and another group of blokes are lining up something else. Okay, it’s going to be that kind of day. Been a while since we played Notts – I’d forgotten what it can be like. I sidle up in between two old fellas at the urinal, bantering at each other like schoolboys. “Ooh I enjoyed that” says one, as he zips up. “In one end out the other, Jim” says his mate. “That’s the nature of the business we’re in” says Jim. “Buckle up youth – more where that came from”. And he’s right. For the rest of the morning I’m either drinking beer, or needing to get rid of it, until finally, it’s time to move.
We walk on past the tram lines, the station, Hooters and eventually to Meadow Lane, where lines of police with dogs and fans of both teams form a familiar picture. The sights and sounds of derby day are back and it feels good. The nerves have gone now and I’m just looking forward to it. Into the ground we go and up to our seats. After the obligatory “I think you’re in my seat”/ “it’s sit where you want” / “ok, whatever” conversation, we end up standing on the stairs, somewhere near the half-way line, in the Jimmy Sirrel Stand. For some reason, after a couple of decades of Mansfield coming to Meadow Lane, making an almighty noise and spurring on the Stags to numerous wins and draws, Notts County haven’t considered that it might be an advantage to let so many of us in. Nearly four thousand of us pack the stand that runs length-ways down one side of the pitch.
From the beginning, and after a shockingly observed minute’s silence for Israel/Palestine, the noise is immense. I look over a sea heads and hands aloft, towards the Kop stand (Mansfield fans were once housed there – what were they thinking?!). The ground is close to full and it’s an impressive sight.
Notts fans ring out a rendition of the Wheelbarrow song, they’re are clearly well up for this – aaaaand they’ve scored. The place erupts. Bollocks! The throngs of spotty yobs in the Kop end surge over the first few rows, frustratingly held back by insurmountable 2ft high advertising boards, while the blocks to my right offer them an almost choreographed wave of wanker signs and Vs – like a chavvy Agincourt. It’s deflating - for a moment - but then we all seem to realise at the same time that we’ve been here plenty of times before this season. We like going behind it seems – and we just don’t lose football matches. Stags ramp it up, both on the pitch and in the stands.
Buoyed by a tremendous noise, unlike anything I think I’ve heard from our fans before, the players step up to implement Nigel Clough’s game plan to perfection. The strategy is to relentlessly press the Notts back line with our forwards, forcing them back to their full-backs or keeper, who will have no choice but to go long to their diminutive strikers and our totemic centre-halves, bypassing their classy midfielders and nullifying their passing game. It works a treat. The home crowd sense it and go quiet. All you can hear are our fans. Stags win the ball high up, cross it, GOAL! People are falling over seats. Bovril is in the air. It’s pandemonium in the Jimmy Sirrel Stand! And this is the story of the rest of the game. Mansfield hungry, Notts baffled. Three Stags goals in the second half cap off a superb and deserved victory and leave the natives in a state of shock. What a game. What a team!
How long this run goes for, I don’t know. It’ll end at some point, but I thought that when I submitted my August and September articles. The next time I write, will the record still stand? Mansfield have now played pretty much all the top sides in League 2. They face League One Port Vale, in the fourth round and a chance to reach a Quarter-Final. Isn’t that bonkers?
On the Tuesday after the derby, I take my daughter to practice at the club’s training ground. As all the academy kids file in, we’re surprised to see the men’s first team still on site. Stephen Quinn and Lucas Akins are sharing a joke with a couple of parents. Goalkeeper Scott Flinders is cleaning his boots. I tell him the kids should be doing that for him – he agrees! “What are you all still doing here anyway?” I ask. “We didn’t start our session until late”, he says, “and the gaffer is getting us all together to watch the England game and get a bit of food”. “Great stuff – I bet you’re still buzzing from Saturday” I say. “Oh, we’re all chuffed” he smiles “the mood’s brilliant at the minute”. And this is all I want as a football fan. My players to be happy and accessible, slow and steady improvements off the pitch, the news that Stags fans will be back in the North Stand for the first time in forever and of course, thumping your local rivals in front of nearly four thousand fans!
Having Nigel in charge is a huge privilege too. He’s built this team’s spirit over a several years. Nights out are probably more often seen than at other clubs, but whatever he’s doing, it’s working. Despite being in the division for 10 years, the ghosts of our non-league past loom still and I can’t help but think about how lucky we are to be in this place now, whatever league we’re in. To quote the beaming amber hordes at Meadow Lane – “THERE’S ONLY ONE JOHNNY RADFORD!”
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