After the turbulence of November, our first defeat and then several more in different competitions, it’s safe to say the Stags have categorically consigned that sequence of bad results to history and bounced back in imperious fashion...
At the start of December, Nigel Clough spoke about the significance of a fixture-dense festive run on the overall fortunes of our season, stressing the need to manage this difficult period and gain as many points as possible. Four games later, and ten points from twelve in December meant that Mansfield finished 2023 with yet another unbeaten month, to go with August, September and October.
This return to form also set up a juicy New Year’s Day clash at Stockport County, the league leaders. The Stags had beaten the Hatters earlier in the season in a close encounter at Field Mill, but away from home is a different prospect and I remarked to a friend that if we could win there and take all six points from Stockport, I would finally start to believe that 2024 would be the year of the Stag!
I am writing this on the morning after that fixture and, true to my word, I’m delighted to say that I do now think it is finally our time! The Stags put in arguably their most impressive performance yet at Edgeley Park to well and truly state their intent with a 2-0 victory. It leaves us two points behind Stockport, in second place, with two games in hand. A win at home to Crewe next Saturday and we are top of the league!
Throughout the season, we’ve had opposition managers and fans saying that Mansfield are the strongest side they’ve faced. We’ve seen an almost unparalleled unbeaten run, increased confidence in a squad rich in depth and quality, and supporters turning out in the best numbers in decades.
But there has always been something there stopping Stags fans from committing to the realisation that this is indeed our best chance of promotion to League 1 since the turn of the millennium. Now, finally, I feel unrestrained by superstition or the baggage of our recent near misses. I really think we’ll do it. There, I’ve said it!
Looking back at previous seasons shows that it’s incredibly rare for a team to only lose once in the first half of a campaign. In the last ten years, only Carlisle (2016/17) and Mansfield (2018/19) managed that feat, but neither achieved promotion. Those numbers only tell half the story though.
They obviously miss half the stats, but they also don’t account for a squad’s level of preparedness to deal with the difficult back end of the season, where physical and mental tiredness play a big part. What has been abundantly clear about this Stags side is that the depth in quality throughout the team is something we’ve previously lacked and perhaps some of our current rivals also lack now.
At injury-plagued Stockport, Nigel Clough made six changes to freshen his line-up and it made the difference. All the players coming in believe, as Cloughy put it, that “they should be in the first eleven”.
Christmas/New Year is a time of transition. The nights start getting longer again, the traditions symbolise rebirth, and we resolve to improve ourselves in the coming year. The big transition in our family was saying goodbye to Grandma, at the age of 93. While she wasn’t really bothered by the football, she tolerated and helped facilitate three generations of Pickering men obsessing over MTFC!
I’ll always remember her shifting through the back pages of the CHAD to find me articles on the Stags and asking me how they’d got on. While change was in the air for us, for the Stags, continuity was key. On the day before we laid Grandma to rest, my parents and I were honoured to be invited to join club owners, John and Carolyn Radford, in the Directors’ Box for the Boxing Day victory over Grimsby.
We ate our fried breakfast (it was an early kick off!) alongside the Grimsby owners – thoroughly nice blokes by the way– and spoke about football fan cultures and the important role small clubs play in working-class towns that have been stripped of industry and community.
As the Stags stand ready (again!) to make the step up to League 1, it’s nice to know that we have owners, as Grimsby do, who recognise the importance of their pastoral role. The love is two-way and the progress, while ultimately measured on the pitch, must also be recognisable in the returning of the flock, as fans congregate in this place of worship in ever increasing numbers.
However you approach this period, I hope you see a bright year ahead with family and community in mind. Happy New Year and UP THE STAGS!
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