On an amber wall, in one of the entrances that opens into the Quarry Lane End, is a quote by the great former-Liverpool manager, Bob Paisley – “If you’re in the penalty area and don’t know what to do with the ball, put it in the net and we’ll discuss the options later”. How true these words now ring with Stags having done so only three times in the four January games since their triumphant away win at Stockport, on New Year’s Day...
The January blues have well and truly kicked in for Mansfield since I declared that I believed it was finally our year. Since that game, we’ve had two games postponed, lost two, drawn two, had two red cards, and now have two teams above us in the League Two table – going into month two of 2024! In short, January has been a steaming pile of ‘number two’. More injuries leave us totally threadbare, especially in defence where seven players currently sit out. Suspensions to Steven Quinn and Jordan Bowery, following a remarkable away defeat at Wimbledon, test the squad’s depth even further and mean both will miss Saturday’s big Nottinghamshire derby, at Field Mill.
With a refereeing performance that can only be described as beyond belief, Mansfield fell to their third defeat of the season, in South London. Wimbledon, fresh from a derby pasting to MK Dons, looked nothing special, and Stags gave their all, but a last-man challenge near the half-way line, by Bowery, led to his first-half sending off and the start of some memorable officiating – and not for the right reasons. I’m sure somewhere in my deeply-buried memory bank there are worse showings by a man in black (Darren Drysdale and Trevor Kettle’s faces loom vaguely from the back of my subconscious), but I can’t recall them clearly and this is fresh, so I’m going to say that this is the worst refereeing I’ve ever seen. That might sound a bit OTT, but that’s what being a football fan is about. I reserve the right to use the ref as a scapegoat on whom to unload all my inner angst, frustration, lack of work-life balance, basically all my problems. Anyway, I stand by it – he was awful. Nigel Clough had some choice things to say, mainly about the referee’s assistant, who apparently ‘winked and smiled’ at the bench when decisions weren’t going our way. I have a feeling that wasn’t all that went on, but the gaffer is holding back. Either way, it was clear watching back the highlights that they got plenty wrong during the game. The red card is debatable and I don’t have a massive issue with it, but when Davis Keillor-Dunn was wrestled to the ground in the 92nd minute and the entire ground waited for him to point to the spot, Will Finnie waved play on. Nigel Clough, in his post-match interview said that he had only wondered whether it would be a red card or not, the penalty was so nailed-on. Facilitated by two extra minutes, somehow added to injury time, and with two balls on the pitch, Wimbledon’s inevitably got their winner – in the 98th minute.
The Stags must now channel adversity and injustice in their approach to a massive Nottinghamshire derby with Notts County. The Magpies come to Field Mill for the first time in six years. They haven’t won here in nineteen. After the pasting they took at the hands of Mansfield in October, at Meadow Lane, and led by new manager, Stuart Maynard, they will surely be more up to the task. With our injury crisis, suspensions and worrying loss of goal-threat, I expect a nervy start from the Stags and a close game. One positive to take from the Wimbledon game was that striker Will Swan started and scored, commenting later on social media – “glad I remembered where I’m meant to kick the ball”. Indeed, Swanny! While it’s often wiser to focus on yourselves and what you can do well, it would be foolish of Mansfield to not pay due attention to Notts and their attacking prowess. Cloughy, this week, described their front three of Langstaff, McGoldrick and Crowley as “as dangerous as there are in the league” – now if only someone could come in and snatch Langstaff on deadline day, that would help!
Despite the wind being taken out of our sails this month, some heartening facts remain. We have still lost the fewest number of games in the division. We have a great squad and a top manager. Our fans are still backing the team, home and away, in brilliant numbers and voice. And I’m still a glass-half-full kind of fan. That said, the next twenty-four hours (at time of writing) could potentially be huge in our season. With the deepening player shortage (man mountain, Aden Flint, the latest sidelined) and our drop in form, some fresh faces could make all the difference to our ultimate outcome. Rumours have flown around all month that Lee Gregory would sign from Sheffield Wednesday. There seems to have been something in it, and that Derby County may now be favourites for his signature. We definitely need more options up front, with a fatigued Lucas Aikins and hit-and-miss Will Swan the only choices alongside our naturally deeper-lying top scorer, Davis Keillor-Dunn. With most of the defence out injured, maybe that’s somewhere to look at too, although the return of John-Joe O’Toole and the imminent return of long-injured Elliot Hewitt offer some hope there. As we head into this weekend’s big game, I’ll remind those of you losing faith, thinking history is about to repeat itself – this is the best position we’ve been in at this stage of the season in terms of league position, squad quality, attendances and overall stability. We’ve been banging on the League One door for years and it’s now ajar, waiting for us to yank it open and step in. Good things come to those who wait and I still believe they will. Up the Stags!
We have a favour to ask
LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?