Craig Priest’s Mansfield Town blog: So long Conference and thanks for all the lessons

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Prior to last Saturday I had been haunted by a recurring dream and its chilling message.

The cold was unbearable as the rain lashed down of Mansfield, the radio’s muffled noise in the background seemed the play the same line over and over: “It’s finished goalless here at the Deva Stadium, meaning Chester City live to fight another day and Mansfield Town are relegated to the Football Conference.”

I must have walked the streets for at least an hour with the rain hiding my tears as that line played over and over in my head.

The club I believed in had failed me and the chilling message was that, no matter how hard you tried, failure is always around the corner.

Four years, 11 months and 22 days on, that nightmare and message has gone, replaced by a dream and message that I hope will stay forever.

The sun beaming in a strip over the One Call Stadium pitch, not an empty seat in the home end, the crowd noise was loud and clear as the full-time whistle blew, and I heard my own voice say: “Mansfield Town are Blue Square Bet Premier Champions, they are back in the Football League.”

Every time I close my eyes I can see a town united by a dream, stood side by side singing ‘we are the champions’ as the players and staff collected their winners medals on the pitch.

The place went silent as Adam Murray, the captain and player assistant boss, stepped up to collect his winner’s medal.

The champagne corks then popped and the players became soaked as Murray lifted the trophy aloft and danced in jubilation.

The message and moral of the story a clear one – even when the sky is so dark and you can’t see the path to take, keep believing and working hard. Apply yourself in the right manner and, with the correct amount of desire, and then success can be achieved and dreams will come true.

In a way I’ll miss the Conference, it has taught us so much about ourselves as people and indeed as a football club.

We were relegated a club with so much hatred amongst ourselves towards the owners, and we were relegated with a bare-boned squad who didn’t have the experience or confidence to fight.

We’ve been promoted as a club with love bursting at the seams, we have a stable boardroom whose interests are for the football club rather than themselves whilst on the pitch, we’ve a squad with so much strength in depth and experience, no matter what situation we find ourselves in we’ll be equipped for it – none of this could have happened without dropping into the Conference.

I still recall the very first game, against Ebbsfleet United on 9th August 2008.

As the coach pulled up outside the ground there was a sign on the decaying stand which read ‘Blue Square Premier: game one’.

As I took in the surroundings of crumbling wooden stands and uneven car parks etc, I turned to the people with me and said: “prepare yourselves for a long journey back to the promise land.”

The arrogant response of ‘we’ll walk this league’ came back to bite them at half-time as our new-look side, assembled by boss Billy McEwan less than 48 hours before kick-off, trailed 2-0.

Somehow we brought it back to 2-2 with goals from Michael Blackwood and the backside of Mark Stallard/Jason Lee (we still don’t know) to rescue a point.

Our arrogance began to ebb away after that and, after several more lessons from the likes of Hayes & Yeading, Histon, Lewes and many more, we began to realise that arrogance in the Conference gets you nowhere whilst hard work and determination does.

Three managers and as many seasons later, Paul Cox came to town and began to mastermind a return to the Football League.

On reflection now, losing in the play-offs last term has served us well, one final reminder that in every game there are two teams.

Cox strengthened his side and, whilst at first it looked as if it would be a one season wonder, the belief and desire was still there and we embarked on the excellent run which saw us crowned champions.

Onlookers will perhaps say that we are not worthy champions as we didn’t really run away with it, winning the league by the smallest margin of two points, the same number of points Burton Albion won the title with back in 2009.

I disagree with the statement we’re unworthy champions – champions are someone that believes and keeps fighting through the rough times.

It’s not about how many points you win the division by, nor is it about the football you play – it’s desire and willingness to perform and get the required results which see you across the line.

And so it’s onto League Two again. Thank you Blue Square Premier for teaching us about how arrogance can bring you down, thank you for the memories you’ve given and thank you for that final lesson about desire.

Take this in the nicest way possible, but I hope we never have to meet again!

Bring on the Football League!