Mansfield Town defender Ritchie Sutton believes the ‘best team’ in the Blue Square Bet Premier League are on the verge of returning to the Football League after battling back from a goal down to win 2-1 Hereford on Tuesday night, writes Callum Croson.
The stoppage-time winner from Matt Green put the Stags back on top in the race for automatic promotion.
With one game to go, the Stags find themselves two points clear of closest rivals Kidderminster and Sutton is glad that their fate is in their own hands.
He said: “I think it’s always the case in football that you prefer to have the points on the board than the games in hand.
“Braintree last weekend had nothing to play for, they were safe and couldn’t get in the play-offs, so they were just so relaxed and it made them play better. But it’s still in our hands, we win at the weekend and Kidderminster can’t catch us, it’s as simple as that really.
“If we turn up, we’re the best team in the league, in my opinion. I know that’s the feeling in our changing room, so it’s just a matter of coming down to that nervy time where there is so much to lose and so much to gain at the same time, but I think as professionals you have to deal with it.”
A win at the weekend would end a five year absence from the Football League, an opportunity that would not be possible without the incredible run the Stags put together after being knocked out by Liverpool in the FA Cup.
It included a 12-game winning streak stretching from the middle of February to the beginning of April, and they have an overall record of 19 wins from 24 since the cup defeat in January.
An important factor in that success lies with manager Paul Cox.
In only his second season in charge, the relatively inexperienced manager is trying to go one step further from the disappointment of losing in the play-offs last season. Keeping the team fresh in certain areas is what Sutton believes the manager has dealt with very well.
“He’s been brilliant really,” Sutton added. “He just tries to keep routines, I think that has been the key to the winning streak. He’s kept the same back four, we’ve always had the same keeper on this run, it’s just a case of freshening up the positions like the wingers.
“We’ve had Greeny up top, who’s going to be top goalscorer in the league so that’s helped. I think it’s a case of keeping your core team and rotating positions like your wide men.”
Although the 26-year-old has been in and out of the team this season, he has still been highly reliable when called upon.
And after joining the Stags from his supported club Port Vale two years ago, many were questioning his decision to drop down a division, but Sutton feels this season he will finally be able to silence the doubters.
“When I left Port Vale, a few people said to me how difficult it would be to get back in the league,” he explained. “But it was a choice that I made and if I return to the Football League with Mansfield that will be fantastic.
“At the time it was for personal reasons. Obviously I wanted to be playing more, and I’ve played a lot of games this year and to go up as champions would put the icing on the cake.
“It would be the first time I’ve been promoted as a champion; I’ve had one through the play-offs, but this would be brilliant.”
On top of his football, the former Crewe player has decided to take up a degree in journalism.
After coming close to completing his second and final year, he may well be celebrating a league title with a graduation this summer.
“I was playing for Port Vale at the time and a few of the lads were on the course then and I thought it was something to get involved in,” he recalled. “You get help from the PFA so I enquired about it and jumped on the bandwagon really.
“I’m getting to the last stage now where I can graduate this summer. It’s stressful now getting the dissertation done and doing my third work placement, but once that’s out the way it will be brilliant.”
Work placements are one of the many modules and requirements needed to complete the degree and Sutton believes it is a massive help for the players if they ever pursue a career in journalism once they have hung up their boots.
“To be honest, I think it’s helped. It’s been easier because I’ve been with Mansfield a couple of years now and I did my first placement at the club with the media guys there.
“I think being a player, we get interviewed all the time by the local papers and radio stations, so you get your contacts sorted there. My second one I did because of my contact with Vale at the Sentinel, it all helps to be honest.”
So why do the degree now? At 26, Sutton is relatively young in the football world.
“It can be cut-throat, football, especially at this level,” he concluded. “You could be finding this is the last level that is full-time so I just wanted something to fall back on.
“I didn’t want to leave it until a lot of people do and do the course in their 30s and using it straight away. I wanted to get it out of the way when I was younger and I’m really glad I’ve done it.”