Stephen Thirkill’s Mansfield Town column: A disappointing start but there is much more to come from Mansfield Town

Stephen Thirkill Mansfield Chad.
Stephen Thirkill Mansfield Chad.

It was a case of what might have been for Mansfield Town as they failed to get their League Two campaign off to the flying start we had all hoped for.

The simple fact from the game is that a bullet header from Kaid Mohamed was enough to send Stags spiralling to a disappointing 1-0 opening day defeat at Northampton Town.

But what we learned from the result is that there was not a lot to choose between Chris Wilder’s fancied Cobblers and Paul Cox’s new-look Mansfield Town side.

What did make the difference however was the superior cutting edge on display from the home side and the attacking creativity of the always impressive John-Joe O’Toole.

Stags, who gave debuts to Fergus Bell, Alex Fisher, Rob Taylor, Sascha Studer and Simom Heslop, had started the brightest with Ollie Palmer and Alex Fisher putting themselves about well up top and the central midfield pairing of Simon Heslop and Adam Murray bossing the game.

But, aside from an early effort by Alex Fisher which sailed over Matt Duke’s crossbar, Stags had very little to show for their early territorial advantage.

Taking your chances and capitalising when you are on top is what football is all about.

What happens in midfield doesn’t so much matter, it is all about what goes on in the final third at both ends of the pitch as Northampton sadly showed.

With Mansfield failing to really test Matt Duke, the home side finally began to get into their stride as summer signing J.J O’Toole started to drop deep and find the time and space that he craves.

How Mansfield could have done with having Sam Clucas fit to start the match and pull the strings in a similar fashion to O’Toole.

With Northampton cranking up the pressure and pushing Stags back deeper and deeper, the Mansfield rearguard inevitably cracked as their marking collapsed at Darren Carter’s wicked corner allowing Mohamed to sneak in and open the scoring.

In truth, the goal was nothing more than The Cobblers had deserved as Wilder’s men, and Chris Hackett and O’Toole in particular, began to stretch Stags and expose the defence in wide areas with some slick passing and movement.

To be fair to Mansfield though, the response to their 26th minute set-back was decent as they piled the pressure on as half-time approached.

Matt Duke produced a wonderful one-handed reflex save worthy of any World Cup goalkeeper to turn away Ryan Tafazolli’s powerful header in first-half stoppage time.

Seconds later Rob Tyler’s thunderous effort from 25 yards flew inches wide of the left-hand post.

The outcome could have been so very different had either one of those efforts nestled in to the back of the net.

Paul Cox made changes early in the second-half as he brought on Sam Clucas and Liam Hearn for his dream Football League debut.

The substitutions did inject some much-needed pace and added impetus up front as Clucas, Hearn and Murray all enjoyed half chances during a frantic end to the game.

The late surge will have led to some fans asking where was that urgency during the rest of the half? And, although it offered encouragement, it was quite simply too little too late.

Much emphasis is always placed on the opening day of the season, it’s a special day filled with excitment, promise and hope. It is a match that everyone wants to win.

Yet, the simple fact of the matter is, it is just one match, it is just three points. The season is not won or lost and dreams and ambitions are not made or shattered after just one game.

Games are often won by fine margins, by a moment of magic or because of an individual error.

What Mansfield Town now need to do is to sharpen up in their attacking zone, something that will surely take care of itself when Liam Hearn returns to full fitness and big Matt Rhead returns from suspension to impose himself and create plenty of opportunities for those around him.

A touch more composure in the final third and an improved final ball certainly wouldn’t go amiss either.

They must also keep their concentration levels up for 90 minutes. A single lapse in concentration can be the key difference between success and failure as Mohamed’s header so painfully illustrates.

No football team, especially one that features so many new faces and is going through a mini-transition, is going to be the finished article after just 90 minutes of football.

What this side needs is patience, sadly something that can be an alien concept to many football fans, as well as belief and support.

Last season Mansfield lost five league games by a single goal and drew 15 other fixtures, a sign that Stags are not too far off being a decent team.

A sign that, with a few more goals, those points can be turned into three.

Every point is going to crucial, every match is going to be a battle in an increasingly competitive league. Saturday certainly feels like a point that got away.

No-one wants to lose on day one. The result is disheartening and brings everyone down from pre-season with a big bump.

But there is certainly much better to come from Paul Cox’s men over the next 45 games as players gel together and many memorable wins ahead.

Under Cox, Mansfield have failed to win any of the opening games - drawing 1-1 with Bath City in his first season, losing 4-3 to Newport in his second and 2-0 at Scunthorpe last year - and look how those seasons turned out.