Mansfield Town fail first big test of league season

Mansfield Town v Exeter City.'Danny Rose flies in to try and level but goes wide.
Mansfield Town v Exeter City.'Danny Rose flies in to try and level but goes wide.

It is still very much early days in the league season and Mansfield Town’s first League Two loss should not in itself be a reason for panic.

On paper a six-match unbeaten start to the league campaign before Saturday’s 2-1 home defeat to Exeter City looked to be a platform for the hoped-for promotion push.

Yes, there had been too many draws in those half-dozen matches ­­— four to be exact — but there had been encouraging signs that David Flitcroft’s reshaped squad were gelling.

The previous two matches, one in the league and the other in the Checkatrade Trophy at League Two high-flyers Lincoln City, had ended in deserved victories.

The quality of the opposition in those six matches has been questioned by some, who felt that the Grecians represented the first proper test for the Stags.

But what about Colchester, currently fourth, who would have been beaten at One Call Stadium but for an injury-time equaliser.

And perhaps the 2-2 draw at Yeovil was dismissed too quickly when you see that Yeovil trounced third-placed Newport 6-0 on Saturday.

However, there is no getting away from the fact that Saturday’s winners, Exeter, probably represented the first big test for Flitcroft’s team.

The Grecians, despite a change of manager, remain a strong favourite for at least a top-seven finish for another season.

That’s one of the reason Flitcroft must have been so disappointed on Saturday evening.

He admitted his Stags side did not do themselves justice and for all their possession, there was a lack of quality with how the Stags used the ball in the final third.

Exeter, on the other hand, were able to create far too many good chances for the Stags’ liking.

They were sharp and incisive going forward — everything Flicroft would have expected from his side.

Flitcroft came under fire from some supporters for his formation ahead of the match.

They want to see two strikers up front — and there was no doubt that the introduction of striker Danny Rose against Exeter after 55 minutes for Callum Butcher, who played alongside Otis Kham behind lone frontman Tyler Walker, made a big difference.

Rose rightly won many people’s man-of-the-match award for a busy performance that included several decent attempts on goal — although not for the first time this season Neal Bishop caught my eye in midfield.

Rose sparked the late revival and probably against most sides without the quality of Exeter keeper Christy Pym, the Stags would have gained a draw. That might have masked the fact the Stags lacked quality against the best side they have faced this season, but surely it will have given the manager food for thought about his formation.

It is all right dominating possession, but if you cannot turn that into good chances and goals then there has to be change — or a plan B.

That seems to be moving to two up front — but some fans are arguing that option might be used from the start.

It is an intersting connundrum as Flitcroft has stamped his mark on the side already, turning them into a more passing outfit that is comfortable in possession.

But that has not brought the victories many hoped for.

However, as I said at the start, it is too early to panic.

Yes, the Stags are 15th — not where the owners, management, players and fans expect or want them to be.

But they have one match in hand on most teams above them. If they won that, Mansfield Town could sit in the play-off places.

So the Stags have arguably failed their first big test. The next one comes on Saturday at Cambridge.

Every team loses an unbeaten run at some point. It is how they react to the setback that matters.

Cambridge are struggling and the Stags have not won away from home in League Two. Saturday would be an excellent time to put that right.

I suppose you could argue that the Exeter defeat should not come as a surprise.

The Stags last beat the Grecians at home in 1998 — but surely unwanted records are there to be broken?

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How good it was to hear Stags fans mark the passing of former defender Ian MacKenzie with a minute’s applause in the 67th minute.

MacKenzie, who was 67, was a member of the old Third Division title-winning team in 1977. He was a class act and the tribute was fitting.