With two games left to go of the scheduled season it feels weird to be saying that it’s not coming to an end – with the beauty of the play-offs meaning it’s only just beginning, writes Craig Priest.
The trip to Woking’s Kingfield Stadium to take on Hayes and Yeading United on Saturday saw our beloved Stags seal their place in the play-offs with two games left to complete before the real drama begins, whilst we’re all delighted, boss Paul Cox may be in for a sleepless night or two.
I couldn’t be more happy at the achievements made, not only have we sealed a play-off spot but our boys have also broke a club record of points gained in a season. The 83 picked up this season is the highest total since the 81 picked up when we finished third in the old Division Four in the 1985-86 campaign gaining automatic promotion.
In the coming weeks we face two teams who we may well face during the play-off lottery in a few weeks time in Wrexham and Kidderminster. We are on a great run but ultimately the teams we put out to face the aforementioned duo rest on the answers to some difficult questions.
In our 20 fixtures since and including Boxing Day, we have picked up 14 victories, four draws and just two defeats, 46 points from a possible 60 – there’s no doubt we are the momentum team, the obvious dilemma for Paul Cox now is, does he risk key players such as 29 goal hit man Matt Green, solid centre half Exodus Geohaghon and creative midfielder Gary Robers to name a few, picking up suspensions or injuries?
Or does the Stags boss keep that ferocious core of the side together to go into the play-offs on what could be six consecutive victories – something we’ve come close to doing twice this season, a draw at home to AFC Telford back in September ended our first winning run after Kettering, Stockport, Darlington, Newport and Barrow were all beaten.
A draw at home to Champions Fleetwood ended our second sequence of five last month after Darlington, Tamworth, Lincoln, Cambridge and Tamworth again we’re beaten by our promotion chasers.
Someone asked me on twitter at the weekend what I’d do if I were in Paul Cox’s shoes – at first I couldn’t answer, but after thinking about it and looking at how our seasons gone – I’d be ringing the changes.
I’ve been fortunate to see some of the players who’ve not had a lengthy run in the first team in several friendly’s and can honestly say that even with a ‘Reserve’ side out; I think we’d take a six game unbeaten run into the play-offs.
Matt Green is the obvious dilemma, nobody has really been as consistant as the 29 goal hit man. Our second top scorer is Louis Briscoe on 10 with Ross Dyer on 9. If Green got injured or suspended would we have enough fire power? Maybe, but I wouldn’t risk it, especially when some managers may play dirty and say to their centre half ‘take him out the game and their goal threats gone’. The same may apply to the likes of O’Neill, Roberts, Meikle, Dyer to name a few – all have played a massive part in different ways.
So if I we’re Paul Cox what would I do? I’d make changes, safety first – I know I’ve said that even with the ‘Reserves’ we could end the season unbeaten, I have to hold my hands up and say that I don’t give two hoots about the next two results, they won’t define whether or not we get to Wembley and get a shot at achieving what some would have said was an impossible dream back when things kicked off in August.
If I we’re to pick a side for the final two games, I’d be looking at introducing John Thompson to the back four along with Cheltenham loan man Danny Andrew at January signing Sam Craven who is on a duel registration with Hednesford Town.
In the middle I’d be alternating the wide men and looking at a central partnership of Jon Worthington and Lee Stevenson, whilst up top Ben Hutchinson, whose not really had a real chance to shine yet, would be alongside either Matt Rhead or youth team hit man Adam Somes.
The latter’s name posses another question – do the older youth team lads have a part to play? I think it will all hinge on the registration rules, Somes if I remember correctly is on non contract terms with the first team after his FA Cup cameo at Fleetwood in November, if the other lads could register the same, then there’s no reason why they can’t be included in one way or another.
Their season is over now and at least six of them are fighting for a their first professional contract.
Paul Cox is no fool and he will do his upmost to make sure we are prepared for the fight and are ready to rise to the challenge – we need one point from a possible six to seal third place and the second leg home advantage,
I have every faith in whatever team Cox puts to the field that we will get the point we need, not that it matters really – we’re in the play-offs – that’s the important thing.
Walking into the One Call Stadium week in week out to the press box, I see the team picture with the caption ‘One Team: One Dream’ hanging on the wall – let’s make as much noise as we can on Friday night against Wrexham and again in the play-offs – these final two fixtures could prove frustrating but whatever let’s remember the caption and remember the bigger picture: Project Promotion, is well and truly on.
Until next week – keep enjoying the ride... COME ON YOU STAGS!