After the loss to Exeter a few weeks ago I wrote that I thoroughly enjoyed the game, despite the result. This week was pretty much the complete opposite.
If viewing the game from a neutral standpoint, it could quite possibly be a contender for worst game of the season. It was a tight, first-goal-wins affair with both teams playing direct football. But the feeling of getting those three points more than made up for an encounter where one quality move was enough to take the spoils.
Adam Murray made my midweek blog on how the Stags could approach the game without a target man a complete waste of time when both Rhead and Oliver were named in the starting line up. There was a debut for experienced stopper Lenny Pidgeley, whilst Beevers and Kee replaced wingers Lambe and Brown.
Following an injury to Ricky Ravenhill in the warm up, Jamie McGuire was called in to captain the side alongside the returning Chris Clements in the centre of the park.
More than half the team changed from last weeks game against Carlisle displaying what Murray thought of that performance. Also returning was the 5-3-2 formation, with Sutton playing in a more familiar centre back role, Beevers and Elder as wing backs and Billy Kee playing just behind Rhead and Oliver.
The formation and line up indicated that the Stags were going back to basics, with a return to the long ball tactics of Paul Cox. I was a bit disappointed that Murray seemed to lack the courage of his own convictions by reverting to type. Once I saw the pitch however, it may have been a wise decision as the Field Mill surface was in terrible condition after the recent bouts of snow and ice.
The first half was seriously lacking in quality. Neither team seemed to be able to keep hold of the ball, resulting in numerous throw-ins and goal kicks. Jamie McGuire relentlessly gave the ball away, aimlessly prodding the ball in whichever direction he was facing. The one redeeming feature of his first half performance was his leadership, continually rallying his team mates, applauding positive snippets of play and handing out encouraging slaps on the backside. The ball was bouncing off Rhead and Oliver giving no platform for the rest of the team to build off and resulting in a complete lack of tempo. Billy Kee looked cumbersome, second to every loose ball and sloppy in possession. He spent the majority of the first half in David McAllister’s back pocket. The defence, apart from a few scares, did what they needed to do. Richie Sutton in particular with one excellent tackle following a break from a corner.
Ryan Tafazolli came closest to scoring from the Stags, flicking on a drilled Clements delivery at the near post only to be denied brilliantly by the Stevenage keeper. To highlight the luck the Stags are having, the rebound fell kindly to a Stevenage player to clear. Clements himself had a curling thirty yard free kick turned around the post. There was a half chance for Oliver earlier in the game following a flick on from Rhead but it was well blocked by a retreating Dean Wells.
At the other end, Stevenage wasted the best chance of the game. A loose pass by Billy Kee ricocheted into the path of Bruno Andrade, who had three players queueing up in the centre for a tap in. Instead, he opted to go alone, cutting inside onto his weaker foot and dragging a shot wide of the near post. A huge let off for the Stags.
When the half time whistle went, it was clear that Stevenage were there for the taking. Despite their lofty league position, they did nothing to convince that they were any better than the Stags. The game against Exeter remains the best football I have seen any team play in League Two this season. What was also clear was that Murray needed to make a change. The team were lacking any pace in attacking areas. Kee was hooked off by Murray, deservedly in my opinion, and replaced by Reggie Lambe. Despite his defensive lapse last week, Lambe had a decent game, setting up the goal and generally looking bright.
After seven minutes which looked to be heading in the direction of the first half, the Stags took the lead. Chris Clements had put in a typically mixed display in the first half. At times he showed simple passing into feet combined with effective pressing, but he also attempted two or three ‘Hollywood passes’ which were either easily intercepted or ran through to the keeper. This time, he won the ball back deep in his own half and turned excellently, curling a ball out to the right flank for the onrushing Beevers. Beevers had got into good positions in the first half but his crossing had let him down. Not this time, as he angled a diagonal ball to Matt Rhead on the opposite side of the pitch. Rhead directed a header back across the area, where Reggie Lambe arrived with a powerful side footed volley into the roof of the net. Substitution immediately justified for Adam Murray and a great finish from Reggie Lambe.
Following the goal, Murray called Oliver to the bench and seemed to advise him to operate more on the left hand side, with Rhead through the middle and Lambe on the right. Presumably this was to allow the Stags runners on both sides for Rhead’s flick ons.
As always seems to be the case with Mansfield after taking the lead, the team dropped deeper and deeper as the game went on, defending the edge of their own box and conceding easy possession to Stevenage instead of attempting to keep hold of the ball. There was, however, a different edge to the Stags in the second half, with a much improved Jamie McGuire combining vocal leadership with effective, legal tackling and a couple of towering headers. He even unleashed a volley from a long throw which had the Ian Greaves Stand fooled for a few seconds before it became clear it had cannoned into the side netting. Chris Clements carried on his pressing game and winning the ball back high up the pitch.
The defence continued to look solid, although Tafazolli did at times look hesitant but always managed to redeem himself.
Debutant Pidgeley barked orders at his defence without ever having to make a serious save. Michael Raynes, who appears to be a big character judging by his role in the pre-match huddle, won every header that came his way. Elder and Beevers tucked in productively to assist the back three.
After the Stags goal, there were no clear chances of note to report. Stevenage never really caused the Stags any problems, despite being allowed possession for the last fifteen minutes of the game. Inevitably, the crowd grew more anxious as the game went on, willing the players to hold onto the narrow lead. Chants of ‘Come on you Stags’ and ‘Yellows’ rang out as the five minutes of stoppage time were announced , followed by a collective sigh of relief when the final whistle was blown.
A real, hard fought victory for the Stags and it was great to see all the players walk off the pitch in the manner they had played on it, as a team.
The return to the side of players such as Beevers, McGuire and Rhead, whilst not conducive to the attacking football Murray would like to play, brought with it a team spirit that has perhaps been missing in previous games. They are all players who, despite limited ability, will put their bodies on the line for the cause. With the pitch in the state it was, it was an inspired decision by Murray given the Stags position in the table. It was far from pretty, but surely shows that the new Stags boss has to find a balance between playing open, attractive football and resolute, hard-working attitude.
A trip to Morecambe awaits in mid-week, which sadly I will be unable to make due to work commitments. I think most people would be happy with a point from the journey to Lancashire, and it would be surprising if Murray does not start with the team that began the second half yesterday. If the Stags can grab a win, it may boost the attendance at next weeks home game against Northampton, which will again offer a £7 admission price. It is a fixture for me which evokes memories of the play-off semi final, won on penalties by one of the best sides I have seen in my 15 years of watching the Stags. A team that included Baptise, Day, Hassell, Lawrence, Disley, Williamson and Corden. I would encourage anyone who shares those memories to take up the £7 offer, get down to Field Mill and help the club survive this season.
Player Ratings :
Pidgeley - 7 - Surely the easiest debut he has ever had with no meaningful shot to save. Like the way he organised the players in front of him.
Sutton - 8 - Excellent performance. One excellent challenge when Stevenage broke akin to Carlisle last week.
Raynes - 8 - Won ever header, some crucial interceptions. Seems to be a good organiser.
Tafazolli - 7 - A few hesitant moments where he was slow to react but generally defended well. Unlucky not to score.
Beevers - 7 - Defended well, good cross which led to the goal. Needs to improve the consistency of his crossing.
Elder - 7 - Didn’t get forward as much as I’d like but was solid at the back.
McGuire - 7 - After the first half he was getting a 4 through poor distribution, chasing shadows, constant moaning to the ref and , but improved hugely in the second, doing what he does best, breaking up play without fouling the opposition. Possibly worth more to the team with his mouth that he is with his feet.
Clements - 7.5 - Good when kept passing risk free. Battling display with effective pressing. Good set-pieces again.
Kee - 4 - Out of position but very poor. Second to the ball and generally slow. Held on to the ball too long which resulted in Stevenage’s best opportunity. Something clearly wrong.
Oliver - 6 - Generally quiet but worked back well for the team.
Rhead - 7 - Gets a 6 for the first half but and 8 for the second. Took a bit of a battering for the cause. Great assist for the goal.
Lambe (on for Kee 45) - 7 - Took his goal well and worked very hard for the team. Must start against Morecambe.
Brown (on for Rhead 84) - Not on long enough to get a rating but defended well with the team.