Mansfield Town's groundhog day is frustrating the fans
The test of any side that has gone on a long unbeaten run is always the match after the inevitable defeat.
Mansfield Town had flattered to deceive so far this season, but last week’s home defeat to Exeter was only their first of the League Two campaign.
That’s why the trip to Cambridge United on Saturday was vital for many reasons — to start another unbeaten run and, more importantly for manager David Flitcroft and his side, to start picking up regular wins if the dreams of promotion were to remain realistic.
It may only be the end of September, but already the likes of Lincoln City are sending out strong messages of intent at the top of the table.
That’s why three points at Cambridge — one of the weaker sides in the division this season — was a must for many supporters.
Sadly they travelled home frustrated again as the Stags once more played the better football, once more took the lead, once more wasted several chances to kill off the game — but once more retreated into their shells, once more looked more nervous as the match went on and, once more, conceded a late equaliser.
It was, quite simply, groundhog day for the suffering Stags supporters who have seen so many games follow the same pattern over the past year.
The 1-1 draw at Cambridge was their fifth in eight league matches this season and means Flitcroft has gained just two league wins this season — and four in his 20 league matches in charge.
It is a statistic now often voiced by frustrated supporters, who are already questioning if the manager is the right man to lead a successful promotion charge.
It has been argued that Flitcroft’s Stags have also only lost five times under his guidance — but that leaves 11 draws.
And so many of those draws have seen the Stags allow winning positions to slip away, all too often late on after squandering chances and then inviting pressure.
Are Flitcroft’s tactics to blame, is it a lack of quality on the pitch or is it simply a lack of confidence?
On Saturday, against one of the poorest sides they will play this season, the Stags lacked quality to kill the game off, retain possession and either get a second goal or see out a single-goal win.
Yes, the deflected equaliser was a fluke, but the players had been inviting pressure.
Even in the recent 1-0 home win over Carlisle, the pattern of play was very similar and most fans were expecting the visitors to steal a late equaliser — as had happened at Macclesfield and in the home draw against Colchester.
It is this perceived negative approach late on that is adding to frustration in the stands.
Flicroft admitted after the match that it was not good enough and that the players have to be better.
It appears from the stands that there is a lack of confidence when the second goal does not arrive.
The quality of football — and amount of possession — for an hour is often good and clear progress.
But how can Flitcroft instill a different attitude in his players, giving them that confidence to stay on the front foot for 90 minutes and not to retreat into their shells in the later stages to protect what they have — and then pay the price?
That, for me, is the problem he has to solve quickly.
It is fair to say Mansfield Town’s results at the moment are an under-achievement for the quality of football when in possession — and for the investment in the playing staff by John and Carolyn Radford.
But the next four league matches represent a great chance for Flitcroft’s side to get the promotion dream back on track.
Out-of-form Northampton Town — one win and one clean sheet — are at One Call Stadium on Saturday.
Three days later Oldham Athletic are the visitors. Yes Oldham are among the early-season promotion contenders, but Tuesday night home matches often provide the Stags with a lift.
After that they travel to Bury, who have lost their last two matches, and then go to third-from-bottom Grimsby.
Surely it is realistic to expect the Stags to collect seven, eight or nine points out of the 12 on offer from those four matches?
If they do, the expected momentum towards a battle for promotion will be regained.
If they don’t, then the grumblings among some of the supporters will get louder and louder.