So near for magnificent Mansfield Town – season 2021/22 review month by month of a rollercoaster campaign
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But there is much to look back in with pride and satisfaction as Nigel Clough's men dragged themselves away from danger to the very edge of glory.
Here is how season 2021/22 month by month unfolded.
Stags kicked off in style with five players making debuts – Nathan Bishop, Rhys Oates, Oli Hawkins and Danny Johnson plus Ryan Stirk off the bench - in a sparkling 2-1 home win with a 96th minute penalty over Bristol Rovers.
The game saw the club's biggest opening day gate since 1977 of 6,346 as eager fans were finally allowed in after the Covid lockdowns.
In midweek two late goals made Championship club Preston North End's 3-0 Carabao Cup win look more clear cut than it was at the One Call.
Stags next beat visiting Newport County to win both openers for the first time since 1994.
Clough's men then led in the midweek trip to Colchester United until the 96th minute when the U's levelled with a very soft penalty.
Three points had looked assured and deserved and no one could imagine that night it would be the end of October before Mansfield would win another game as they failed to find victory in the next 14 outings with injuries and suspensions suddenly and alarmingly piling up.
Then came a real thriller as Oli Hawkins netted twice at home to Bradford only to see the Bantams roar back to win 3-2 thanks to a late goal from, inevitably, ex-Stag Andy Cook.
Stags lost the experienced James Perch due to a freak training ground accident in midweek which was confirmed a few weeks later as a fractured skull, and he was told his season was over and there were worries he may never play again.
Next, Mansfield were the better side at Swindon Town but lost 1-0 and saw the officials fail to spot an equaliser that had crossed the line. It wasn't to be the only time that happened and these were crucial points spilled.
August ended with a young Stags side beaten 3-1 at Harrogate Town in the Papa John's Trophy where Jordan Bowery missed a penalty.
With Stags so short on centre halves, Will Forrester and Richard Nartey were drafted in on loan before the transfer window closed only for both to have injury problems themselves.
When Oates put Stags ahead after only three minutes at home to Harrogate Town things looked promising. But the lead lasted only two minutes as Harrogate hit back to win 3-1 while Stags had Ollie Clarke and Stephen Quinn sent off, star man Quinn banned for a very costly six games.
An awful 3-1 defeat followed at Walsall, then a mistake by Kellan Gordon saw Rochdale take the lead at the One Call, but Danny Johnson levelled to give Stags their first point in five outings.
A first clean sheet of the campaign came in a 0-0 stalemate at Leyton Orient where, with so many defenders missing, in-form striker Hawkins was pulled back to fill in as an emergency defender thanks to his height – a role he then made his own.
Tyrese Sinclair was sent off at Orient after kicking at an opponent, both clubs fined £1,000 by the FA for the melee that followed.
Off the field, Stags' much-respected commercial manager Paul Nyland left after 10 years with the club, temporarily replaced by ex-Stags keeper Ian Deakin.
Farrend Rawson was red-carded and threadbare Stags sunk 1-0 by a debatable penalty as visiting Barrow won 1-0.
Another young Stags side were pipped 2-1 at the death in a home Papa John's game with Sheffield Wednesday before a poor 0-0 home draw with Oldham Athletic left both sides in the bottom four.
Mansfield hit rock bottom form-wise with a dire 2-0 defeat at Northampton Town – their worst display of the campaign.
But they were applauded off three days later after a 1-1 home draw with Port Vale, Stags unlucky not to win it and Hawkins missing a penalty.
Saturday, 23rd October saw Exeter come from behind to win 2-1 at St James Park and Stags were suddenly second from bottom with alarm bells ringing and terrace talk of a sacking imminent for Nigel Clough..
That made it 12 league games without a win, two short of the club record from 2000 – a dramatic decline.
But the Radfords and chief executive David Sharpe elected to stick behind their manager through the toughest of times.
With so many players missing, Stags had snapped up free agent John-Joe O'Toole, who was on the bench at Exeter, and what a move that proved to be as the fierce-tackling midfielder converted perfectly into an aggressive centre half.
A dramatic rise up the table finally began on 30th October with a 2-0 home win over Tranmere Rovers.
A break from the league pressures saw Stags produce a 1-0 shock win at Sunderland in the FA Cup for the second year in a row, Oates the hero with an early strike.
Unlucky Danny Johnson picked up an injury in a 6-3 home Papa John's win over Newcastle U21s that set his season back, despite him hitting a hat-trick, and he struggled to get back in as Stags went on an amazing run of form.
A first away win of the season finally arrived - 2-1 at Stevenage – and was followed by a 3-1 home victory over doomed Scunthorpe.
The winning run was halted at five by a poor display in a 2-0 defeat at new boys Sutton United, but Mansfield bounced straight back to win 2-1 at Crawley Town.
After that game the squad had an early Christmas night out in London which was said to have helped massively with morale and team spirit.
More FA Cup heroics saw Mansfield deservedly win 3-2 at League One neighbours Doncaster Rovers in front of an army of 3,292 away fans.
And they broke into the top half of the table when an early Stephen McLaughlin goal earned them a 1-0 home win over Carlisle.
Another McLaughlin winner saw off Salford City 2-1 and Mansfield were suddenly only four points off the play-off places.
A pre-Christmas trip to Forest Green was called off due to a Covid outbreak at the Nailsworth club.
With nine players missing as Covid bit hard and with heavy fog descending, Stags found themselves 2-0 down in a thriller at home to Hartlepool on Boxing Day but hit back through the mist to win 3-2, the visitors then having a stoppage time effort ruled out for offside.
But Stags' final game of the month at Harrogate had to be postponed with too many Covid cases for Mansfield to get a side out.
The New Year's Day game at Rochdale was another Covid victim, this time in the Dale camp.
Stags' FA Cup adventure then ended with a 3-2 home defeat by Championship Middlesbrough.
Stags had hit back from 2-0 down in 14 minutes to level through Oates on 85 minutes only to agonisingly lose to an Elliott Hewitt own goal in the 95th minute.
Shown live on TV and with a crowd of 7,297, the performance won Stags many new friends.
In-form visiting Swindon were shot down 3-2, then a Harry Charsley brace saw off Walsall 2-0.
A midweek trip to Forest Green for the rearranged game lasted only four minutes before heavy fog forced an abandonment.
O'Toole ended weeks of speculation by signing a contract to stay which was a real boost.
Despite Rawson being sent off after 39 minutes, Stags won 3-1 at Barrow, Oates netting the opener after only 35 seconds. On the bench was the first January new face in experienced Lucas Akins from Burton.
A 2-0 home win in high, swirling winds, over Leyton Orient set a new club record of eight wins in a row in the Football League. Also, Perch made a shock return from his fractured skull on the bench, wearing a protective head cover after getting the all-clear from doctors.
As the January transfer window closed, Stags brought in Jamie Murphy on loan from Hibs, and, eye-catchingly, young Newcastle United prospect Matty Longstaff.
Keiran Wallace had also joined while Harry Charsley was sold to Port Vale and Tyrese Sinclair loaned to Scunthorpe.
Off the field, Paul and Tina Broughton stepped down from the club’s board of directors to pursue personal interests following almost 10 years at One Call Stadium.
And Nigel Clough was nominated for League Two manager of the month for the third month in a row but failed to win any of them.
Harrogate Town halted visiting Stags' record winning run in a dour 0-0 draw.
But a 92nd minute Bowery penalty ensured a 2-1 home win over Colchester United, whose reply came on 96 minutes.
A decent point from a 0-0 draw at Bristol Rovers followed before Stags deservedly led 1-0 at Newport County only to see O'Toole sent off on 73 minutes and the Welsh club level with an 82nd minute penalty.
The O'Toole incident saw another melee with both clubs again fined by the FA.
Over 2,100 away fans saw Stags win 2-0 at Bradford City to ruin new boss Mark Hughes' first day in charge.
Longstaff's first goal proved the winner as Stags beat rivals Exeter City 2-1 – a 10th home win in a row equalling the club record set in 1949 – before a crowd of 6,702 to start a very busy month.
The impressive run of 14 games unbeaten was finally halted in yet another five-goal thriller at Tranmere.
Trailing 2-1, Hawkins looked to have rescued a point with his 91st minute equaliser only to see Elliott Nevitt complete a brace on 95 minutes to snatch it.
Suddenly Stags lost a second game in a row, 3-1 at Port Vale and dropped to 10th, despite a fine goal by Oates.
New Stevenage boss Steve Evans got the next game called off due to Covid much to Mansfield's annoyance with their former manager.
So Bowery's 86th minute goal to win 1-0 at Rochdale was a big boost, as was George Lapslie's 95th minute winner as Stags triumphed 2-1 at Oldham Athletic.
A gruelling fifth away game in a row saw an injury-riddled Stags lead 2-0 at Hartlepool only to see the home side level it for a share of the spoils.
Off the field, Stags paid tribute to club legend Ivan Hollett, who died at the age of 81. Having played for the Stags for six years and then performing every job at the club apart from manager, he had been given a Lifetime Achievement award by Mansfield.
The month began with a 1-0 home win over Northampton, Oli Hawkins' goal setting a new club record of 11 home league wins in a row.
Stags finally played the game at leaders Forest Green at the third attempt but Josh March gave Rovers a 14th minute advantage and Stags had Lapslie sent off just after the break as they lost 1-0. Mansfield then lost an appeal to have the red card overturned.
But Clough's men roared back with a 4-0 win at Scunthorpe – their 400th away win in the Football League in front of 2,028 away fans.
Easter then rocked Mansfield's ambitions.
The home run was ended on Sutton United's first ever visit, losing 3-2 on Good Friday.
A bigger blow came on Easter Monday as officials missed a Murphy shot crossing the line and allowed an offside goal as Carlisle won 1-0 in Cumbria – hugely crucial mistakes in the final outcome.
After the game Clough revealed that both Stephen McLaughlin and George Maris had bravely soldiered on, despite having Covid.
A 2-0 home win over Crawley Town saw the return of injured top scorer Oates to the side, but it was new boys Akins and Murphy who both finally notched their first goals in a Stags shirt.
Mansfield made it 13 home wins out of 14 as they saw off Steve Evans' Stevenage 2-0 in the rearranged game with the ex-Stags boss booed all night.
With a win needed to keep automatic promotion hopes alive, Stags twice led at Salford City but were twice pegged back, the second equaliser coming from Matty Lund, who should have earlier been sent off for raking his studs down Longstaff's heel after fouling him – more bad luck for Clough's men.
So on what proved to be a crazy final day of the regular season, Mansfield could have still gone up automatically, finished in the play-offs or missed out altogether depending on other results.
In the end a crowd of 7,374 saw them draw 2-2 at home to Forest Green to make the play-offs with Rovers clinching the league title. Bowery's 78th minute goal seemed to be a winner until March popped up two minutes later.
An unlikely 7-0 win over Scunthorpe saw Bristol Rovers leapfrog Northampton for the last promotion spot and leave the Cobblers facing Stags over two legs for a Wembley play-off final.
Before that Stephen McLaughlin picked up four Player of the Year trophies.
The first leg saw 7,469 at the One Call on a Saturday night to see Oates and Bowery put Stags in charge after 32 minutes only for Ali Koiki's 61st minute reply to keep Northampton in it.
With 2,838 season tickets sold and growing gates, Mansfield's average league attendance at home was 5,151 – the highest since 2003/04 (5,207), and second highest since 1979/80 (5,467).
The first goal in the second leg was going to be crucial – and it went to McLaughlin as Stags then defended for their lives for an aggregate 3-1 win to secure a place in the Wembley final.
A huge army of over 16,000 Mansfield fans headed for the national stadium in sunshine and party mood and with huge optimism.
But opponents Port Vale, managed by former Stags star Darrell Clarke, struck twice in four first half minutes before Hawkins was sent off for two yellow cards in five minutes.
That mountain was then too big to climb as Stags failed to find their form on the day and ex-Stag Mal Benning struck near the end to make it 3-0 and leave Mansfield facing another season of League Two football but in a much better place overall than a year earlier.