Mansfield Town - Review of the season 2002/2003

By Martin Shaw, with thanks to Paul Taylor

(Links to earlier seasons at the bottom of this page)

2002/2003 was to end in disappointment as the Stags were relegated straight back to the third division, despite a high scoring season with plenty of excitement along the way.

Before the start of the season, Chris Greenacre, who was by now out of contract, left the club to join Stoke City. Centre-half Les Robinson had been released, and manager Stuart Watkiss signed central defender Neil Moore from conference club Telford United. Shortly after agreeing to sign for the Stags, Moore turned out for the England semi-professional side in the Unibond Four Nations tournament (the team mostly made up of players from the Conference). Irish striker Colin Larkin was signed from Wolves for 125,000 plus extras as a direct replacement for Greenacre, while striker Iyseden Christie, who had left the club a few years earlier, was re-signed.

As the team faced up to their first season back in Division 2, Watkiss was handed a three year extension to his contract as manager. But there was a major blow with the long-term absence through injury of both full-backs: Bobby Hassell and Allen Tankard. The Stags defence looked vulnerable from the very first league game. The Stags won it, but still conceded three goals in a 4-3 victory over Plymouth. A 3-2 defeat at Wigan followed, and then the Stags led 3-2 at Wycombe before more disastrous defending in the final minute meant an equaliser was conceded. Watkiss brought in experienced central defender Mark Lever to try to shore up the defence. But a disastrous league run continued as bitter rivals Chesterfield walked away with an easy 2-0 victory at Field Mill, and then after another defeat at Stockport, Crewe helped themselves to a 5-0 win at Field Mill, in possibly the worst defensive display ever seen from a Stags team. The run continued as QPR won 4-0 at Field Mill, and then the Stags lost 6-1 at Oldham. The sequence of league defeats (0-5, 0-4, 1-6) represented the worst sequence of league thrashings in the club’s history (defined in terms of goal difference, in 3 successive games).

A 3-2 away win at Luton followed and was the first away win since February - a run of 11 away league games without a win. Even in that game, the Stags were 3-0 ahead and nearly threw it away with two late goals conceded. Two more defeats followed, including a home defeat by Cheltenham which sealed the worse sequence of home defeats in the club’s history (4 league games plus a league cup defeat at home to Derby). But then a remarkable 6-1 win over Tranmere (after the Stags had trailed 0-1 at half-time) signalled hope.

A roller-coaster season continued, as the Stags consistently played entertaining attacking football but shipped goals hopelessly. A major positive was the goal-scoring of Iyseden Christie. In one game, Christie scored all 4 in a 4-2 over Colchester, including a hat-trick in a 10-minute spell. A week later the Stags dominated play at Notts County and led through Liam Lawrence, but after two County goals, Christie scored a memorable injury time equaliser, despite being clearly offside. Meanwhile, in the FA Cup, the Stags were drawn away to university side Team Bath and the match captured huge media attention, and was even shown live on Sky Sports TV. The game was to highlight the Stags strengths and weaknesses as they strutted into a 4-0 lead with some superb football from the likes of Christie and Liam Lawrence, but conceded two late goals and could have conceded more against the hapless students.

The Stags were rooted to the foot of the table, but seemed to be heading towards a morale boosting victory in late November over high-flying Bristol City. The Stags led 4-2 after 87 minutes but incredibly still lost the game 5-4. It was devastating. A week later, the Stags travelled to Port Vale and took the lead within 25 seconds. Vale had only scored once in five games, but rattled in four goals to win 4-2. It turned out to be the final straw. Two days later, on 4th December 2002, Mansfield Town announced that they had parted company with Watkiss and assistant Neil Richardson. Watkiss’s record as the Stags manager showed that his teams had conceded an incredible 96 goals in 45 games. Chairman Keith Haslam tried to clear up some confusion as to whether Watkiss had been sacked saying: “Stuart said that he couldn’t walk away without any sort of financial compensation, which I could understand. But we were not in a position to sack him because he still had two-and-a-half years of a contract left. We agreed on a compromise.”

Former England defender Keith Curle was immediately announced as the new Stags manager. At 39 years old, Curle was brought in as a player-manager, and soon appointed the Stags Centre of Excellence director John Gannon as his assistant. In the first game under Curle, the Stags were beaten 3-0 at Crewe in the FA Cup, but after that the Stags won three consecutive league games, scoring 4 at home to both Blackpool and Stockport, and winning at Barnsley, to catapult the team off the bottom of the table. Curle was to make substantial changes to the defence, shipping out, amongst others, Moore and Lever, while bringing in left back Adam Eaton from Preston, and Welsh Under 21 international Rhys Day (who had been brought in on loan just before Watkiss left the club) from Manchester City.

And so at the start of 2003, hopes were high that defensive frailties would be rectified and the Stags would escape relegation. But it proved to be a false dawn as only 5 more games were won in the final 23 games of the season. Two of the wins were however memorable affairs. Firstly in mid January, Liam Lawrence scored an injury time winner away to bitter rivals Chesterfield, and then in early February the Stags raced into a 3-0 lead over their other local rivals Notts County at Field Mill, before holding out to win 3-2.

A week later came a crucial moment in the season. In a real 6-pointer at Colchester, with the score at 0-0 after 87 minutes, Adam Eaton crashed a brilliant long range shot against the post. Within a minute Colchester had gone to the other end and stolen an undeserved winner. Just 8 days later there was more heartache, as a terrific display saw Mansfield leading 2-1 at Loftus Road stadium, before an injury time defensive mistake gifted QPR an equaliser. The following Saturday, when fans thought it couldn’t get any worse, high flying Oldham scored an 88 minute penalty at Field Mill to win 1-0. Seldom could there have been 3 more depressing finales to consecutive matches. In fact during the whole season, the Stags conceded an incredible 14 goals after 87 minutes or later, and scored only 2 in the same period. If games were cut at 87 minutes, the Stags would have gained 13 points and lost 3 points (i.e. a net gain of 10 points) which would have been more than enough to avoid relegation.

Successive home wins over Luton and Swindon raised hopes of a late escape. With 4 home games left (all against teams in relegation trouble) it was clear that victory in 3 of the home games was what was required. However it went horribly wrong and home defeats against Peterborough (1-5) and Port Vale (0-1) on successive Saturdays were definitive. It turned out that had these 2 games been won, the Stags would have survived.

It got even worse as Barnsley came away from Field Mill with a 1-0 win. Two days later, the Stags put in a brave performance at Blackpool and led 3-2 thanks to a late Andy White goal, but the usual failing haunted the Stags again as another last minute goal denied the team the win. Five days later Mansfield were relegated in bizarre circumstances as the Stags match at Tranmere was abandoned at half-time as a man climbed on to the roof of a stand and refused to come down. But results elsewhere meant the Stags were down. The game was replayed 3 days later and 2 more late goals condemned Mansfield to another defeat. But there was some cheer in the final game of the season as the Stags beat bottom club Northampton 2-1 at Field Mill to at least avoid the wooden spoon.

The Stags suffered 12 home league defeats which was the worst in their league history, and suffered 26 defeats overall, which was also a club record. The Stags won just 3 away games, and two of these were in the first 4 away games under new manager Keith Curle. The 97 league goals conceded was the worst for over 40 years. The Stags kept just 5 clean sheets, and three of these came in the first 6 games under new manager Curle. At the other end, the Stags scored 66 league goals, which was only six fewer than the previous season when promotion was achieved, and was only two fewer than champions Wigan. Indeed, of the teams who finished outside the play-offs, only one club scored more goals. The Stags used an amazing 40 players in league and cup games during the season, which was easily the most since joining the football league in 1931.

Liam Lawrence swept the board of Player of the Season awards. Iyseden Christie was the leading scorer with 19 goals, but rather fell away towards the end of the season.

One happy statistic of the season was that no home games were postponed due to bad weather during the season. This was a testament to groundsman Rob Sprigg.

Other Statistics Snippets of 2002/2003 Season

The 97 league goals conceded was the worst since 1959/60 when 112 goals were conceded during another relegation season.

The Stags 5 clean sheets was the fewest since 1981/82 when the club also kept 5 clean sheets, in finishing 20th in Division 4.

Stags scored 4 or more goals in 6 league games, which was once more than in each of the previous two seasons.

Stags were awarded 11 penalties during the season. Incredibly they missed the first 5 and scored the next 6. Corden missed 2 (though he scored one from a rebound) and scored 4, Christie missed 2, Lawrence missed 1 and scored 2. 

Iyseden Christie's hat-trick in a 10-minute spell against Colchester was the quickest by a Stags player since his own in 4 minutes against Stockport in the League Cup in a 4-2 win in August 1997.

Leading scorers were Iyseden Christie (18 league, 1 cup), Wayne Corden (13 league), Liam Lawrence (10 league, 2 cup), Colin Larkin (7 league), Andy White (6 league).

Christie's 18 league goals earned 10 points. Amazingly White’s 6 goals also earned 10 points. Corden’s 13 goals also earned 10 points, Lawrence’s 10 goals earned 7 points, and Larkin’s 7 goals earned 3 points.

Stags failed to score in 17 out of 46 league games, compared to 11 the previous season and 12 the season before that.

For much of the season, manager Keith Curle claimed that 50 points would be enough to avoid relegation. In the end this was exactly right. Stags ended the season with 44 points and an extra 6 points would have seen them above Chesterfield on goal difference. Most supporters believed that the home defeats against Peterborough and Port Vale on successive Saturdays towards the end of the season were definitive. Had these games been won, Stags would have survived.

Up to the point where manager Stuart Watkiss was sacked, the first 20 games yielded 15 points. Under new manager Keith Curle, the final 26 games yielded 29 points. Assuming the same points per game ratio under Keith Curle over an entire 46 games, Stags would have achieved 51 points: just enough to avoid relegation. Stags did win the first 3 games under Curle, but from the next 20 games, they only achieved 16 points: just one more than in the opening 20 games under Watkiss.

Stags average home league attendance was 4,887. This was a fall of 32 (<1%) from 4,919 in the promotion season.

The highest home attendance was 8,134 against Notts County and the lowest (in the league) was against Colchester: 3,414.

The average away following at Field Mill was 834.

The average Stags following at away games was 773, amongst an average attendance at away games of 6,967 (these figures exclude the abandoned game at Tranmere, and include 100 people let in free at Cheltenham).

Stags handed league debuts to 9 players (Beardsley, Buxton, Hankey, Holyoak, Hurst, John-Baptiste, Jones, Mitchell and Jason White), compared to 2 the previous season and 3 the season before that.

No player played in every league game. The only players to play in more than 40 league games were Wayne Corden, Liam Lawrence, and Craig Disley. In the previous three seasons, Stags had always had at least one “ever-present” player.

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Links to earlier seasons:

Stagsnet review of the season: Season 2001/02

Stagsnet review of the season: Season 2000/01

Stagsnet review of the season: Season 1999/2000

Stagsnet review of the season: Season 1998/99