Mansfield Town - Review of the season 2003/2004

By  Martin Shaw, with Paul Taylor and Rob Wheldon

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

2003/2004 was a remarkable season as the Stags aimed to bounce back to the Second Division at the first attempt. And how close they got, as a harshly disallowed goal in the very last minute of the final of the play-offs at Cardiff denied them promotion, and they went on to lose in a heartbreaking penalty shoot-out.

Before the start of the season, striker Danny Bacon was released and joined local side Hucknall Town. He was to have an excellent season as Hucknall won the Unibond League, and they would have gained promotion to the Conference if their ground had been up to scratch. Meanwhile the Stags brought in a trio of new defenders: Tony Vaughan, who had a successful loan spell the previous season under Stuart Watkiss which was cut short by injury, former Rotherham centre half Dave Artell, and Maltese international Luke Dimech. During the close season, Rhys Day had been called into the full Wales squad for the first time, but didn’t get onto the pitch in a game against the USA.

The Stags had a confidence boosting pre-season friendly win over Premiership side Manchester City, with former England keeper David Seaman making his City debut and attracting a massive media presence to Field Mill. The league season started at scorching temperatures at Kidderminster and the Stags put in a cracking performance but were desperately unlucky to go down 2-1. Four days later, the Sky Sports TV cameras were at Field Mill for live coverage of a League Cup tie against Sunderland. The Stags put in another fine performance but were beaten by an injury time goal, after having equalised themselves to make it 1-1 in the 88th minute through an own goal. Following a slow start to the season, Sunderland were to go on to narrowly fail to gain promotion to the Premiership in the play-offs.

The following weekend the Stags entertained Leyton Orient in the first home league game of the season and after leading for most of the game through a Luke Dimech goal, which should have been disallowed for a foul on the keeper, the Stags conceded another injury time goal to drop two points. It looked like the Achilles’ heel of the previous season was going to prove costly again. But two great performances followed as firstly Iyseden Christie scored a hat-trick to earn a 3-0 win at Southend, and then the Stags beat Scunthorpe 5-0 at Field Mill with a performance thought by many to be the Stags’ best for many years. A 4-1 defeat at table-topping Swansea followed as Mansfield had both Christie and Williamson sent-off. Indeed the club were fined by the FA for their part in a mass brawl during the game, but the club were rightly upset that Swansea escaped with no punishment. The excuse the FA gave was that Swansea came under the jurisdiction of the FA of Wales. Anyway a 3-2 win over Macclesfield in the next game saw the Stags into a play-off place, and from that date (6th September) until the end of the season they never once dropped out of that top 7.

Oxford were by now top of the table and so for the second away game running the Stags visited the table-toppers. This time they fared much better and a 79th minute shot from Neil MacKenzie earned a 1-1 draw. It could have been even better but Rhys Day missed a sitter in injury time. A 5-3 home win over Bury followed, to make it 13 goals scored in 3 home games as the entertainment soared to incredible levels.

After a home defeat to impressive league new-boys Yeovil Town, the Stags embarked on a run of 4 consecutive wins to roar into second place. It was their best run since 1995. The run started with an unbelievable 2-1 win at Cambridge in arguably the game of the season, if not the decade. The Stags led through a Craig Disley goal but then had both Christie and Day sent off before half time. Despite being down to nine men, the Stags went further ahead in the second half through a Liam Lawrence penalty. Earlier Kevin Pilkington had saved a Cambridge penalty. Cambridge had a player sent off themselves after 77 minutes and on 80 minutes, Pilkington pulled off an extraordinary save from a deflected shot, before Cambridge pulled a goal back on 83 minutes. But the nine-men Stags held on and the celebrations at the final whistle surpassed anything this writer had ever seen, including any promotion or cup victory. Consecutive wins over Bristol Rovers, Darlington and York followed. During the win over Darlington, Pilkington saved his second consecutive penalty (even though the follow-up was turned in).

The Stags took a huge following of 2,760 fans to Doncaster in the next league game but the team put in a poor performance in a 4-2 defeat, and the Stags lost again, 1-0 at Torquay, three days later. But it was a minor blip as four wins and a draw from the next five league games took the Stags back into the top three. The run started with home wins over Cheltenham and Boston, and then a 2-0 win at Carlisle. A 3-3 draw with Huddersfield followed, with Craig Disley’s injury time goal earning a point, and then the Stags put in a brilliant display to win 3-0 at Northampton, with goals by Christie, Disley and a Lawrence penalty. The run earned manager Keith Curle the Manager of the Month award for November. Curle told the Nationwide website: "We are a very well organised team who score goals - that’s a good combination. We’ve scored 46 times this season, more than any other club in the country. This Nationwide award is gratefully received by everyone at Field Mill and it’s great timing for me - I was 40 in November and I celebrate my first year in charge this month." The previous Stags manager to get the award had been Billy Dearden in January 2000, and prior to that it was George Foster in October 1991.

The Stags had beaten part-timers Bishops Stortford 6-0 in the first round of the FA Cup with a hat-trick of long range shots from Neil MacKenzie, and faced Tony Adams’ Wycombe Wanderers from Division 2 in the second round. The presence of Adams attracted the Sky Sports cameras for the Stags’ second live TV appearance of the season. The Stags put in a powerful performance but had to settle for a 1-1 draw thanks to an Iyseden Christie goal, and the replay was to provide a memorable night at Field Mill as Liam Lawrence netted his first ever hat-trick, including two penalties, the last of which was in injury time.

Back in the league, Lincoln snatched a 2-1 win at Field Mill. But successive 1-0 victories either side of Christmas, over Hull and Rochdale, saw the Stags back in the top three. Neil MacKenzie scored the spectacular winner at Hull in front of more than 15,000 fans at the impressive KC Stadium, and then Colin Larkin netted the winner after a defensive error by Rochdale in a poor game on Boxing Day. These two games remarkably signalled the last time during the season that the Stags were to win back-to-back matches, and also the final goal of the season for MacKenzie, as an injury kept him out for some time afterwards. Two days later there was despair as two points were tossed away at Macclesfield when the home side scored an injury time equaliser.

The Stags were drawn at home to First Division Burnley in the third round of the FA Cup, but, in front of 8,290 at Field Mill, the Stags were beaten 2-0. For the third time in the season, the Stags had two players sent off - this time it was Jamie Clarke and Luke Dimech. Despite national media hype criticising Mansfield as a dirty side, they actually were to end the season in a respectable position in the discipline table, with only one other player sent off during the season (Tony Vaughan at home to Swansea). During January, both Kidderminster and Southend were beaten 1-0 at Field Mill, the Stags being slightly fortunate on both occasions, and with Pilkington saving a penalty against Kidderminster. After that game, the Stags keeper told the media: "That's three penalties I've saved this season and I'm very happy about that. I know I have made some mistakes in the past but I feel I'm doing well and was delighted with my contribution."

But away from home, the Stags crashed 3-1 at Leyton Orient, with Liam Lawrence dropped for being not mentally fit to play, having been distracted by a series of attempts to sign him by Ronnie Moore at Rotherham United. After a 0-0 draw at Scunthorpe, the Stags were crushed 3-0 by Steve Parkin’s lowly Rochdale, but then recovered to claim a vital 2-1 win at York, with Lawrence scoring a brilliant goal from long range with his left foot, probably the Stags’ goal of the season, and in his own words, the finest of his excellent career up to that point. The other Stags goal was scored by Richard Pacquette, who scored with an excellent header, whilst on loan from QPR, but who otherwise was hugely disappointing and soon left the club. Pacquette turned out to be the only loan signing all season.

Following the win at York, the Stags had a dreadful few weeks losing 4 games out of the next 5, conceding 13 goals in the process. The second half collapse at Lincoln, where 4 goals were conceded, and a spineless 3-0 defeat at Bury were probably the low points of the season. Indeed the defeat at Bury saw calls for manager Curle’s head from a small section of the travelling Stags fans. Matters were made worse by an injury to Iyseden Christie at Bury, in what was the prove his last ever game for the club. Sandwiched in this poor run was a 1-0 victory over Hull which completed an impressive double, with new signing Laurent D’Jaffo scoring the only goal from a header. D’Jaffo had been an old teammate of Curle’s at Sheffield United, and was amazingly the Stags manager’s only signing during the entire season.

The Stags were showing signs that they might even drop out of the play-off positions at this stage, but a run of 5 games unbeaten during March and April raised spirits, including a crucial draw at rivals Yeovil thanks to a late Rhys Day header, and home wins over high flying Torquay and Oxford. Indeed it could have been even better if the Stags had clung on for victory at home to Cambridge but were denied by an injury time free-kick from 20 yards. The run saw a welcome return to form for Junior Mendes, who scored in 3 consecutive games, having not scored since November. But any lingering hopes of automatic promotion were killed off by a 1-0 defeat at lowly Darlington and a 0-0 draw at home to Bristol Rovers over the Easter period. A 2-1 win at Boston was followed by a surprise 3-2 defeat at home to Carlisle. Carlisle needed the points to stay afloat, while a win for the Stags would have secured a play-off place. Liam Lawrence scored twice, including one penalty, but he also missed a last minute penalty. His penalty earlier in the game had taken his tally to 12 penalties for the season and left him just behind Francis Lee’s all-time record of penalties in a season.

With just two league games left, the chance of automatic promotion was a mere memory, and three points were still needed to secure a play-off place. The Stags travelled to Huddersfield, who themselves needed a win to secure automatic promotion. In a tremendous atmosphere, in front of 18,633 fans at the McAlpine Stadium, the Stags went behind early on, but recovered to produce one the best displays of the season in a 3-1 win, with goals by Day, Mendes and Lawrence. Going into the last day of the regular season, the Stags were playing Northampton, and knew that they would be playing either Lincoln or Northampton in the play-offs, while the Cobblers themselves needed a win to guarantee their place. The Cobblers won 2-1 in front of nearly 2,500 travelling fans, to set up a play-off semi-final between the two clubs.

So the Stags entered the play-offs for only the second time in their history. In the first leg at Northampton’s Sixfields Stadium, Mansfield had to withstand early pressure, but goals from Day and Mendes put the Stags two goals in front, and it could have been even better as Colin Larkin was through on goal in injury time only to be dragged down by a defender, who was promptly shown the red card. The CHAD proclaimed that the Stags had one foot in the final at Cardiff, but this was "Mansfield Town", who always like to do things the hard way. Sure enough, in the second leg, with 9,243 fans crammed into Field Mill, easily the biggest crowd since the redevelopment of the ground, the Stags conceded three goals in a 10-minute spell either side of half-time to be trailing in the tie. Field Mill was stunned, but Tom Curtis dragged the Stags back into the tie with a fine goal on 68 minutes. The Stags had a huge stroke of fortune in the 90th minute when young defender Alex John-Baptiste clearly fouled Derek Asamoah in the penalty area, but the referee missed it. There were no goals in extra-time, and so the game went to a penalty shoot-out. There were no misses until Pilkington saved from Eric Sabin, and then Colin Larkin stroked home the winning kick to send the Stags into ecstasy and into the play-off final at Cardiff’s magnificent Millennium Stadium. The Stags sold 14,000 tickets for the final and the whole town went football crazy for a week. The big day finally arrived as Mansfield were charged with the task of overcoming Huddersfield Town to gain promotion. It was a wonderful occasion in front of over 37,000 fans and the live Sky Sports TV cameras, and the Stags played their part in a terrific advert for Third Division football. There were no goals in the first 89 minutes and then in the final minute Curtis crossed to the far post, where D’Jaffo flicked the ball back into the path of Larkin who slotted into the net with his left foot. The Stags had won promotion, or so we thought for a second, until we saw the linesman’s flag. He had judged that the ball had gone out before D’Jaffo flicked it back to Larkin. TV replays later suggested that Huddersfield were very, very lucky. There were no goals in extra time, though Pilkington produced a miraculous save to tip a shot around a post, a save described in the BBC Radio 5 live commentary as "the save of the season". So it all came down to penalties, but whereas the Stags converted all five of theirs in the semi-final, this time the usually reliable Corden and Lawrence both missed, while Huddersfield scored all of theirs. And so the dream was over. A sad end to a wonderful season, but a day for Stags fans to remember, and a team to be proud of.

Liam Lawrence was the club’s leading scorer with 21 league and cup goals, including 12 from the penalty spot. Lawrence also had the most goal assists in the Division. Mansfield scored the most goals from set pieces in the Division (26 in total; the next highest was 21). Since many of Lawrence’s goals and goal assists were from set pieces, this latter statistic was in a large part down to him. Lawrence was the CHAD Player of the Year for the second season running, and made it into the PFA Division 3 Team of the Season, as chosen by Division 3 players. Rhys Day was the SSA Player of the Year, while Tom Curtis was the Follow The Yellow Brick Road Player of the Year. Kevin Pilkington was the only ever-present during the season, playing in all 55 league and cup games.

Like the previous season, the Stags conceded rather too many late goals. Indeed if games were cut at 89 minutes, the Stags would have gained an extra 5 points, from two points lost against each of Leyton Orient, Macclesfield and Cambridge, with a point gained against Huddersfield. However the extra points would not have been sufficient to achieve automatic promotion.

Whereas during the previous season, the Stags used an amazing 40 players in league and cup games during the season, during this season they only used 26 players, and 3 of those just played only one game as substitute. 

Other Statistics Snippets of 2003/2004 Season

The Stags average home league attendance was 5,207. This was 10th in Division 3. It was the first time the average home attendance has been over 5,000 since 1979/80.

It was a rise of 7% from last season, where the average was 4,887. The average in 2001/2002 (the automatic promotion season) was 4,919.

The average away following at Field Mill was 726. (Last season it was 834).

The highest home attendance was 8,065 against Northampton in the final home game. The lowest was 3,920 against Leyton Orient in the first home game.

Five teams brought more than a thousand to Field Mill: Northampton (2445), Doncaster (2421), Hull (2307), Huddersfield (1044), Lincoln (1008). The lowest away following at Field Mill was Bury (167).

Away from Field Mill, the Stags average away following was 888. This was a rise of 15% from the previous season (which was 773).

The highest Stags away following was at Doncaster (2760); while the lowest Stags away following was at Torquay (180).

The above figures exclude the abandoned game.

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Links to earlier seasons:

Stagsnet review of the season: Season 2002/03

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