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Archived News from September 2003

29th September 2003 13:02

Andrew's Match View
U's 1-2 Mansfield - Andrew Bennett reports

"Hello to all you lovers of the Beautiful Game. I'm Martin Keown, football's very own Renaissance Man. I lead a busy lifestyle, and in my spare time I like to relax by listening to the music of Nick Drake and The Durutti Column while rustling up a light Spinach Gnocci, reading a good book such as the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins or, if I'm feeling adventurous, I'll go out and enjoy some challenging modern dance. But I also want to put something back into football. So that's why I have started to share my lifetime's knowledge of the game by giving a series of motivational talks to those players less fortunate than myself from the lower divisions of the Football League.

"Only today, for instance, I was at Cambridge to help out my old England team-mate Keith Curle and his Mansfield team with a little chat just before kickoff. I believe it is important to stress the value of relaxation, focus and calmness in maximising performance, and it was gratifying to see the lads absorbing my words of wisdom with smiles of recognition and enlightenment. I finished off with a little Q+A session, and Iyseden Christie asked me what to do if an opponent said something rude to him.


"As I was saying, anger management is a vital tool in today's footballer's armoury; sometimes it only takes a trigger word to make someone lose his temper completely, and the red mist can descend for a few crazy seconds then lift again without the player even realising it. Sadly I couldn't stay to see the results of my talk to the Mansfield lads as I had to be in St Albans to judge some chinchillas at a pet show, but I gather they managed to win, so my words must have some positive effect, which was nice. If your team would like a motivatory chat from me, do get in touch with my agents, Fleesam & Meulah, and I'll see what I can do. Ciao!"

It has been three and a half long years since Mansfield Town's last visit to the Theatre of Broken Dreams resulted in a 7-2 pasting for the cornered Stags from United's three-pronged attack of Butler, Benjamin and Taylor, even Neil Mustoe weighing in with a thirty-yard chip; it was that sort of day. And with the visitors' goal tally of 66 for and 97 against last season, today's encounter was never going to be a boring 0-0 draw. In fact, it was as eventful and explosive as a night on the town with Courtney Love, or even Steve 'Jim Morrison' Guinan. Brace yourselves, it's going to be a bumpy ride...

The United team remained unsurprisingly unchanged from last week's crushing of Cheltenham, save for Wozza Goodhind's first start of the season in place of the suspended Stev Angus, while Mansfield's three changes included the return of star striker Iyseden Christie after a three-match suspension following a mass brawl in an earlier game. The visitors also sported ex-U Neil Mackenzie, the Cabbie's Friend, and Rhys Day, who came down to the Abbey last season with then-Man City team-mate Stephen Jordan but didn't get as far as a first-team game.

All appeared set fair for a splendid afternoon's entertainment: the sun shone brightly, the 700-odd visiting supporters were in good voice and there was a carnival atmosphere on the pitch with a preview of tomorrow's Mascots Grand National at Huntingdon. Quite a tempting prospect, especially if they can guarantee that the Exeter Goddess will be there, trying to hurdle the fences in her long dress. But I digress, he murmured distractedly...

Mansfield are a positive, attacking side (when they have 11 men) and lined up with three or sometimes four forward players, Colin Larkin having the first chance with a header over in the second minute. United's opening effort a minute later was a similar try by Andy Duncan from Stuart Bimson's corner.

Christie in particular seemed particularly fired up about something (either that or someone had put Deep Heat in his jockstrap again), lunging and flinging himself at everything, and it came as no surprise when he was booked on five for bundling into Mark Venus (right). No respect for the elderly, some people.

Play switched quickly from end to end, young John Turner seeing a shot blocked by Baptiste and Venus clearing three crosses in the space of three minutes with vision and cool aplomb.

The menace of Mansfield's attacking players, however, did not materialise into any direct threat on Shaun Marshall as that final telling ball just evaded them, and their clearest early chance was a long-range 17th-minute Liam Lawrence free-kick that sailed well over Dancing Shaun's bar.

In addition to a dangerous attack, the visitors had an efficient offside trap that caught Turner in particular on several occasions, and the game gradually began to settle down, the United midfield four looking solid but a little lacking in creative ideas.

Dave Kitson created his own chance on 25 with an exciting, mazy run from deep but finally blazed wide from just outside the area, while Turner and Luke Guttridge saw further subsequent efforts blocked.

Come the half-hour, a stalemate looked to be setting in; was this going to a dull 0-0? Does George Best have a happy, stable marriage? And who exactly were all those people who turned up to watch "Wimbledon" at Milton Keynes today? Androids? Extras? Asylum seekers?

All such speculation was swept from our thoughts three minutes later as the game exploded into life. Terry Fleming, already having a dog of a match with some truly wretched passing straight to sky blue shirts, hopelessly miscued something in the centre circle and it turned out to be a perfect through ball for Craig Disley, who with one deft touch of the hand controlled, comfortably shook off Guttridge, ran in on goal and slotted coolly past the helpless Marshall from close range.

1-0, and neither ref Cable, normally so quick to stop play for anything at all, nor his "assistants" saw the sleight of hand that was so apparent to the Habbin and the NRE. Controversy knocks.

Three minutes later the fun really started. Christie, still running around like an out-of-control clockwork toy lashing out at anything that got his way, chased an United pass that Duncan got to first and laid back to Marshall, but this didn't deter the visiting striker who simply kept running and flattened the unfortunate defender with a truly mindless forearm smash.

Dunno what he was trying to prove, but he did prove that he was an utter buffoon who was shown a thoroughly deserved second yellow and was lucky it wasn't a straight red. He even had the brass neck to look surprised and complain about it: who, me? What? He should have been at the Hutton Enquiry.

The reaction was even more feisty from Christie's colleagues, notably Mr Mackenzie, and Keith 'England's worst right-back... ever!' Curle and his mates on the bench were apoplectic. Like they had had an even remotely decent view. In an increasingly explosive atmosphere United tried to take the game by the scruff of the neck, Kitson half-volleying across goal and wide on 39 then Bobby Hassell picking up a booking for dissent shortly after, but two minutes from the break the fun truly began in earnest.

Kitson outwitted Day on the right flank some 30 yards out, dispossessing him and starting a charge on goal, only to be dragged to the ground from behind by the hapless defender.

There was no-one between him and keeper Pilkington, so it was the most stone cold professional foul and instant dismissal you could ever wish to see: Mansfield 2 sendings-off, United 0.

Unbelievably, the protests from the Mansfield players, bench and supporters were if anything even more hysterical than before, and one almost felt sorry for Cable, who was frankly not much cop but had at least got the two red cards dead right.

Mackenzie was especially fired up on his own stamping ground, and we were just taking bets on his being the next dismissal when Curle saw reality briefly and withdrew him in favour of defender Dave Artell as his team went to 4-3-1. As half-time beckoned, Freddie Murray tried a shot at goal from 25 yards (over) when he could and should have crossed for any one of four colleagues in the middle, then on the whistle Kitson crossed, Fleming somehow headed backwards and Justin Walker miskicked horribly wide from six yards. This was becoming as farcical as a Glenn Hoddle team talk.

The half finished to extraordinary scenes by the South Habbin as a steward, wound up beyond tolerance by a particularly gobby away supporter who had already been given several warnings, snapped and lamped him one, then tried to do the same to the two policemen who grabbed him and eventually frogmarched him away. We secretly felt some sympathy, but there is simply no excuse for hitting anyone in any circumstances, no matter how irritating. For you Tommy, ze season is over.

Curle hardly helped proceedings by heading for the ref as he tried to leave the field, finger jabbing, wild-eyed and brainless, going eyeball to eyeball with a policeman before belatedly getting the message. What an excitable fellow. He's been watching too much Arsenal on the box. But then, haven't we all?

So all seemed set up nicely for a comfortable United win in the second half. Only, only... our minds went back to 28th December 1999 at this very boutique, and a truly unforgettable match against eight-man Cardiff, an embarrassing 0-0. And this time we 1-0 down. There were only two survivors today from that 'classic': Marshall and Mackenzie, now on the other side and off the pitch. And didn't we miss a penalty in that match? Nah, couldn't happen again, could it...

Both sides made changes for part two. United replaced Murray with Shane Tudor (barnet now red stripeless) and stationed him wide right and Bimmo wide left in front of a back three. Fresh legs for Mansfield came in the lank, greasy-haired shape of Maltese international (a proud boast indeed) Luke Dimech for Tony Vaughan. And for twenty minutes or so it seemed inevitable that United would go on to win as they pounded the visitors with consistent pressure.

Mansfield wasted no time in starting to time-waste, going down clutching injured limbs at every opportunity, taking an eternity at goal-kicks and throw-ins and heading for the far corners of the pitch about 40 minutes earlier than most teams do when protecting a lead.

Kitson (right) saw an early shot blocked by Tom Curtis, but United's forays lacked finesse and all too often ended in a hopeful high cross into the box rather than someone taking individual responsibility for a run or shot at goal.

Tudor started promisingly on the right with a few decent crosses, but it soon became apparent that he still does not possess the pace to speed past opponents and usually crossed from deeper positions, with a resultant lack of precision.

The visitors managed the odd break, still positively keeping two players up when conceding corners, and Larkin enjoyed a good run from wide right and shot that fizzed past Marshall's far upright. Best United chance in a frenetic but fruitless early spell fell to Tudor as he got a clear sight of goal ten yards out, but prodded his shot agonisingly just wide of the near post. Were supporters and team doomed to play Ben and J-Lo, planning, anticipating the big moment, only to see it all fizzle out amid acrimony and disappointment? At least the publicity-seeking rubbish film-makers didn't have Keith Curle shouting mad-eyed into their ears, or have inadequate grinning jackanapes Lee Cable in charge, waving his cards like so much confetti.

Guttridge was next in the book on the hour for upending Curtis as everyone in amber became increasingly frustrated at their own side's inability to make the breakthrough, the opposition's 'professional' attempts at breaking the game up and the man in charge's inability to exert any authority over them. Then on 63, just as anticipation was beginning to turn to mere hope, came a lifeline: Tudor took on Artell just inside the box, the defender seemed to get a touch to send the ball out for a corner as the Orange One tumbled over his prone form, but Cable and his lino decided to award United the flimsiest of penalties. Not that we were complaining, mind.

Who would be the taker? Free-kick specialist Veno? Set-piece expert Bimmo? Nope, Justin Walker it was who stepped up after much argument (surprise!) from the men in blue. Those of us with any sort of memory will know that United's recent history of spot-kicks is uneven to put it mildly, and our problems look set to continue: Walker's effort was feeble, struck with little pace and even less disguise low towards the left corner, and Pilkington saved without too much trouble. There wasn't much weeping and wailing at this stage, but there was a distinct gnashing of teeth. We thought as one: "Here we go again!"

Mansfield almost immediately made their last substitution, swapping one lone striker for another (Beardsley – no relation – for Larkin). Guttridge saw a decent shot blocked by Baptiste a minute later, then on 67 a handball presented United with a free-kick in a central position, inches outside the box. Time for the Great Veno to demonstrate his dead-ball prowess at last. Top left corner, I predicted. And technically I was correct, as I watched the kick sail into the top left corner of the Corona End. Oh well.

Liam Lawrence was booked on 70 for timewasting (somehow Cable missed the other eight who were doing the same thing), but three minutes later the Stags' faffing around in the corner found its ultimate reward: they sent the ball inside along the touchline, Fleming was there, inaccurate as ever, presenting Lawrence with the ball, he knocked it into the area, Walker lunged, the man in blue realised that he had pushed it too far to reach, and dived over the United man's prone legs so theatrically we should have been holding up cards with '5.8' on them. Penalty.

Somehow we just knew that, unlike Walker, Lawrence would score. And so he did with ease, Marshall obligingly diving in the opposite direction (why doesn't he just wait?) as he slotted it into the right-hand corner then celebrated deliriously in front of his adoring supporters. 2-0. We all knew it: game over.

Shaggy's reaction was to replace Bimson with Lloyd Opara, bafflingly removing one of the striker's potential supply lines while leaving on the hapless Terrier. The regrettability of this decision was confirmed a mere three minutes later: under no pressure in midfield, Fleming gave the ball away to Lawrence (yes, him again) with another lazy, inept attempt at a short pass to Kitson, and as the Mansfield man sprinted away upfield, both Terrier and BGG gave chase.

They caught him together, Fleming from the side and Kitson from behind, and as he rolled in predictable 'agony', his colleagues waded in in predictable mood. Some pushing and shoving ensued, resulting in a harsh straight red for Kitson from the fumbling Cable, and a mere yellow for Fleming when frankly we'd have been quite happy to see a red.

What more could this extraordinary farrago have in store for us? Would Dirty Den make a surprise appearance as third sub? What about Lofty?

With Bimson removed, United now played with a back two and stationed Venus wide left, and he took to it like the proverbial canard to H20. On 79 he received the ball by the touchline, charged towards goal, cut inside onto his right foot and unleashed a tremendous shot that took a deflection and was headed for the top corner until brilliantly tipped round the post by Pilkington.

And this same supply route provided United's goal two minutes later, Veno again cutting inside, laying a sly square ball across the edge of the area and Fleming, of all people, galloping in to blast low into the bottom corner. 2-1! They do insist on raising our hopes towards the end, don't they?

Venus and Opara led the charge in the last ten minutes, a final spell of almost constant pressure that was only relieved by the gales of laughter from the home stands when Fleming was announced as the sponsors' man of the match. You can just imagine the in-depth debate: "Who scored the goal? Number 8? He'll do. Another prawn sandwich, anyone?" Now if he had been announced as Mansfield's MoM, that would have been understandable, given his significant parts in both their goals and United's red card.

Last booking came on 86 for the Malteser, and as full-time approached (plus an announced five extra minutes, nowhere near enough to cover all Mansfield's timewasting) it was time for the Opara Show: one goalbound shot blocked, a cross bisecting the six-yard box that the tiring Turner just couldn't reach, a superb control, turn and shot that Pilkington tipped onto the base of the post and off for a corner, then another goalbound effort deflected off for another corner from 18 yards.

How he didn't score, no-one knows. At the other end Curtis forced one last save from Marshall.

Best effort of all came from the ever-hard working Guttridge, his fantastic 20-yard effort smacking off the inside of the post with Pilkington looking on open-mouthed. As one last corner was awarded, the crowd shouted for Dancing Shaun to come up, given Messrs Poom and Robinson's exploits in the last week; but sadly, the Terpsichorean custodian remained firmly in his own half. Spoilsport.

Predictably, Cable played less than four of the advertised five extra minutes, and his final whistle (would that it were) signalled delirious celebration from the visitors, and full marks to them for resilience, if not their methods, although one suspects that they were fired by a sense of injustice that was utterly misguided: their two red cards were about the only things the ref got right all night.

As for United: they were exposed once again for their lack of invention and creativity when the chips are down. But we can't draw too many conclusions from such an extraordinary freak-of-the-week one-off of a game. Let's do that on Tuesday...

Marshall 6 – Not a lot to do, no chance with the goals, although it would be nice if he could at least dive the right way at the occasional penalty.
Goodhind 6 – Quiet comeback for the Mpumalanga Mullet.
Bimson 6 – Average first half followed by some good crossing when playing further up the pitch in the second until puzzlingly substituted.
Duncan 7 – Had some tough tussles with the Mansfield forwards until the flurry of red cards reduced their attacking potency.
Venus 8 – Always in the right place with some excellent defensive work, then as if by magic turned into United's best wide midfielder, made the goal and was unlucky not to notch himself.
Guttridge 7 – Busy and industrious as ever and very unfortunate to hit the inside of the post.
Walker 6 – Credit for taking responsibility for the penalty, none for his feeble execution. Average.
Fleming 4 – Splendid goal could not mask a dire performance from the Terrier with a steady succession of wasted possession and dreadful, sloppy passes, not to mention his direct roles in both Mansfield goals and Kitson's dismissal. No idea how he managed to stay on the pitch.
Murray 5 – Showed promise with the odd enterprising run, but it was no surprise that his limited contribution should be the first to be curtailed in Shaggy's halftime reshuffle.
Kitson 6 – Some good linking with Turner and a few quite delightful through balls, and was unlucky to be shown a straight red by a floundering ref.
Turner 6 – Again showed numerous touches that mark him out as a very special prospect indeed. Exhausted near the end but forced to stay on due to Kitson's enforced absence.

Tudor 5 – Disappointingly subdued second half in which he got over the odd decent cross but rarely ever beat his man for pace like he used to.
Opara 7 – Easily United's most dangerous player in his 15 minutes, he terrified Mansfield with strength, pace and skill and almost saved the match single-handed. Another one with massive potential.

Soundtrack of the Day: Kiosk 'One Day I'm Going To Go Stratospheric On You And, Chances Are, You'll Thank Me For It'

Match Summary: There's never a dull moment when Mansfield are in town, and the willing assistance of the referee from Hell produced a staggering spectacle memorable for everything but the football. With the number of sendings-off equalling the number of goals for both sides, maybe United should have tried that bit harder for that equalising red card...

Man of the Match: Mark Venus. Sheer quality from beginning to end, whether as perceptive leader of a back four, guiding light of a back three, or a devastatingly effective wide midfield provider. Class personified.

Ref Watch: Cable 2. One for each of the thoroughly deserved Mansfield red cards, nothing for anything else in a characteristically dismal display from the man with the Cheshire Cat perma-grin. Stopped the game from having any sort of flow by whistling for every tiny physical contact, awarded two highly dubious penalties, gave Kitson a harsh red and totally failed to clamp down on the visitors' endless timewasting and playacting. How he remains on the League list is as much one of life's great mysteries as the continued popularity of Daniel Bedingfield, his musical equivalent.

Andrew Bennett


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