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FOOTBALL POST ARTICLE OF SHIRTLIFF
18/June/2006 22:17:57

Football Post, 17 June 2006

One man Stags should be keen to hang on to…

Matt Halfpenny argues that the Stags should be looking to tie up boss Peter Shirtliff on a new deal as he continues to attract attention from other clubs…

MUCH of the conjecture concerning Mansfield Town this summer has been about the future of the playing squad.

Fans are keen to know who will be taking up offers of new contracts and also who the new faces, to replace the eight released in May, will be.

But maybe the Stags' top brass in newly-installed chairman Peter Lee and chief executive Keith Haslam ought to be paying as much attention to securing the future of their up-and-coming manager.

After less than a season at the helm of the Stags, Peter Shirtliff is already reported to have his admirers, who see him as a man who can help their club.

Since the end of the 2005-2006 season, the former Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley player has been linked with the Notts County job, the assistant manager's post at Norwich – where his old mate Nigel Worthington is boss – and, this week the Brentford hotseat, following the departure of Malcolm Allen.

One can see why they might be interested after the job Shirtliff has done since he took over in mid-September last year. But the end of that month, before having the chance to make an impact, the Stags slipped to bottom of League Two and supporters were becoming worried that Mansfield might lose their Football League status. But Shirtliff kept calm and put together a strategy to lift the Stags away from the danger zone.

The first thing he did was to bring a settled style of play to the team. Under Carlton Palmer, Mansfield had played 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and even a 3-4-1-2 with a man playing in a free role (Jason Talbot at Rochdale) behind the front two. The end result was that the players did not know what their roles were from one game to the next and it served to have a disruptive influence.

When Shirtliff took charge, he immediately reverted to 4-4-2 and stuck with it for the rest of the campaign. Almost instantly that seemed to benefit the players and, as they admitted later in the season, everyone then knew what function they were required to perform in the team when sometimes it had been unclear under Palmer.

Another key difference when Shirtliff came in was that he tried to keep a settled side as much as possible.

In the early weeks of the season, the team had been chopped and changed almost week in, week out. It left players fearing for their place in the side, even if they had played well, and did not allow the team to build up any kind of understanding.

By keeping his 11 largely the same for a consistent run of matches – barring injury or a lengthy spell out of form – those problems, for the most part, disappeared.

The first choice players began to develop a method of how to approach and win games and adapted how they played to suit the strengths and weaknesses of their team-mates.

Mansfield's good run of form in February and March illustrated the point perfectly.

With the starting line-up largely unaltered and the team in confident mood, they put together an eight-game unbeaten run that was ultimately the main reason they avoided the drop to the Conference.

In the closing weeks of the season when things were interrupted by injuries and suspensions to the likes of Gareth Jelleyman, Jake Buxton, Giles Coke and Danny Reet, Mansfield's form suffered.

The Stags' last win of the season was against Oxford on April 1 and by closing game, where the team lost 5-0 to Cheltenham, the effect that those absences were clear.

Despite failing to record a victory in their last six games, Shirtliff, undoubtedly, came out of the season with immense credit. After facing the prospect of relegation for much of the campaign, there was talk towards the end of March and beginning of April of a play-off push. That proved to be a little premature, but the fact that it was even mentioned reflected well on the Stags boss.

Speaking to the man himself, Shirtliff remains unflustered at being linked with such positions and insists he has his mind firmly focused on a promotion push with Mansfield Town. That is typical of how he operates and probably one of his key strengths to would-be suitors.

Whether Mansfield have been magnificent in a 5-0 victory or been hammered by the same scoreline Shirtliff remains equally level-headed.

His phlegmatic approach helps to instil an air of confidence in the Mansfield squad. The players know that they will not be vilified in defeat but also that they cannot expect to get an easy ride after a handsome victory.

Shirtliff's deal is due to run out at the end of the 2006/2007 season but nothing has yet been mentioned about an extension to that contract.

But it is something that Haslam and Lee need to put close to the top of their agendas – especially if the Stags have another good season and continue to make steady progress.

Should Mansfield feature close to the top of the table come next May then Shirtliff may be even more of an attractive proposition to other clubs. He will have an extra year of experience under his belt and also the knowledge of putting together an effective team.

Of course, the club may argue that they want to keep their options open, just in case Shirtliff does not deliver the goods as they hope and they want to look elsewhere.

But if that is the path they to take, then they could risk losing his services for nothing.

It may be better that they try to tie Shirtliff to a longer contract, particularly if it is obvious in the first couple of months of the season that Mansfield are going to do well.

That way, the club will get compensation for him should he opt to leave for pastures new either at the end of 2006-2007 or in the course of next season.

There is no denying that Shirtliff has so far done a decent job at the Stags with limited resources. The Stags could now do worse than to reward his performance in the role with a new deal.


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