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Archived News from May 2007

18th May 2007 9:28

Another nightmare season for Mansfield -
CHAD review of the season 2006/07
By Sports Editor John Lomas
AFTER the nightmare of the previous season when Stags hovered near the bottom of the Football League, fans hurled abuse at Carlton Palmer and marched across town against Keith Haslam, you thought things couldn't get any worse at Field Mill.
But 2006/07 has been more of the same with more protests, yet another change of manager, two changes of chairmen, more dreadful scenes involving Field Mill stewards and Stags once again flirting with the drop zone.

These are tough times that would test the patience of a saint, as they say, and for many long-standing Stags fans, it has all been too much and they have begun to stay away in their droves. Home support fell below the 2,000 mark at times.

Lady Luck has certainly played her part too as nine senior players were injured after the loan transfer window closed with five requiring operations, forcing members of the youth team into the first team much sooner than they would have anticipated.

The emergence of local lad Jake Buxton as a genuine leader and captain was one bonus from a dismal season as was the emergence of young talent like Ashley Kitchen, who rose so well to the call of duty near the end.

But the only bright note anyone will really remember from this nightmare campaign is the return of Billy Dearden to the fold in January when Stags could feel the cold blow of the relegation trapdoor beneath them.

Dearden, back at the club he loves, found a young out-of-form squad with no regular training facilities and club captain and top scorer Richie Barker about to leave for Hartlepool United.

Barker insisted he did not want to go but the situation was tied up before Dearden took control, and suddenly the new boss was left with a miracle to perform as Stags fans feared the worst.

But he pulled two rabbits out of the hat in Barry Conlon and Martin Gritton, and their goals helped revitalise the side who eventualy went on a six game unbeaten run that, in the end, kept them up.

Such was the transformation that Dearden's men marched into the top half of the table and new chairman James Derry optimistically promised a trip to Barbados for all if they scraped into the Play-offs.

However, a few slip-ups, followed by an unprecedented injury crisis, saw them plummet once more and eventually it was only in the penultimate match of the season they mathematically secured safety, although seven days later they had stayed up by a reassuring eight points.

Optimism was high last summer as Peter Shirtliff - who had steadied the ship after Palmer had quit as boss - brought in highly rated winger and dead ball specialist Matty Hamshaw from Stockport.

There was even optimism from the anti-Haslam brigade as respected administrator Peter Lee came on board as chairman and promised supporters a place on a new board of directors.

Barker also signed a new deal to keep him at Field Mill until summer 2009.

August saw a steady start on the field with a win and three draws in the first four games, and a superb 2-0 away Coca-Cola Cup win at Huddersfield, before losing 4-2 at home to Lincoln in a cracker of a game that Stags could have won.

However, the day belonged to Lincoln's four-goal Jamie Forrester.

Another undeserved defeat - a 1-0 loss at Wycombe - began September before everything fell into place and the Stags hammered Hereford 4-1.

Two away defeats after long trips to Torquay and Hartlepool followed before Stags were pipped 2-0 by Premiership visitors Portsmouth in the Coca-Cola Cup.

Optimism gained from four points from two home games was smashed by a 4-0 thrashing at eventual champions Walsall after a second half collapse following a scoreless first half.

But October was to prove a much better month with three wins and two draws.

Only Hamshaw's red card opened the door for Notts County to get back into their derby game at Field Mill.

Danny Reet had already netted twice and had a perfectly good third disallowed. But the Magpies roared back against the 10 men to earn a point.

The game also marked the end of seven years as groundsman for the highly-respected Rob Sprigg who moved on to work at the new John Fretwell Sports Centre near Warsop.

Barker's goal that earned a point at Boston United was Stags' first away goal for 470 miserable minutes.

Three straight wins followed, including spoiling Paul Ince's managerial debut at Macclesfield with two late goals for an unlikely 3-2 first away win.

Former Stag Craig Disley gave his old club a miserable start to November with a late winner for Bristol Rovers at the Memorial Stadium.

At this point rumours were rife that Stags were about to accept a bid from League Two rivals Hartlepool for Barker and supporters were rightly incensed.

Amid the unrest, sadly League results suddenly turned sour, though Stags saw off Accrington and then held League One Doncaster Rovers in the FA Cup at home.

But two away defeats and a home loss to Peterborough were disappointing and Stags also bowed out of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy at Darlington.

After the dreadful display in a 2-0 defeat at Rochdale, the usually-placid Shirtliff let rip at his side, saying he was 'embarrassed' by them and refused to defend them or their lack of commitment.

December started with a glimmer of hope with a decent 2-0 home win over high-flying Swindon and off-field talk that club sponsor Andy Perry was still likely to bid for the club.

Stags then paid the price for failing to take chances when Bury won 2-0 at Field Mill with fans chanting against Keith Haslam rather than Shirtliff.

A not unexpected FA Cup exit followed at Doncaster.

But the second half performance at Barnet on 16th December was simply dreadful as they lost 2-1.

Barker's goal was their first away goal in 445 minutes. But it was a third straight defeat and they had won only once in eight games with relegation alarm bells ringing loudly.

Shirtliff described the second half at Underhill as 'amateurish' and vowed a major January transfer clear-out.

However, he had barely made the statement when he was unexpectedly sacked four days later on Wednesday, 20th December.

With the Friday night Christmas clash with Chester snowed off, assistant boss Paul Holland took charge for the Boxing Day clash at Darlington where the young side sprang to life with flair and confidence to win 2-0.

Keith Haslam also cheered his detractors when he announced he was prepared to sell up - if the price was right.

At this point former Stags boss Dearden made a dramatic return and saw his side - including Barker - pipped 1-0 at home by in form Hartlepool, despite a fine display.

That left Stags just a single point off the drop zone with the Barker rumours returning loud and strong.

An annoying interval abandonment at Accrington due to a waterlogged pitch gave Dearden a two-week break from action to work on his rescue miracle.

Matters were made harder when fans' fears became reality as Barker made the move north to Hartlepool, still insisting he didn't want to go and the club saying he did.

New boys Conlon and Gritton were drafted in for the game at Hereford and both netted in a memorable 3-1 win.

But then Dearden saw the other half of his Jeckyll and Hyde squad at Accrington as an interval lead was squandered and they were beaten 3-2.

Stags also lost midfielder Giles Coke with a serious knee injury in the game.

By now previous 'chairman' Peter Lee - who had become the invisible man at Field Mill - had officially confirmed he had resigned, though many suspected he had quit long before.

Haslam then brought in Newark businessman James Derry who was to become a much more familiar and vocal figure than Lee and set about repairing the rift between the club and its fans with relish and gusto.

The day of the home clash with Walsall dawned with 'Haslam Out' placards all over Mansfield. And Stags produced the goods in style on the field as they saw off the Sadlers 2-1.

Sadly the game was marred by the disgraceful ejection of photographer Dan Westwell for having a news picture of one of the anti-Haslam placards on public display on his laptop as the club once again shot themselves in the foot.

It got worse as Westwell ended up appearing in court for a gesture to the directors' box as he was forcibly ejected from the ground.

All the Westwell incident achieved from the club's point of view was to fuel the hatred of both Haslam and the club's over-zealous stewarding.

An early straight red card for Conlon in a 1-1 draw at Chester saw the promising Conlon-Gritton partnership broken up prematurely, though Gritton responded with a hat-trick in a 5-0 hammering of Conference-bound Torquay.

Both men's stars faded after that superb start and both were released at the end of the season - having done the job they were brought in to do - though Conlon did regain his form as the season drew to a close.

February began with a frustrating 1-1 home draw against 10-men Shrewsbury and Stags were then desperately unlucky as they lost 1-0 at Stockport - County's sixth win on the trot without conceding.

Dearden celebrated his 63rd birthday and Gritton celebrated being shortlisted for League Two Player of the Month.

A late goal saw Grimsby steal three points at Field Mill.

But from this point Stags set off on an impressive six-game unbeaten run that, ultimately, saved their skins.

It began with Nathan Arnold's late equaliser in a fine 1-1 draw at promotion-chasing MK Dons.

Sadly Hamshaw missed that game after he and his wife lost their expected baby and the way the club and fans rallied round him in his moment of need was superb and a credit to all concerned.

Blackburn Rovers' youngster Bryan Hodge made a classy debut on loan in a 3-2 home win over Wycombe though will probably wished he hadn't celebrated his man of the match award in Blackpool that night as he was caught and convicted for drink-driving.

Rovers eventually recalled him after further disciplinary problems.

March started with a rare win at Lincoln City, Chester were beaten 2-1 at Field Mill to overtake neighbours Notts County ahead of the trip to Meadow Lane where Mansfield battled out a 0-0 draw.

By now, however, the injury situation was starting to bite hard with skipper Jake Buxton and influential midfielder Jon D'Laryea suffering significant injuries at Meadow Lane and joining five others on the treatment table.

D'Laryea in particular was badly missed for the rest of the campaign, underlining his importance to the team.

A disappointing 2-1 home defeat by struggling Boston United stopped the pie-in-the-sky talk of Play-offs.

And, as players fell like flies, a new crisis rapidly developed for Dearden.

With the transfer window closed, his injury-ravaged squad, patched up with inexperienced youth teamers, suddenly lost four on the trot at home and went eight games without victory.

Thankfully there were other poorer sides below them and relegation was never really a serious issue.

But everyone still breathed much better after a 2-1 home success against Barnet made sure they could not be caught.

Sadly the brutal stewarding seen on several occasions at Field Mill once again reared its head at the end when over-enthusiastic youngsters took to the field to celebrate.

The repercussions of that could still be far-reaching as the ground's capacity was immediately slashed by half by the County Council. But previous warnings had been ignored and the club only have themselves to blame.

And they now have big bridges to build with the safety people to ensure the capacity goes back up and the club can start the season.

Amazingly keeper Jason White was hurt in the pre-match warm-up at Bury on the last day as Gareth Jelleyman had been against Rochdale three games before - a clear sign Stags' injury jinx had stayed until the very end

The sensible, friendly stewarding of Bury officials to their customers - home and away fans - at that game was in stark contrast to the crass brutishness on display at Field Mill and one wonders if any lessons have yet sunk in.

On the field, now begins the task of avoiding a third season of turmoil.

Dearden began to stabilise the ship by pledging himself to the job again next season and then offering most of his players new deals while looking to build a bigger and better squad.

Stags fans know he does have an eye for a player and good contacts and can be quietly optimistic he will bring in the very best his budget allows.

It also seems a training ground deal may be done to offer better and more regular facilities at the John Fretwell Centre.

However, as far as fans are concerned, many will still not return while chief executive Keith Haslam remains at the helm.

Maybe, just maybe, during the summer someone will come in with the required money to buy him out and give Mr Haslam and his detractors exactly what they want to end this stand-off.

For without the steady income those stayaway fans can provide, both Haslam's and Dearden's hands are tied with what they can spend and the playing side suffers accordingly.

Times are tough - though not as tough as they are at places like Boston United.

But it is hard to see a brighter future just yet at The Mill.


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