EVENING POST REVIEW OF THE SEASON
Season of mixed fortunes for Stags
Evening Post, May 06, 2009
BOTH literally and in terms of the traditional cliche, Mansfield Town's 2008-09 season was one of two halves. Most obviously, the campaign was spilt into two by the managerial reigns of Billy McEwan and David Holdsworth.
The hard-line Scot took charge in July before being relived of his duties in mid-December, after 22 league matches. For three games the Stags were under the caretaker- management of senior players Adie Moses and Mark Stallard.
However, Londoner Holdsworth then took up the challenge just before the turn of the year and led the team through their remaining 21 fixtures until the end of the campaign.
But the divide between old boss and new ran deeper than merely timings and dates. It was the separation of struggle and strife from safety and stability.
There was no doubt that whoever took over the hot-seat at Field Mill in the summer was going to have a difficult task.
Having just come down from the Football League, expectations were high that Mansfield would mount an immediate challenge to return to football's elite.
But as the summer progressed, it became clear to all but even the most optimistic of Mansfield fans that was never going to happen.
The takeover of the club from Keith Haslam, when it was finally agreed in early July, was long overdue in most supporters' eyes and widely welcomed.
But the fact it took place just over a month before the start of the Conference campaign made plotting a promotion drive almost impossible.
Experienced McEwan was seen as the right man to guide the club through the turbulent, transitional waters.
His biggest problem was that he didn't have the time to mess around choosing the players who he really wanted, nor was the pool to select from particularly large.
Had he taken over in May, then McEwan would have been able to attract far more players. As it was, he had to scrape together what he could from those who were still searching for clubs.
From having just Nathan Arnold and Jason White as senior players on the books, in came the likes of Mark Stallard, Alan O'Hare, Alex Jeannin, Anthony Robinson, Jason Lee, Adie Moses, Matt Somner, Michael Blackwood, Gary Silk, Tom Shaw, Aaron O'Connor, James Kay and Paddy Gamble.
Jonathan D'Laryea also re-signed having been released by caretaker-boss Paul Holland at the end of the previous season.
The other big drawback for McEwan was that he didn't have time to prepare his new troops as he would have liked.
With just days before the club's first pre-season friendlies, he had to work on formations and tactics in the middle of matches.
Normally, that kind of stuff would have been dealt with weeks before.
Nevertheless, the initial signs were promising as Mansfield won four of their first six games, all at home, and briefly topped the table shortly after.
But things quickly began to unravel from them on.
First it emerged that the Stags had fielded ineligible players in their first two matches of the season against Ebbsfleet and Histon.
Mansfield were eventually docked four points by the Football Conference for the administrative error and that coincided with a downturn in results.
Whether that psychologically knocked the players, only they know. But suddenly, the performances and victories went missing.
After losing at Crawley in mid-September, the Stags won just twice more in the remainder of McEwan's time at the helm – home and away to Salisbury.
That 14-game run brought ten defeats – including a stretch of five in a row – as the team's confidence drained.
The writing was on the wall when the crowd voted with their feet by staying away from the televised 3-1 reverse at home to Oxford. Those who did attend called for McEwan's head.
And his departure was confirmed less than a week later after a 2-0 loss at Kidderminster where Mansfield showed little appetite for the fight.
It became clear that the manager had lost the respect of his players, as was borne out later in interviews with a number of senior staff.
Overall, McEwan's record was not great, despite such a bright start, with seven wins, four draws and 11 defeats.
At that stage, Mansfield were teetering dangerously close to the relegation zone, a horrifying prospect.
The mood was lifted over Christmas as Stags' hunt for a manager was drawing to a close.
They lost in the FA Trophy at Wrexham, but Moses and Stallard guided the team to successive wins against Weymouth and at Kettering.
Holdsworth was unveiled as the new Stags boss before Mansfield's defeat to eventual league champions Burton.
From then on, the whole atmosphere at Field Mill changed.
With games postponed because of FA Trophy games and the weather, Holdsworth had a couple of weeks to put his stamp on things.
And he certainly did that with a host of new signings.
Curtis Woodhouse was first through the door, followed by Alan Marriott, Scott Garner, Louis Briscoe, Rob Duffy, Paul Mayo and Tomi Ameobi.
A little later, Scott Gardner, Neil MacKenzie, Ryan Williams, Daryl Clare and Ollie Hotchkiss arrived too.
Equally, he was not afraid to move players on with Lee, Kay and Hurren leaving quickly while O'Hare, Jeannin and a host of youngsters were transfer-listed or released shortly after.
The effect was instantaneous. Led by the superb Marriott – who many believe should still be playing in the Football League – the Stags suddenly tightened up at the back.
Mansfield kept seven clean sheet out of their first nine games under their new boss, suggesting the players were now far more motivated.
Up front, the goals were not as free-flowing, but the results were still good – six wins, two draws and one defeat.
As the campaign moved into the closing stages, the Stags' Achilles heel came back to haunt them – their poor away form.
After winning three of Holdsworth's first four trips as boss, they then lost five in a row – at Grays, Cambridge, Histon, Wrexham and Northwich.
But still the home victories kept on coming and come the end of the season, the Stags had won seven and drawn four of their home games since the change of management.
It meant Holdsworth finished with a healthy record of ten wins, five draws and six defeats – a significant improvement on his predecessor.
But it is not just in terms of results that the former Sheffield United player has impressed.
He appears to have knitted together an excellent team spirit and re-installed lost confidence.
And he has already secured the services of some of the club's better players – Marriott, Garner, Williams and Briscoe among them.
The aim now is for an assault on the play-off places next season, which Holdsworth believes is realistic after finishing 12th this season.
To do that, though, Mansfield will first have to do something about their poor away form.
The story away (five wins, four draws and 14 defeats) was almost a mirror image of the strength at home (14 wins, five draws, four defeats).
Only if Mansfield can find a cure for their travel sickness – while maintaining Fortress Field Mill – will Holdsworth's bandwagon of success go rolling on.
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