COMETH THE HOUR...
COMETH THE HOUR...
Ian Wilkerson, Evening Post, 15 January 2003
There are two ways in which the first half of Mansfield Town's first season in Division Two for ten years can be viewed.
League tables don't lie and it would be easy to conclude that, with the Stags spending most of the opening five months in the drop zone, depression has been constant.
But any Field Mill regular will tell you that it hasn't really been like that at all because performances have fluctuated between the inspired, on the occasions when they looked like they can beat anybody, and the ugly, when it seemed they had never met their team-mates before the match.
Add to that a change of management and you have a voyage that has been more choppy than many might suspect.
The chances are that the remainder of the season will not be plain sailing either but there is certainly no guarantee that the Stags will sink.
Before their first game of the campaign, against Plymouth, back in August, I voiced two main concerns having seen the way the Stags limped over the line in gaining promotion on the last day of the previous season.
The later stages of the previous campaign had been peppered with defensive errors, especially away from home and the habit continued as they entered a higher level.
They could not go on shipping the number of goals they did at the start of the campaign but, three clean sheets in the last five games suggests they may have got their house in order.
They have certainly looked more solid since Keith Curle took over the helm.
The other main concern that supporters had at the start of the season was over the departure of Chris Greenacre.
While Colin Larkin has struggled with hamstring injuries after an encouraging start to the campaign, it has been Iyseden Christie who has taken on the mantle as the spearhead of the Stags attack.
He has become an undoubted asset, with his 14 goals having made him an early contender for the player-of-the-year award, when many expected him to be a bit-part player.
Sitting in the relegation zone with more in the "goals for" column than some of the teams in the play-offs demonstrates that the problem has not been at that end, even though the Stags have been unable to find the net in their last three outings.
One thing that I didn't foresee was how tight it would be at the bottom. There are five or six good sides in the division and a lot who are failing to put a decent run together.
Two wins could put the Stags in a mid-table position and things would look a whole lot rosier but then it is worth remembering that any team in the bottom nine or ten can put together a similar run of results.
It would certainly be helpful if the Stags did this sooner rather than later, just to give themselves another platform to build upon.
Many will point to the change of manager as the main reason why the Stags have been able to push on.
While a few players have been shown the door, including three central defenders that Watkiss brought in over the summer, the main changes have been off the pitch.
There seems to be a more professional feel about the place, even if it has just meant that the players are no longer washing their own training kit and the changing rooms have a lick of paint. Curle has brought the high standards he has been used to in his career and applied them at Field Mill.
That such a change of attitude can move the Stags away from being content with being a small club is refreshing but increases the need for Division Two football to remain at Field Mill next season.
Looking at the league table, every team will think they are in with a chance of staying up and Mansfield will certainly be no different.
Having seen all the teams this season, apart from Notts County, I think the Stags have enough about them to stay up, particularly now that Curle appears to have installed more belief in the squad.
It is somewhat ironic that the two teams who currently sit below them in the table, Cheltenham and Huddersfield, both managed to win 2-0 at Field Mill and will be confident they can finish above the Stags.
I think Cheltenham will still go down, as I thought they would struggle at the start of the season, and two others who I doubt have enough to stay in the division are Peterborough and Colchester United.
I would think Stockport are in danger of slipping into it too and there is still room for things to go wrong at Swindon.
You can bet that any team that currently sits in the bottom ten who think they are too good to get relegated, will be the ones scrapping in the last couple of matches.
As for who is going up, I stopped caring in September.
But, while Wigan have managed to steal a march on the rest and look a pretty safe bet, it would be difficult for any Stags fan not to fancy Crewe to join them after they have beaten Mansfield four times this season.
Personally, I would be disappointed if anyone who finished sixth would win the play-offs because the top five, the aforementioned along with Cardiff, Oldham and Bristol City, are streets ahead of anyone else.
The task ahead of Curle is to try to establish the Stags in that group around mid-table looking to challenge.
That will now probably be a job now for next season and, in order for it to be done, they must stay up and work towards that end until safety is assured.
But, since the appointment of Curle, they appear to have given themselves a chance and there is no reason why they shouldn't be able to take it.
I said they could finish 14th at the start of the season and I have no reason, at the moment, to doubt that such a finish is attainable.
But, with the situation at the bottom getting so tight, now is the time to get the points on the board to build extra confidence for the remainder of the campaign.
It's been a rough ride, in many respects, and it may be a case of any port in a storm but that doesn't have to be the summit of their ambitions.
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