Wembley Stadium holds mixed emotions for Mansfield Town fans who’ll be commuting south in their thousands this weekend ahead of the League Two playoff final against Port Vale.
Those old enough to remember will still talk of their joys in 1987, George Foster lifting the Freight Rover Trophy after a dramatic penalty shootout win against Bristol City. Whilst those much younger, might remember less fondly, the 2011 FA Trophy final and the heartbreak of conceding a last minute goal in extra time to be beaten by Darlington.
On both occasions, like this one, the North West Nottinghamshire town was painted yellow and blue, fans whetting their appetite ahead of the match with anticipation, a trip to Wembley Stadium, whether it be to those old iconic twin towers or the modern new arch which can be seen for miles, same excitement, same thrill, mixed with nerves, optimism, expectation, doubt, this could be our day. ‘Betty get me my lucky pants’.
Those who believe ‘this could be our year’ will cast mind back to the time in October when Mansfield hit rock bottom. A fourteen game run without a win had the Stags level on points with table proppers Scunthorpe. Since then, however, things have significantly improved.
A long unbeaten run followed which included a club record eleven straight home wins at Field Mill. Whilst Mansfield ‘flirted’ with automatic promotion, realistically, to be even in the Playoffs is a miracle itself. One match now deciding their fate, their 2022/23 destiny. Standing in between them and promotion, a few old friends.
Darrell Clarke is Port Vale Manager, a Mansfield born boy who came up from the youth ranks and played over 150 games for the Stags. His coaching staff includes ex-Mansfield Manager David Flitcroft, his players include Mal Benning, Harry Charsley, Aidan Stone, former Mansfield players with a point to prove.
Ahead of the match, current Stags boss Nigel Clough stated “It’s been a long 10 months to work towards this, so we just want to perform somewhere near our best on Saturday.”
Clough followed “It’s going to be a good day if we get a result. We’re not going there for anything other than that.”
Port Vale have the advantage over the Stags this season, in October, during a tough run for the Stags, the two sides shared a 1-1 draw at the One Call Stadium, but in March at Vale Park, the valiants were 3-1 winners, with Clough saying this week “We haven’t beaten them, that’s one thing.”
Optimism however is engulfed in Nigel Clough who’s been there and seen it, educated by the best, over a thousand games as a Manager, and not far from that as a player, which has included a few Wembley finals too, he knows what his side has to do.
Clough saying “It’s more than just another game, it has to be. We have one opportunity to try and achieve our ambition that we set out to do at the start of the season.”
“Once you get to this point, all you want to do is win that last game.”
Casting back to previous finals, Mansfield in 1987, their first time at Wembley, under the stewardship of then Manager Ian Greaves, were underdogs against a Bristol City side who had just missed out on reaching the Division Three playoffs.
The Stags in front of near 60,000 took a second half lead through Kevin Kent but conceded an equaliser late on to Glyn Riley, the match eventually going to penalties where the feet of Kevin Hitchcock would twice make the difference.
In 2011, against Darlington, pre-match predictions were tougher to call for two teams in the right half, of the Blue Square Premier table, but Mansfield supporters were optimistic, having seen off the likes of Worksop, Newport, Alfreton, Chasetown and Luton Town who they beat in the semi-final, Duncan Russell’s mid-table side were confident at Wembley, but a tight, tense affair went all the way.
In the end it wasn’t to be, you win some lose some, in football that’s just the way it is.
Chris Senior nodding home after a looping header came off the bar into the unlikely Quakers heroes path, Mansfield fans and staff would go home disappointed having not won their second piece of Wembley silverware, but cast forward to 2022… Darlington these days are sitting in the National League North, whilst Mansfield have an opportunity to play out one match for a place again in English football’s third tier.
Like that day in May, in 2011, and the one way back in 1987, they’ll be joy, heartbreak, tension and terror guaranteed, for those travelling supporters, promotion this time is everything, and whether it’s a Rhys Oates masterclass, a Stephen McLaughlin curling free-kick, a goal off the backside of Oliver Hawkins or dramatic penalty saves off the feet of Nathan Bishop, everybody in Mansfield wants that ‘Hitchcock moment’ as something to celebrate and keep hold of for many more years to come.
Let’s hope the Stags can go on to make more history, on the hallowed turf come Saturday afternoon.
*Main image @mansfieldtownfc Mansfield goalkeeper Kevin Hitchcock with Tony Kenworthy in 1987.