So Near But So Far – Dissecting The Stags Season

Expectations were high going into the 2022/23 season, the season before had seen Mansfield Town, under the guidance of Nigel Clough, finish seventh in SKY Bet EFL League Two, and reach the play-off final, before losing to Port Vale, at Wembley.

Fast-forward twelve months and, despite flirtations with the play-offs, and promotion, the Stags would end the season one place, and two points worse off, missing out on the play-offs by virtue of one goal, maybe even a point, depending how you wanted your play-offs to look.

In reaching the play-off final, Mansfield had defeated Northampton Town, 3-1 on aggregate, in the semi-final, to set up that date with Port Vale, however, the Stags just weren’t at the races; a red card for Oliver Hawkins, and three goals conceded later, consigned them to another season in League Two.

Three loanees, among others, helped the Stags to Wembley, Manchester United shot-stopper, Nathan Bishop, Newcastle United’s Matty Longstaff, and Hibernian’s Jamie Murphy, they all played their part – Bishop would play an impressive, 53 games (46 in the league) in the push for League One, Longstaff eleven, and Murphy sixteen.

The Stags’ line-up at Wembley was as follows: (4-3-1-2) Nathan Bishop, Elliott Hewitt, James Perch, Oliver Hawkins, Stephen McLaughlin, Matty Longstaff, John-Joe O’Toole, Stephen Quinn, Jamie Murphy, Jordan Bowery, Rhys Oates

The signings!

However, there was to be a summer overhaul at the One Call Stadium, loanees returning to their parent clubs, and the usual, summer transfer window, comings-and-goings, there was a few of those as the revolving door, it just kept on turning.

There was certainly more out than in though, Clough adding that of Hiram Boateng, Scott Flinders, and Anthony Hartigan, alongside inspirational loan signings of Christy Pym (from Peterborough United), and the Nottingham Forest duo of Will Swan and Riley Harbottle.

That loan trio, and the signing of Boateng, having played a huge part in the season just finished, racking up over a century of appearances between them.

The season though, began in the worst possible way, a 2-0 defeat away to Salford City as Callum Hendry and Brandon Thomas-Asante netted in the opening half hour for the hosts, in late July.

Playing a 3-5-2 formation, Clough’s starting eleven on the opening day was: Christy Pym, John-Joe O’Toole (played play-off final), Riley Harbottle, Stephen McLaughlin (played play-off final), Lucas Akins, Hiram Boateng, Stephen Quinn (played play-off final), George Maris, Jordan Bowery (played play-off final), Rhys Oates (played play-off final), Will Swan 

What went right?

To be honest, the signings in the summer, and winter, transfer windows, have been pretty much spot on; Clough adding that of Alfie Kilgour, Callum Johnson, Louis Reed and Davis Keillor-Dunn, should have been enough to push the Stags over the line.

Goals scored, they’ve not really been that hard to come by either, putting five past Wimbledon back in August showed that, and with five different scorers in Rhys Oates (penalty), George Lapslie, George Maris, Riley Harbottle, and Will Swan.

Doncaster Rovers and Gillingham were beaten in September, 3-1 and 2-0 respectively, Akins netting in each of those, although he did also miss a penalty in the latter; whilst September/October, January/February, and March/April, would see the Stags put together healthy, unbeaten runs.

The turn of the year, and the addition of the afore-mentioned, winter signings, afforded fresh impetus to Clough’s charges, also, a change in formation helped massively; a 4-1 win over Doncaster, and the first double of the season, saw Kilgour, Akins and Swan all net.

The Valentine’s Day massacre of Carlisle United, away, was a highlight of the campaign with captain, Ollie Clarke, getting the ball rolling, followed by goals from Kilgour, Akins, and Hewitt; then, heading into the back end of the campaign, further wins were racked up against Wimbledon (3-1), Crawley Town (4-1, Keillor-Dunn with a brace), and Swindon (4-2, avenging the earlier, mauling).

Some seventy-two goals were netted overall, the Stags posting a goal-difference of +17 but they’d need just one or two more to make that play-off berth (they could easily have finished higher as well).

The unbeaten runs!

Three times throughout the season, the Stags put together decent, unbeaten runs, in the league, the first of which came during September/October, over seven matches, beginning with the victory over Doncaster.

The Stags racked up five wins, and just the two draws, over that period, but the pre-Halloween game, at home to Swindon, will haunt for some time.

A draw, followed by victory over Doncaster, in late January, was the start of a six-match run during January/February time, and those three wins-in-a-row, in February, were tantalising, and showed what could be done, when done right.

Then there was the more recent run, over nine matches, in March/April – the number of draws though, proved a little too costly (five in nine); the victories were good ones though and they helped keep Mansfield in-and-around the play-offs when it mattered the most.

What went wrong?

Fingers can, and will be, pointed any and everywhere – Akins’ penalty miss, in the win over Gillingham, back in September, which was saved by Glenn Morris, could easily have given the Stags that extra goal needed for the play-offs – although hindsight is a wonderful thing!

Hitting the woodwork is always a key factor when the ‘what ifs?’ come around, but with the Stags, the two key factors during the campaign just ended, in not making the play-offs, has to be too many draws (especially when it mattered the most), and the plethora of injuries which the club has endured.

As already mentioned, the draws, March/April alone saw five of them, in the thirteen matches played, two of those came against Grimsby Town (0-0 in March, 1-1 in April), and coupled with the three defeats, proved somewhat detrimental in the grand scheme of things.

Unbeaten runs are good, but winning streaks are even better, and the most of those put together, was three-in-a-row, once, in February – games needed closing out a lot more.

Then there was the injuries, there’s certainly been plenty of those knocking about this past season.

At one point, in early March, the medical room saw a dozen players, whilst a month later and Clough found himself having to bring back several, early, in order to fill the breech – several of the injuries have been long-term as well.

Pym has a brief spell out, as has the likes of Swan and Oates, Maris and McLaughlin, Harbottle and Hewitt, James Gale, Danny Johnson and Stephen Quinn, along with the winter signings of Louis Reed, Callum Johnson and Alfie Kilgour, whilst the season finished with news that Stephen McLaughlin not only missed the run-in, but would also miss the early part of pre-season, at best.

Clough’s medical staff, fronted by Club Doctor, Dr Raman Prabu, and Head Physio, Tom Whittamore, have perhaps never been busier during what was a freak spell of injuries and ailments.

That last game of the season, a 2-0 win at Colchester United, in early May, as the Stags fell just short of the play-offs, saw five of the elven that started the season, against Salford, start the final act.

They were: (4-3-3) Christy Pym (started season), Callum Johnson, Riley Harbottle (started season), Alfie Kilgour, James Perch, Hiram Boateng (started season), Louis Reed, Stephen Quinn (started season), Will Swan (started season), Lucas Akins (started season), Davis Keillor-Dunn

What’s next?

Like the season before, with Bishop, Longstaff and Murphy, the three loan players will likely go back to their parent clubs, with Swan and Harbottle back to relegation-threatened Nottingham Forest, and Pym to Peterborough – Stags fans would likely want to see Clough attempt to sign at least one, if not all three of those however, on permanent deals.

Scott Flinders, Pym’s back-up, has two decades’ experience, but only appeared five times this past season, with Owen Mason the other at the club, so that’s paramount; there’s no players returning from loan spells and Clough’s signings over the past twelve months could well mean a quiet summer ahead.

Players returning, or due to return from, injury, will be key over the summer, so maybe adding a bit of strength in depth, across the key positions, be what’s on Clough’s mind.

At full-strength, the Stags have fluidity, cohesion, and strong attacking prowess, with Akins, Bowery, D. Johnson, Oates, and Gale, ably supported through the midfield by Clarke, Maris, Quinn, Reed, Keillor-Dunn and Boateng.

As for the Stags defence, granted fifty-five goals were conceded, in forty-six games, but that of McLaughlin, Kilgour, Hewitt, C. Johnson, James Perch and Kieran Wallace, have stood strong; age could be a factor with a couple, but that’s by-the-by, the majority are twenties, early thirties.

Irrespective of whether one, two, or all three loan players are signed permanently, it would be a perfect scenario, then the 2023/24 season, and with a push for the League Two title paramount, at worse, automatic promotion, the squad should be built, idealistically, around the following players –

Alfie Kilgour, Callum Johnson, Stephen McLaughlin/Kieran Wallace; Ollie Clarke, Jordan Bowery, Stephen Quinn/George Maris, Louis Reed, Davis Keillor-Dunn, Hiram Boateng; Lucas Akins, Rhys Oates, as the core.

Add in an experience shot-stopper, a strong defender, a defensive-midfielder, and another forward, and that, could well be enough, to push to the next level – the tools are in place, cut out the missed opportunities, take the chances, and push forward.

*Article provided by Peter Mann (Senior Correspondent).

*Main image @mansfieldtownfc the Stags missed out on the League Two playoffs by goal difference.

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