THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

A new season, a new feature: each issue we pick outa match that helps us take the temperature of the game today. Where better to start than League Two? Al Needham reports

There are three important things you need to know about Mansfield. The first important thing is that Mansfield is one of those almost mythical places – a mining town that still displays signs of life. When you make the journey by train, you can see enormous pit wheels sunk into the ground, in memoriam of former colliery sites, and fear the worst. But no – there’s a very nice retail estate directly opposite the local club’s ground, thoughtfully designed to blend in with the dull, corrugated barns that are the west and north stands of Field Mill. Imagine Southend wrenched from its moorings and planted deep into the heart of the English countryside. That’s Mansfield.

The second important thing is that Mansfield has a reputation within the East Midlands of being hard. Very hard. Biffa Bacon’s mam-hard. Only one of my mates has ever been to Mansfield for a night out and all he can remember about it is seeing a full-on brawl outside a nightclub between two heavily pregnant women over the same expectant father, who was just happening to be standing there in his role as bouncer.

But the really important thing you need to know about Mansfield (seeing that this is, after all, a football magazine) is that the local club are the forgotten sons of Nottinghamshire football. For starters, they lack the history of Notts County. Only coming into existence as late as 1910 (even though you can trace a link back to 1897 if you dig hard enough) and not entering the Football League until 1931, they’re almost a baby club by comparison. They’ve never been able to wallow in past glories like Forest have – they’ve only had two headline-grabbing cup runs, the last of which was in 1969, and their one moment of league glory saw them promoted to the old Division Two in 1976-77, before getting relegated. No matter what ridiculous names get foisted upon the League from now until the end of time, it’s a safe bet to assume that the Stags will be rattling around in the lower echelons.

Or will they? As it happens, Mansfield are a team on the rise. Under Keith Curle, they just missed out on promotion to League One through the play-offs, denied by a linesman’s dodgy decision, and the locals expect them to do better this time round. Although they started the season badly with two defeats, a 3-0 tonking of Chester City put them back on track and, when I arrived for the game against Kidderminster, who are still finding League football a distinct novelty, I expected the following: the foundation of a golden era for the Stags; a non-stop blizzard of advertisements for Coca-Cola; and the distinct possibility of getting beaten up by a load of ex-miners, dressed like Fred Trueman in Indoor League.

Being a neutral observer at a football match is like being at a wedding reception for someone you’ve never heard of. You don’t know where to sit, what to say, who to avoid, who to talk to, where to look and whether they’ve got any food that’s vegetarian or not. Luckily, there are only 3,800 in a 10,000-capacity stadium – and the away support is so sparse you can still see “STAGS” picked out in yellow seating on the opposite stand – so I have an entire row of seats near the front to myself. I could have brought a hamper. An all-seat stadium is the only concession Field Mill has made towards the dramatic changes British football has wrought on itself, but if they have dented the atmosphere in the Premiership, they have crushed it into a cube in the lower leagues.

However, there are distinct advantages. The warm-up has already begun and the home team demonstrate their deep affinity with the locals by whacking every other shot on goal into the stands. Actually, the atmosphere is surprisingly laid-back; it doesn’t seem to matter if you’re wearing last season’s shirt, kids are hanging over the hoardings to get their programmes autographed (something they probably do every game, judging by the way they spend the whole time doodling over them) and you get the feeling that you could hop on to the pitch to join in the kick-about and no one would mind. Naively, the club have left out wheelie bins for the disposal of pie tins and cans. Amazingly, people actually make use of them.

And Sammy Stag waves at everyone. Sammy is the most terrifying-looking mascot in football, encumbered with a grotesquely oversized head not seen on a man in a costume since Rory on Animal Kwackers. So massive, in fact, that he has to constantly grip on to his lower jaw to prevent himself from being decapitated, giving him the air of a chronic toothache sufferer. Where once his antlers stood erect and proud, these days they droop, reminding one of Taribo West. These disabilities do not stop him from writing his own column in the match programme, where he bravely tells us of his pre-season fitness regime of abseiling and running. Tactfully, because his column is aimed at the kiddies, he doesn’t mention anything about rutting or running headlong into cars.

As the players come out, I scour the programme for information on them. Whoever put it together could have saved a lot of time by writing: “Well, he started on the books of Big Premiership club, bounced around the Football League like a dog’s rubber ball for a few years and now he’s here.” The PA writes how he’s not looking forward to announcing the name of Kiddo defender Frédéric Advice-Desruisseaux, an incredibly quaint approach in these post-Bosman days.

When I look up, Kidderminster have already scored. John Danby, their highly touted young keeper, has hoofed the ball up to Stuart Roberts, who lobs it over Kevin Pilkington, with his first touch, 36 seconds into his Harriers debut. He only signed for the club the day before. Immediately, the old blokes in the home end bellow words not seen in print since Alan Sillitoe stopped writing about Notts and moved to Spain. “Fookin ’ell, STAGS! WEK UP, you SUCKEH BOG­GERS! Sit DAAN, MolBEH, yer FAT TWAT!”

The row of chip pan-headed youths with Obligatory Bored Girl Who May Be Going Out With One Of Them who have camped themselves behind the goal, however, don’t seem to mind. In fact, they’re positively chuffed. Ever since they sat down in front of me, I’ve been wondering why they’re here, when they could have been doing the same thing on a bench outside Burger King and had more money to spend on fags and cider. Then I notice the TV camera. Thanks to that early goal, they’re guaranteed to be on telly for three seconds on Central News East the following Monday.

A quarter of an hour later, Mansfield equalise. Colin Larkin, the former Wolves prodigy who was on loan to Kidderminster last season when not injured, latches on to a cross from Joe O’Neill and drills a left-footer into the corner. “Woooooarrrgh!” brays the home sup­port. “We will! We will! ROCK YOU!” howls Freddie Mercury. For the remainder of the half nothing much happens on the pitch, save for a few fouls, inconsequential free-kicks and the odd corner that never comes to anything. As is the wont of the neutral, my eyes start to drift away from the action. I scan the ground and think to myself: “Seeing as Coca-Cola  are sponsoring the League these days, and they  are supposed to be evil American globalisation powermongers of the highest order, then where the hell is all the Coke branding?”

I was fully prepared to see the pitch painted Coke red, or at the very least Sammy Stag being forced to chug a two-litre bottle from the sidelines (which would explain his dental problem). But there’s nothing in the ground to suggest a changing of the guard and, if you didn’t know any better, you’d assume the world’s oldest professional football league was being sponsored by a local haberdashery and the Mansfield Chad. The ticket booth is still festooned with ITV Sport stickers, though, which to this day still causes an involuntary shudder.

One of the thrills of lower-division football is trying to pick out players destined for a move to the big league and Luke Dimech, Stags’ Malta defender, caught the eye. He wasn’t playing, but spent half-time casually prowling the perimeter in an expensively rumpled suit with regulation Premiership fat-knotted tie. However, there are still a few rough edges – he’s going to have to wearing an Alice band, instead of a luminous scrun­chie, and he’s got to cut back on stopping to chat with every kid who wants his programme or shirt signing. That attitude won’t do at all.

The teams returned and the chip pan-headed youths start to rub their chatty little hands together with glee, as the other reason for their being there is about to commence – the opportunity to swear at grown men without getting a fist rammed down their gobs. Danby takes his place in the net. The keeper is already looking like a serious prospect and Molby is already resigned to letting him go to a bigger club, but it’s the fact that he’s very good at making himself big without doing anything that appeals to our young heroes, who make liberal use of the words “fat” and “bastard” throughout the second half. Within two minutes of the restart, Larkin scores his second, doing me the favour of replicating the Kidderminster goal I missed an hour earlier, from another goalkeeper clearance, into the same part of the net. Sure, he put a twist on it by scoring with an overhead kick, but it was much appreciated all the same, apart from having to listen to Queen again.

From here on in (save a penalty claim for Kidderminster that was knocked back by the ref) it’s pretty much all Mansfield, who turn the game into a convoluted version of three-and-in. Danby gets the workout he needs to impress any scouts within a 50-mile radius, Larkin is denied a deserved hat-trick when his header hits the post, there’s scrambled goalmouth incident  aplenty, the sun glistens off the nearby carpet ware­house, Sammy Stag grips his gaping maw with re­newed vigour, youths shin up the tree next to the Bish­op Street stand and you get the feeling that this could be 20 years ago or ten years into the future, and the view would still be the same. The average Stags fan probably wouldn’t mind a whacking new stadium and the Champions League anthem blaring out three or four times a year, but it’s nice to know that somewhere out there football hasn’t completely lost its soul.

Kidderminster went home with their unbeaten record bloodied though, as this is a match report, I’d better add “but with their spirit unbowed”. And Mans­field came up with a first home win to set themselves up nicely for a League Cup encounter with Preston. Until the nearby plastics factory caught fire, filled the area with thick smoke, shut down the local train station and got the match cancelled.

From WSC 212 October 2004. What was happening this month

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