A poor night for the Stags

Quiet game this evening, nothing much to report, certainly not three missed penalties, certainly not two sending offs or two players getting their first goals, one on his debut.

First, a word about the Darlington and Gateshead results. I didn’t go – so I didn’t see it first hand, and can just comment on the reports and what I listened to. I was so furious at the results I couldn’t be driven to write about them. It strikes me though, that from the start of the ‘week of the long journeys’ Money was already preparing excuses for the bad performances.

If I heard it once I heard it a dozen times about the two long journeys in a week and how the poor loves had to spend 4 hours cooped up on a luxury coach before playing football for 90 minutes. From the off it was sowing a seed in the players’ minds that they had an excuse for failure. And believe me, 1 point out of 6 in the fifth tier is failure.

Let’s just remind ourselves for a second that we weren’t relegated because of poor performance. We’re not here because we were a rubbish team, so it is outstanding how quickly we have reconciled ourselves to being a non-league team rather than a league team temporarily evicted to the conference. Just as a test batsmen who is only playing county cricket eventually lowers his standards through not playing at the top level, or how the English rugby team would be if we never played against the southern hemisphere teams; so we have lowered our standards to the division we find ourselves in.

How quickly the fan base has grown used to being kicked in the guts – ten years ago if we had lost away to Gateshead there would have been a riot in the offing. We wouldn’t have just allowed the manager to shrug his shoulders and blame the ref and the long journey.

It so annoys me this business about the journeys to the north east. It’s only 250 miles, and it isn’t Outer bloody Mongolia. It’s the same trip that the fans have to make, in addition to their working day, and furthermore I hasten to add, it is the same length of trip that some of us have to do in order to earn a living. Last Christmas I had to drive to and from Scotland (in the snow and ice) down to Hertfordshire – it took a damn sight longer than 4 hours, and I had to get up the next morning and do the same trip again in the opposite direction, knowing the snow and ice, queues and disruption that awaited me. I had every excuse to pick up the phone and to call in a sicky, especially as hadn’t got in until late, but that would be giving in, and the mortgage doesn’t pay itself. That is why the excuse of the long journey gets my goat so much. So many people who watch the Hatters have to put themselves through so much more each week to earn a crust than the minor privation of sitting on a coach. It is not as if they are ten million pound highly-honed racing thoroughbreds, but non-league footballers.

It’s an excuse, not a reason, for poor performance, and I thought Richard Money was bigger than that.

I’d also like to take my hat off to the travelling fans who did make it to either or both games, not using the long journey as an excuse.

Rant over – but you can expect RM to start rehearsing the excuses for the ‘trek’ to Barrow on Saturday…

And so onto this evening – a noisier than usual home crowd I thought, perhaps some were here to witness the death-throes of Money’s time as manager, as another defeat would surely have (rightly or wrongly) engendered a mini crisis. As it was, the paying guests at the Kenny this evening were treated to a host of talking points, not perhaps the finest game of footie ever played, but certainly an entertaining one.

So, where to start? I’ll go through the team. We started with Mark Tyler, who actually had little to do this evening. He threw the ball out where he could and kicked pretty accurately towards Claude.

At right back was Dan Gleeson who had a tidy enough game, whilst still filling me with a distant doubt that perhaps Ed should be playing. Or even Adam Newton…

At left back was Freddie Murray, who now shorn of beard was also shorn of towel in the first half, and it (the brown one) only appeared on the right wing in the second and so no long throws tonight. How strange. It is like that particular tactic can only be used occasionally or Murray forgot how to do it already. In any case, Murray had a good game, getting forward and supporting debutant Amari Morgan-Smith and making a couple of crucial challenges. Murray has improved in this past year.

In the middle was Mr Dependable George Pilkington who had his usual wholly reliable game, and Mr Krocha who was equally inconspicuous by his presence. Blackett was on the bench, a tad unfortunate bearing in mind the sound performances he has been putting in.

On the right was Claude Le Goal. Claude, Claude, Claude. What can I say that hasn’t been said already? At times brilliant, at times frustratingly unwieldy and clumsy on the ball. And inbetween times tormented the left back and got cross after cross in. He became Claude le Stroppe for a little while after snubbed by MHB for the third penalty.

In the middle was Jake – yes, still in the middle – who had a more attacking game than against Gateshead, by all accounts. Apart from a quiet first 20 minutes he was a gem and a delight. No wonder Money is playing him out of position now, just to fit him into the team (a la Mick). He was at times back to his brilliant best last year, but combining it with a never-say-die tackling back bustling midfielder.

To those of us who hadn’t travelled up to the north east, it was good to see Keane back. Though his booking on about 6 minutes clipped his wings a bit, he sailed close to the wind with a few challenges in the second half, but he did have a good game.

Left wing was ‘new boy’ Amari Morgan-Smith, signed only earlier that day and popped straight into the team. Must be a bit galling for Dan Walker and JJ O’Donnell that the new lad got straight in, but there you go. He had a splendid debut. He harried and chased from the front, as well as linking nicely with Freddie Murray and Jake Howells. Not quite sure why he was played on the wing when he’s a striker but there you go. I can’t see him getting too many crosses in, but I guess he will cause anxiety when he picks the ball up on the left and runs into the box. Oh, and he got a goal – but more of that later.

Up front was ‘Big Hips’ Danny Crowe who started for once (hurrah) and didn’t let us down. He worked incredibly hard and played others in really well. Oh, and he got a goal (and missed a penalty) too.

MBH had a quiet game and needs a break. Whilst he did make some nice lay offs he did seem a bit off the pace and a bit distracted. He sort of got in the way a bit at times and his poor form was made all the more obvious by the fact that those around him were having cracking games. His penalty miss was legendary.

It strikes me that now we have two players (eg Crow and Morgan-Smith) who clearly know where the goal is that perhaps they should start up top and Jake move back to the left. If Drury’s fit then he can go onto the right, giving the Claude the chance to come on and dazzle them from the bench.

And so onto Mansfield. Never in the field of football conflict has a side so high up the table been flattered by so few goals conceded. It only shows how utterly rubbish this division is that a side like that can get to 2nd (second) can score 9 (nine) goals in its previous two games yet be so unutterably crap. Ten men or not, there were times in this game when you thought that the Mansfield players had been kidnapped on the way to the game and replaced by strangers who had never kicked a ball. It just shows how poor this league is – and if we don’t cream it, eventually, it will be a human travesty. And what a dirty, nasty little team they were. Newton was scythed down by Silk and Mills committed GBH on Morgan-Smith. They lost it completely after the second penalty was awarded and after the ball had been cleared a minor melee ensued right in front of the Oak Road end. We were all shouting “get stuck in” and “knock his head off” which is of course wholly irresponsible behaviour for responsible adults. Mansfield were rattled and lost composure. The lack of composure was epitomised by their skipper, Foster who had been booked when the first penalty was ordered to be retaken, leading the protests and then got his marching orders shortly afterwards for his part in the dust up. Whatever form or shape they had prior to this disintegrated and they became a disorganised, vicious rabble, giving non-league a bad name. This wasn’t helped by the manager David Holdsworth who demonstrated the calm demeanour and intelligent diplomacy imbued in him by ten years spent at the club down the M1 (which has still never won anything) and was promptly sent off and took his place in the main stand.

If you haven’t picked up that we got three penalties in the game then I apologise. We managed to miss them all, which must be some kind of record. The first one was awarded when Keano drove a long ball forward from a free kick to Kroca who rose well but headed the ball into Mills (I think) I can only assumed he handled it because the ref blew for it immediately, much to the annoyance of the manager and Mansfield players.

If that wasn’t enough, it was time for a repeat performance of the Howard incident at York all those years ago and the Pilks and Craddock quarrel last year. A sure sign of indiscipline and disharmony in the ranks. If you recall, MBH who had scored two penalties against Kettering, muffed one and deflated himself and the season against Newport.

Claude wasn’t having this and grabbed the ball and wasn’t giving it up. Presumably MBH was the nominated penalty taker but the indecision was obvious for all to see. I would have thought that before the game/in training the manager would say “right MBH is taking the penalties if one is awarded” and you would expect the on-field captain to back this up.

However, despite much confusing gesticulation and handwringing from the bench, Claude insisted on taking it, and Pilks stood on the half way line, not getting involved.

Needless to say, Claude fired a weak penalty to the goalies left which was saved. However, presumably due to encroachment, the penalty was retaken (cue uproar from the Nottingham end). This time, step forward Danny Crow. His penalty was much better, bringing off a fine save from the keeper. Pandemonium, astonishment, bewilderment, resignation and anger prevailed on three sides of the ground.

Shortly into the second half, guess what? We won yet another penalty. Gnapka was tripped in the box, but this was a genuine trip not a Claude special. The ball found its way to Claude, who grabbed it but needed to do up his laces. He knelt down with the ball in front of him keeping an eye on his prize like a cat keeping its still twitching prey close to hand. But no one can both double-knot his laces and also hold onto the ball and MBH with the sharpest move he made all night, grabbed the ball and plopped it on the spot, much to Claude’s annoyance. Claude sulked for the next ten minutes. Mansfield then did their predictably cheaty best to delay it being taken, but when MBH did take it, well, what can I say? I doubt if a penalty has ever been missed by a greater margin. Dozens of people in the town centre ducked.

Money hinted strongly afterwards that Crow was the nominated penalty taker. I know being rewarded a penalty is rare for our club compared to others, and I know, that not being experienced or employed on the playing side of things, who am I to suggest as to what the players should or shouldn’t be practising, however I’d like to hint that perhaps, just perhaps, in addition to the long throws and the far-post corners, Mr Crow et al might like to practice burying the ball in the old onion bag from 12 yards – call me crazy for suggesting it if you like.

Fortunately, after the third miss, we didn’t have to wait too long for the first goal. Goals were inevitable, not just because of how poor Mansfield were (to those of you who can remember think back to Huddersfield March 2003) but because we were pressing forward, closing things down and knocking the ball around nicely. Danny Crow, surprise surprise, rewarded his first start with a goal, from a pass from Howells from a short corner. He buried it with aplomb.

It became two up not too long afterwards ‘new boy’ Morgan-Smith showed some of the raw goal scoring ability that netted him 21 goals last season for the unfortunately now defunct Ilkeston Town, a travesty that a club can go out of business for £47k which is less than half some players in the premiership’s weekly wage. How can that be right?

Keane lobbed the ball into the middle from the free kick, the goalie punched clear and AMS (see what I did there?) whacked the ball in from the edge of the box with unnerving aplomb. MBH take note…

After that, we sat back after the substitutions and lumped more people into the midfield. I swear at one point we were playing a formation of 3-6-1. When Crow came off to an excellent, and well-deserved bout of applause he was replaced by Atieno reprieved from his weekend sending off. MBH was replaced by Adam Murray who played well and was sort of furthest forward in the midfield, and AMS by Newton, I’m still trying to work out where he was supposed to play. My feeling was that if we would have plenty more goals if Money hadn’t buggered around with the formation.

The intensity and thus I suppose the enjoyment of the game was ratcheted up by the actions of the ref. Whilst I think we got the rub of the green from him, he did himself no favours by booking a Mansfield player in virtually the first minute for the first challenge, and Keano shortly afterwards, and once you have set the bar so low you can expect plenty of bookings and/or red cards to follow. He didn’t disappoint us, and Mansfield delightfully played their part by being a bunch of dirty sods.

It was a good game and a good atmosphere, enhanced as ever because it was under lights, and enhanced further by the ref and by Mansfield being a bit rubbish, dirty and down to ten men. If all football games were as packed with incident and controversy I suspect attendances would be twice as high.

Off to Barrow then, more excuses for Money if we don’t get a result because clearly a journey up the motorway to Cumbria in a coach is the footballing equivalent of a blindfolded, barefoot trek to Kathmandu carrying sixteen times your bodyweight whilst juggling burning axes. Have I made my point?