Mansfield Town Season Preview: promotion push demanded

With the 2018-19 League Two season coming up, The Football Lab spoke to Mansfield Town fan Sam Binch (@SamBinch).

For a 17-game stretch last season between November and February, you topped the form table to become prime promotion contenders. Had Steve Evans not left at that crucial stage, would you have gone up automatically rather than miss out on the play-offs?

We would have made the play-offs for sure. That run of fixtures was quite favourable, but we did still beat Wycombe, Coventry and Exeter during that spell.

However, Evans last game was at home against Coventry, where we played against ten men for 75 minutes, scored from the resulting free-kick and still managed to throw away two points as it finished 1-1. The frustrating thing is that we got four points of each team in the play-offs, and from Wycombe as well.

You appear to have plenty of players who have either won promotion from this division or held their own at a higher level. How much credit do John and Carolyn Radford deserve for offering the funds to build such a competitive squad?

The Radford’s have been and continue to be fantastic for the club. I think a lot of supporters were more gutted for them than themselves following last seasons capitulation.

In contrast to last season, whilst still reportedly splashing the cash, there has definitely been a ‘quieter’ approach this summer, and the emphasis seems to be on giving youngsters a chance after the impressive exploits of the youth team.

The one big concern could be David Flitcroft’s relationship with fans. Around November time, when results weren’t great, fans seemed confident that Evans would get it right: do you think supporters will have that same trust if you have a bad start to this season?

He certainly needs to get off to a good start. There was a poll done on Stagsnet (fans forum) which said 65% of fans were willing to give him a chance with his own team, but that could alter very quickly I think.

The opening ten games or so have been pretty kind to us on paper, so if we’re not in the top 7 at that stage I think the fans will start to turn.

You’ve had change in the striking department with Kane Hemmings and Jimmy Spencer leaving, but Craig Davies and Tyler Walker coming in. How do you asses the changes in that area? 

Well Craig Davies is definitely an upgrade on Jimmy Spencer as the target man option. Davies scored 11 goals in League One last season, which is a decent return, although most of those came prior to Christmas, but he looks fit and strong in pre-season so far.

Kane Hemmings was a good footballer, links the play well and was impressive after a slow start last term. However, he did miss a lot of very easy chances so whether he has the killer instinct or not remains to be seen.

Tyler Walker is an exciting signing, Forest fans I have spoken to all say he should score goals at this level. He is reportedly on big money here, despite it being a loan, so will be interesting to see if he can handle the pressure. He should give us the pace we missed last season up top. He’s been quiet in pre-season so far though.

Rose is still recovering from a toe injury he sustained at the end of last season, and is yet to feature in any friendlies. He is due back next week. His work rate is good and when fit he is one of the best one touch finishers in the division.

Lee Angol has looked very sharp in pre-season also. He has a lot of doubters to overcome but he definitely has the raw attributes and his goal return was decent last season considering the lack of minutes.

Conrad Logan seemed to have one or two good shot-stopping performances last season – like the 1-0 win at Coventry. Does he command his area well enough for you?

There are a lot of big fans of Conrad amongst our support. I think he is a decent goalkeeper, and whilst he did make some crucial saves last season, he also has an error in him. He’s the League Two Hugo Lloris! You are correct though that he is a shot-stopper rather than a commander. I wouldn’t mind seeing Olejnik given the opportunity between the sticks, but I think that’s unlikely.

Right-back Hayden White and left-winger CJ Hamilton look like powerful runners. Is it important to have some width in the side?

I think we’ll definitely see Flitcroft’s team play with width. He seems to be favouring a 3-5-2 formation in pre-season, played in the ‘England’ style, which CJ, Hayden, Mal Benning are all capable of providing chances from the flanks.

Centre-back Krystian Pearce and left-back Mal Benning have been regular starters over the last two seasons – even though both were signed before you became one of the biggest-spenders. Is that a sign of their influence?

Both were Adam Murray signings and are firm favourites with the fans, particularly after Benning’s winner at National League side rivals Chesterfield last season. Krystian Pearce I assume will be the club captain for the new season, and has been fantastic throughout his three seasons here. Adam Murray also brought in Danny Rose and recently departed Rhys Bennett. Perhaps he would fancy a job as a scout?

Key man Rhys Bennett has gone to Peterborough. With Matt Preston arriving from Swindon, how are you looking in the centre-back department?

As said previously, it’s looking like we will be playing three at the back, and currently we only have Preston and Pearce fit. Nathan Cameron (ex-Bury) is on trial but looks to have picked up a further injury, which means his signing is unlikely.

Paul Digby could provide adequate cover but is currently transfer listed, as is Zander Diamond who may need a back operation. David Mirfin is still on the books but has a long term injury and is unlikely to be fit before Christmas. We do have youngsters such as Lewis Gibbens and Henri Wilder who may be able to step up, the former being impressive in pre-season so far. In my opinion we definitely need to sign at least two defenders, and one has to be a centre back.

Alex MacDonald and Jacob Mellis are two technically gifted central midfielders. Does the signing of the more agricultural Neal Bishop from Scunthorpe suggest Flitcroft will have to choose between them?

With the system we are going to be playing, it would seem the battle will be between Bishop and Mellis for a starting role in front of the back four. Bishop is obviously more defensive minded, a tough tackler who keeps things simple. Mellis is suspect defensively but can pull the strings from that deeper role. I expect Bishop will get the nod initially, with MacDonald and Otis Khan playing the ‘Alli and Lingard’ roles.

Wide men Will Atkinson and Paul Anderson looked like exciting additions when they joined last summer. Have they lived up to their billing?

To be frank, no, and both were transfer listed at the start of the summer. Atkinson was sold to us as a ‘League Two’ Kante but was largely ineffective in that role, as well as on the wings. He’s a decent squad player and has recently been taken off the transfer list, indicating he will still have a part to play. He has played in a wing-back role in pre-season which highlights his stamina, but I wouldn’t be confident on him defensively.

Anderson was very poor as a winger, most of the decent performances he had were as a full back, so he may also find a role as a wing back, but if a club comes in for him I suspect he will be allowed to leave. The problem Flitcroft is having is offloading the transfer listed players such as Anderson, Calum Butcher, Diamond as they are all on top wages for this level. Thank you Mr Evans.

Mansfield aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the League Two season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

With the players County have signed, and it pains me to say it, but their midfield and attack should walk this league. Their defence and keeper aren’t great, but I think they will outscore most teams. Lincoln look to have strengthened, though their anti-football is unattractive on the eye. MK Dons will be up there, Tisdale is the best manager in the league for me.

Where will you finish?

I was very confident last year of at the very least play-offs, this year I’m just not sure. With the money we have spent we should be up there in the top 7 at the very least. Can Flitcroft hit the ground running? I’ll go with a tentative 5th.

Thanks to Sam for his answers. The Football Lab’s verdict on Mansfield can be found on We Love Betting from late July.