Retreating Stags Invite Late Equaliser

In my various blogs and messageboard posts of late, I have remained adamant that the Stags would not slip back through the dreaded trap door into non-league football. After yesterdays inept, amateurish second half performance, I am not so sure.

I do not know if it's the hoodoo of the £7 offer which causes Mansfield Town the complete inability to retain a lead, or whether it is the ridiculous all men behind the ball, defend the edge of our own box mentality that seems to have been instilled into the players, no matter who is on the pitch. It was like watching an under 7's game at times when instead of using their man advantage by keeping the ball and making the Northampton players work, the amber shirts awarded the opposition possession at every opportunity, plundering long, aimless passes out of play and through to the Northampton keeper. It was only a matter of time until the inevitable happened. It was an embarrassing second half display, where the Stags were outplayed by ten men, following a first half in which again the Stags missed glorious chances.

It was John Joe O'Toole day for the 1200 travelling Northampton fans, who sported wigs and number ten shirts in his honour. Adam Murray made another four changes after the midweek defeat at Morecambe. Elder, McGuire, Rhead and the injured Raynes were replaced by Riley, Ravenhill, Brown and 18 year old Jack Thomas, making his first start for the Stags. I have championed Thomas for a long time after hearing very good things about him. I took the opinion that he surely could not be worse than the majority of our midfielders so why not give him a chance? If he is not ready, fine, but how would we know until we tried?

It was a return to the 4-5-1 formation which had served Murray so well in his first game in caretaker charge against Plymouth. My immediate concern with the lineup was Lee Beevers at left back. He only redeemed himself against Stevenage because of his part in the goal and was dragged off at half time in midweek against Morecambe. He would not be very effective going forward as he was in his weaker side. His defending is questionable at best and seems to consist of running as fast as he can at the opposition winger and acting surprised when he gets skinned.

After a poor quality opening ten minutes, the first chance fell to Simon Heslop. Richie Sutton threw the ball in from the right, where the ball was brought down by Oliver and back heeled into the path of Heslop, whose side footed effort across the keeper was parried into the bath of Junior Brown. He took too long to get his shot away and failed in his attempt to get a penalty. A trait which seems to be coming to the fore with Brown is hanging onto the ball for too long when he could get a cross or pass away sooner.

Northampton grew into the game and went close through Holmes who had a shot palmed away by Pidgeley. Worryingly, he was quickest to react to the rebound of this own shot but sent the effort into the side netting. Heslop was popping up in goalscoring areas for the Stags but could not quite apply the finishing touch, choking a shot into the ground and having another effort block. He again showed his ability with a dead ball, as he curled an effort off the top of the bar, the closest the Stags game to opening the deadlock in the first half. The free kick had been awarded following clever footwork from Jack Thomas, who was showing the Stags what they had been missing. He was tough in the tackle and played simple football. He made look easy what the other players make look so difficult.

Another great chance came for Oliver following a long kick by Pidgeley. The two Northampton central defenders collided and the ball ran for Oliver just inside the area. He opted to take the shot early and dragged it wide of the keepers right hand post. For me, Oliver could have taken the ball closer to goal, or alternatively squared the ball where players were waiting to tap the ball in. Minutes late, a free header for Oliver no more than eight yards was tamely directed straight at the keeper.

What should have been the turning point of the game occurred on 36 minutes, when the celebrations turned sour for the Cobblers fans as their hero John Joe O'Toole was awarded a straight red card following a tussle with Richie Sutton. He had hardly touched the ball up until this point and it was hard to see what all fuss was about. It was difficult to ascertain what the dismissal was for from where I was sitting, but I am reliably informed that Sutton was punched in the stomach following some heavy duty marking by the Stags full back. The Stags now had more than 55 minutes with a one man advantage. They had looked the more likely team to score when playing against eleven men and surely even Mansfield Town could not fail given this opportunity?

A shot on target following a patient move in which Mansfield retained possession, using their man advantage as they should have done for the rest of the game, ended in a tame Reggie Lambe shot straight at the keeper.

The half time whistle went and having shown a penchant for changing things at half time, I was expecting someone to make way at half time for a second striker. The question was who would he take off? There was no way Murray would take off skipper Ravenhill who despite being booked could still provide an effective shield against an opposition counter attack. Heslop has been lively and came closest to opening the scoring and Jack Thomas was having an excellent game.

The team emerged unchanged for the second half and took 3 minutes to ram home their one man advantage. A long free-kick was lofted into the Northampton area and flicked on by Martin Riley to Vadaine Oliver, who controlled brilliantly and fired past Matt Duke at his near post. Duke will be disappointed to be beaten in such fashion but the shot was past him in a flash. It was Oliver's sixth goal since joining the Stags and he still remains our main goal threat.

If I was to tell you that the goal was the last attempt the Stags would have on target in the 47 minutes of the game that followed, you could probably hazard a guess at how the Stags performed against ten men. It was the worst half of football the Stags have played since the turn of the year. I understand that on occasion it can be difficult to peform against a team who are one player light, because of the galvanizing effect a sending off can have on a team, but the way Mansfield went about it was terrible. Only Vadaine Oliver seemed to be allowed to venture into the Northampton half. Every time a Stags player tried to keep possession of the ball by passing it around the back line, they were barracked by the bench to 'get it away'. As soon as Mansfield took the lead, Murray signalled to the defenders to play the ball into the corners for the wingers to run onto. The tactics were so naive it was painful.

There was nearly an immediate reply from Northampton as Taylor met a corner from the left and send a powerful header against the bar.  Despite this warning shot, the Stags continued to give away needless free kicks in dangerous positions. At the other end, Jack Thomas displayed his class once again, picking the ball up inside his own half and driving to the edge of the area. His pass ricocheted off Lambe and into the path of Oliver, who shot wide.

The lively D'Ath was causing Mansfield problems and was only prevented from equalising by a last ditch Tafazolli challenge. Following this attack, the Stags made a change, with Rakish Bingham replace Jack Thomas. An excellent debut by Thomas, who must surely start against Luton on Tuesday. The thought behind the change was presumably to get the Stags up the pitch by having an extra man up front. To do that, you are relying on the rest of the team to supply the ball to the feet of the front men so that they can keep hold of the ball and relieve the pressure on the defenders. Unfortunately, if your defenders continue to loop the ball over the heads of your two strikers, it gives the opposition a chance to build again from the back and leaves you a man short in midfield.

The experiment did not work and Northampton continued to exert pressure. It was felt by Martin Riley, who again tried to be too clever in shepherding the ball back to Pidgeley. If he had shown a bit of urgency to reach the ball he could easily have played it back to the keeper for a clearance up field or. It was strange that in a half where the Stags had done their best to concede possession, Riley chose that moment to try and retain it. A clever free kick routine next from Northampton, resulting in a cross which found Cresswell unmarked, only for his goalbound header to smack Marc Richards on the back of the head.

It was textbook Stags, trying to hang onto a one goal lead and sinking so far back that the defence were nearly sat in the front row of the Quarry Lane End. Northampton could clearly smell blood and replaced a centre half with a striker, indicating how poorly the switch to two strikers had worked for the Stags. It was Ivan Toney who came on and immediately looked menacing, with clever flicks and worrying pace. Another dangerous free kick from Northampton was comfortably pushed away by Pidgeley.

Feeling the need for another change, Adam Murray decided to introduce himself into proceedings. It was a decision I could not fathom at all. This is a man who has constantly told anyone who would listen that he would not be putting his boots on unless there was no other option. If he was not in a position to play for the previous games in his tenure, why now? With five minutes to go, with your team one goal to the good and with Jamie McGuire sat next to him, surely with more match fitness, it was a strange decision to say the least. It was as if he wanted to be the hero. I found it strange that Mickey Moore had to go through the flip charts with Murray before he went on, as if he didn't know what his own tactics were. He replaced Reggie Lambe and restored the five man midfield, with Bingham moving to the right.

Moving into stoppage time, Northampton found the equaliser their second half display deserved. It originated down the Mansfield left, where Moloney beat manager Murray too easily down the left and squeezed a cross in, which deflected off Heslop into the path of Toney, who nutmegged Brown and ran into the Stags winger. The referee pointed to the spot. At first glance I said penalty but with the benefit of a replay I am not so sure. Whether it was a penalty or not, I cannot find any sort of outrage with the referee or sympathy with the Stags because of the negative tactics they had displayed against ten men. I just wonder if McGuire would have been beaten as easily as Murray on the left. Murray flagging meant Heslop had to come out and help, which resulted in the ball deflecting to Toney instead of running harmlessly to Pidgeley. The penalty was converted with commendable composure by Richards. Even if it would have been saved or missed, the Stags defenders were so far in the area that a retake would have been awarded.

There was no attempt to rescue the two points after the Northampton equaliser. Murray was chuntering under his breath instead of changing tactics to try and find another goal, however unlikely it may have been.

Another two points thrown away by the Stags, eight in total Mansfield have lost from winning positions in 2015. The problem is clearly the way the team sits so deep after scoring instead of trying to find a second goal. Those eight points have been throw away against Exeter (leading 2-1 until 77th minute, lost 3-2), Carlisle (leading 1-0 until 72nd minute, lost 2-1) and yesterday (leading 1-0 until 93rd minute, drew 1-1). Eight points would see the Stags sitting in 14th position, 10 points from relegation and 9 points off the play offs. It boggles the mind why Murray, Moore, Cooper et al. can think that dropping so deep following what has gone previously is the best option, especially considering that our defence is so prone to lapses in concentration.

Luton visit on Tuesday, unbeaten in the League for two months and with top scorer Mark Cullen rediscovering his eye for goal. Adam Murray needs to make two big decisions this week. He needs to settle on a formation and a spine of the team. We cannot keep chopping and changing, making four or five changes every week. He talks about bring consistency to the side but changes the team every week. Of coruse some changes are forced due to injury but even at half time in games, he discovers that he has made the wrong changes and then makes more changes. In my opinion, the spine of the team should be Pidgeley, Riley, Tafazolli, Ravenhill, Thomas and Oliver. Keep that spine for the next three games and let them develop an understanding. The other decision he needs to make is whether he is a player manager or just a manager. His statements to the press don't tend to provide much clarity.

Murray needs to learn and learn fast. He needs to trust his own decisions and the style of play he was developing in the Exeter and Wycombe games. He needs to instil the confidence in the players not to gather on Pidgeley's goal line and to carry on attacking even after they take the lead in a game. He should also stop bemoaning bad luck or refereeing decisions and take some responsibility for the Stags inability to beat ten men.

Player Ratings :

Pidgeley - 7 - Did nothing wrong, made saves you would expect him to make. Could he have pushed the defence higher?
Sutton - 6.5 - Solid defensively.
Riley - 6.5 - Generally solid but gave away silly free kicks and one hesitant moment shows he is not learning.
Tafazolli - 6.5 - Again solid, one particularly good challenge. Some poor clearances and distribution.
Beevers 4 - Terrible game. Could not control the ball, constantly gave possession away and was beaten too often. Not League Two standard.
Lambe - 6 - Quiet game.
Thomas - 8 - Showed up his more established team mates. One brilliant run and some simple passing kept the Stags moving forward. Also showed he would not be bullied with three crunching tackles. MOTM.
Ravenhill - 6 - Booked early on again which reduces his impact on the game. Poor in possession.
Heslop 6.5 - Lively first half, anonymous second. Some terrible passing.
Brown - 6.5 - Did okay but likes to turn back instead of running forward. A couple of occasions where he released the ball too late.
Oliver - 7- Won headers but nobody to run on to them. Took his goal well but could have had two more. Needs to improve hold up play.

Subs -
Bingham (replaced Thomas) - Think he may have touched the ball once and gave it away. Ran around a lot with not much effect. Being used as a scapegoat by some in my opinion when it was Murray who made the wrong decision in bringing him on.
Murray (replaced Lambe) - Not sure why he came on. Barracked Tafazolli for passing the ball to him, attempted a pass but kicked it straight out of play. Beaten too easily in the build up to the goal.