Season Preview 2020/21

After a typically hectic, albeit elongated, close season at the One Call Stadium, The Stags prepare for another season of League Two football. Despite three seasons of hefty investment in the playing squad, three successive managers have failed to fulfil the brief of promotion outlined by financially generous owners John and Carolyn Radford. Steve Evans was brash, outspoken but ultimately treacherous when Peterborough offered him a shortcut to the third tier. David Flitcroft came within one point of meeting his objective, before being, in some people's minds, hastily removed from his position. John Dempster was promoted from the youth team as a budding young boss, but his promise failed to materialise and it looked more likely that he would take the club out of League Two in the opposite direction. 

Former boss John Dempster

Dempster was replaced by Bristol Rovers boss Graham Coughlan in December 2019. A relative rookie himself in management terms, he arrived having moulded the Gas from relegation candidates to play-off hopefuls at the time of his departure. Coughlan's appointment did not coincide with a noticeable upturn in results, but he did appear to instil a work ethic into a squad which had looked short on desire throughout the majority of the campaign. His high-pressing style was successful sporadically, hampered by the squads base fitness levels, which were neglected by the previous regime during a disastrous pre-season. He quickly moved on individuals who did not fit into his mantra of honesty and hard work. Jacob Mellis was the most high profile; his inability to achieve the desired 12km per game in the middle of the park the key factor. The manager also announced that captain and fans favourite Krystian Pearce was free to leave, disappointed with his lack of dressing room leadership. Coughlan quickly backtracked, realising the Chief's quality in the short term was too valuable to omit from a team struggling near the foot of the table, before not offering him a new deal when the season came to a premature end.

Outgoing Skipper Krystian Pearce

As we all know, Coronavirus led to the curtailment of the football season, with the Stags in 21st position. A relief for most of us, given the prospect of ten meaningless games with nothing to play for.  However, for 'The GC' (no not that one), the early finish removed the opportunity to fully assess his squad in a competitive setting ahead of a summer rebuild. Some players were therefore not afforded the chance to impress the manager in an attempt to earn a new deal.

Once the EFL announced that League Two would not be restarting, the clubs focus could shift to recruitment. The manager would be assisted in his endeavours by newly appointed Director of Football David Sharpe. Sharpe is the former chairman of Wigan Athletic, and grandson of Dave Whelan. In an interview with the D3D4Football podcast, Sharpe outlined the clubs strategy. The intention was to lower both the wage budget and the average age of the squad, and also to move on players who may have been at the club for 'too long', suggesting some members of the squad were either in need of a new challenge or were hamstrung by past failures. Sharpe signified his intention to acquire younger players, aged 26 and below, who were ready to achieve and have a sell-on value, rather than target ageing players moving down the leagues looking for a last payday. He did however concede that a sprinkling of experience would be necessary.

Former Director of Football, now CEO David Sharpe

When the retained list was announced, ten senior players were offloaded. Despite his one year contact option being triggered, CJ Hamilton was sold to League One Blackpool before having the chance to leave for free next summer, after indicating he would not sign a new deal. Another player whose option was taken up was Willem Tomlinson, however due to his off the field antics, he was initially suspended pending investigation and subsequently had his contract terminated. The majority of the twelve departures were regular starters in the 18/19 campaign when the Stags finished fourth, with only four squad members remaining from David Flitcroft's team, which is pretty astonishing. However, those twelve players also contributed to an appalling 19/20 campaign, where the club finished fourth from bottom. It's therefore difficult to assess their ability. Were they made to look substandard by the disorganised, shapeless team offered up by John Dempster? Or made to look impressive by the structured, solid and at times exciting team composed by David Flitcroft? 

Here's a rundown of the players that have left : 

- Conrad Logan (34) : Signed by Steve Evans in 2017, Logan spent the large majority of his time at the club as first choice. A decent shot stopper but despite his size was never a commanding presence when crosses were coming in. Has turned out for Anstey Nomads in pre-season.
- Bobby Olejnik (33) : Not the same goalkeeper after returning from the serious knee injury sustained in December 2018. He only started 11 league games after the injury. Olejnik only made 28 league apps from a possible 128 in 3 seasons. The 33 year old has subsequently retired from football. .
- Hayden White (25) – The departure of the marauding wing back could prove to be an error if, and it's a big if, White can get back to full fitness. A crucial part of David Flitcroft's 18/19 team until his broken leg in Jan 19. Since that injury, White has only played 90 minutes in the league 4 times. He has a habit of picking up niggling injuries which limit his game time, only making 57 apps since Summer 2017. Has joined Walsall.
- Krystian Pearce (30) – Really sad to see The Chief leave after five very good seasons. Pearce made both League Two and EFL teams of the season in the 18/19 season, and could easily operate at League One level, which I can only assume is the reason behind his exit given he is entering the latter stages of his career. Still without a club.
- Matt Preston – Jekyll & Hyde two seasons at the club. Another integral part of the best defence in League Two in 18/19, playing under Flitcroft and Futcher, who were a big factor in his decision to join Mansfield. Never the same following the aforementioned management team's departure, Preston made 22 league apps in 19/20, picked up 2 red cards, gave away 2 very clumsy penalties and started just 2 of the Stag's 9 league wins. Difficult to say which was the real Preston. Yet to be picked up.
- Neal Bishop – Bish is another one who has decided to call it a day after not being offered a new deal at the club. He had a fantastic first season, but our over-reliance on the then 37 year old had a detrimental effect on his performances last season, where the signs were there that his legs were starting to fade. He has been appointed as a youth coach by the club.
- Willem Tomlinson (22) - Inconsistent performer who looked to have gained the trust of Coughlan towards the end of the campaign. Has thrown it away with off the field antics. Contract terminated by mutual consent.
- Alex MacDonald – Many thought Macca's all action style would fit well with Coughlan's requirements, but the manager decided against offering him a new deal. I suspect that the midfielder's wages were the deciding factors. Initially signed as a winger, he was quickly converted into a central midfield player. The role suited his energetic style, but exposed his lack of technical quality and defensive positioning. Has rejoined Steve Evans at League One Gillingham.
- Otis Khan – Khan has a been a real disappointment, but is young enough still to thrive elsewhere. The Stags fought off League One clubs to bring the diminutive wide man to the club. Flitcroft entrusted him as the side's key creative hub behind the front men, and things looked promising when be bagged two on his debut. Apart from a late consolation effort at Oldham this season, they were Khan's only goals for the club. He played just 32% of available minutes over two seasons.
- CJ Hamilton – After a brilliant 18/19 campaign which saw the winger linked with Championship clubs, CJ had a quieter season in 19/20, only managing two goals. With searing pace, a high work rate and a knack of very rarely picking up injuries, he has the raw attributes to succeed at a higher level. However, he's still raw technically and his end product can be frustrating. A very popular and exciting player, I think I speak for most fans in wishing him well.
- Omari Sterling-James – Started 3 league games in 3 years at the club. Showed some promise in cup games but not fancied by four different managers to feature regularly in the league. Inexplicably handed a new contract by Steve Evans in February 2018, the day before he resigned as manager. Has joined Kidderminster Harriers.
- Craig Davies - Signed for an undisclosed fee by David Flitcroft in 2018, the then 32 year old looked the part in pre-season. Unfortunately, it has all been downhill since then for Davies. Persistent injuries meant he only played 9% of all available minutes over two seasons. Yet to find a new club.

The average age of the players whose contract were not renewed is over 30.1, some of whom were on big wages, meaning part one of Sharpe's objective had been achieved.  

Coughlan was left with 14 players who would seem to be considered part of the squad based on the first team friendlies so far, with an average age of 23.64, as follows : 

- Aidan Stone (21) - Promising young goalkeeper who made his league debut under Coughlan at the end of last season. Contract option exercised.
- Mal Benning (26) - Left wing-back. Longest serving player, has been good for the majority of his time here if maybe a little below his usual standards recently. Contact option exercised.
- Ryan Sweeney (23) - Left footed centre back, will play left of three. Has attracted admiring glances from bigger clubs. 
- Joe Riley (28) - Signed a new one year deal after initially joining in January and producing some steady displays. Always concerns over his injury history, which came to fruition when he sustained an ACL tear in pre-season training. Will be out for majority of the season.
- James Clarke (20) - Former Burnley youth right full back who made double figure appearances last season. May have now found himself 3rd choice right wing-back, would have been 4th but for Riley injury. Could end up out on loan. Contact option exercised.
- Kellan Gordon (22) - Another right wing-back,  Gordon emerged from last season with some credit. Didn't feature under Coughlan due to a back injury, which he played through and made worse under Dempster. Quick and energetic, but must improve defensively.
- Jason Law (21) - Has been a pro for a few years without making any impact on the first team picture, possibly due to seemingly having no firm position. Most often used as a left wing-back. Contract option exercised so must be some promise.
- Harry Charsley (23) - January addition after release from Everton. Box to box midfielder, effective presser and adept with both feet. Could shine after the benefit of a full pre-season. Contract option exercised.
- Alistair Smith (21) - Rangy, athletic midfielder who has come through the youth system. Has an eye for a pass but looked a little lightweight in a handful of appearances last term, and as if the game was happening around him. Possibly another loan on the horizon.

Hot Prospect Tyrese Sinclair
- Tyrese Sinclair (19) - Son of Frank Sinclair, Tyrese has threatened to break into the first team for the last couple of years but has been given little opportunity. A shining light in pre-season in a new central midfield role, he could be a breakout star this term. He's an exciting player who can beat a man, whip in crosses and is a threat in dead ball situations.
- Nicky Maynard (33) - After initial uncertainty, last seasons top scorer has re-signed for the new campaign. Managed 14 league goals in a poor side. Was looking for a final League One chance, but has rejoined a manager for whom he scored 8 goals in 15 games. A key signing.
- Andy Cook (29) - Powerful striker had the best minutes per goal ratio of all forwards last season, despite leaving to join Tranmere on loan in January. It was expected he would depart in the summer over concerns he could not adapt to Coughlan's pressing style, but appears to have been reintegrated into the squad and looks fitter in pre-season.
- Danny Rose (26) - Rose is set for his fifth season at the One Call Stadium. He has his faults but you know he will chip in with around 10 goals a season, he wins free kicks, is a nuisance and is an instinctive finisher. A lack of pace and inability to link play is all that holds him back from the next level. Contract option exercised.
- Jimmy Knowles (19) - Yet to make a league start but scored 2 senior goals in his breakthrough season and has attracted scouts from some big clubs. Likely to find it difficult to break into the team this term with 5 senior strikers in front of him. May head out on loan.

The Stags have made ten new signings to complement the existing squad, with a couple of noticeable themes. The first of those is the manager bringing in players who he has worked with previously. Ollie Clarke (28), his captain at Bristol Rovers, steps down a division after refusing a new deal to provide legs, tenacity and leadership in central midfield. Young defender Rollin Menayese (22) also follows despite having signed a new contract. The Welsh youth international will inject pace into the back line, and is likely to play on the right of a three. The man likely to be at the heart of the defence reveals the second theme, players returning closer to home. Nottingham born Farrend Rawson (24) will provide the physical presence The Stags missed at times last season. Rawson impressed at Forest Green, where he was ranked the 3rd best centre back in League Two by InStat. Mansfield lad James Perch (34) will provide experience and versatility to a youthful squad, having made over 500 appearances in all four English professional leagues. Jordan Bowery (29, Nottingham) provides depth in attack, whilst George Maris (Sheffield) is likely to be the sides key creator. Still only 24, the latter was highly touted a couple of years ago, and will be hoping the fresh start can reignite his career. Marek Stech (30) joins as number one goalkeeper, having starred at this level a few seasons ago for promotion winning Luton. He will have to get back into the swing of first team football pretty quickly, having not played a competitive game since April 2019 before the EFL Cup game at Preston. Two young Irish defenders bolster the back line in Aaron O'Driscoll (21), released by Southampton, and Corey O'Keeffe (22). O'Keeffe displayed impressive dribbling stats whilst playing wing back for Macclesfield last season, and has started his Stags career promisingly. Jamie Reid (26) is the final addition to mention. After his release from Exeter City, Reid has posted impressive figures in non-league for Torquay United, 78 goals in 144 games. He will be hoping to seize his chance in the football league. The average age of the new recruits is 26, again achieving the criteria set out by Sharpe.

Summer Additions

The pre-season schedule has been tough, the Stags only managing to record victories against U23 sides from Forest, WBA and Barnsley. Those wins were accompanied by defeats to Peterborough and Rotherham, as well as a loss in the cup at Preston. The regularly repeated line is not to read too much into pre-season, but what we can infer is the tactics likely to be utilised by Graham Coughlan. He favours a 3-5-2 formation, with the central midfielders varying from a central sitting player, or a two with a number ten, depending on game state and opposition.  The key features are constant pressing, continued switches of play, balls into the channel and plenty of deliveries into the box. These instructions are underpinned by the managers key values, honesty and hard work.

The Gaffer

As Coughlan's system was devised to suit Bristol Rovers, at the time a bottom half League One team, it will be interesting to see whether the managers ideals are adapted to incorporate more passing through the middle of the pitch when at a club expected to achieve a higher league position. As it stands, the onus is on the wing backs to supply the creativity, linking with the wider central midfield players and the strikers. 

As the squad stands, it is perhaps light of another midfield player. With Perch unlikely to play every week due to age and suspension, I expect another arrival in this area. In an ideal world, there are two other areas which require strengthening. Mal Benning needs competition for his left wing-back spot to guard against complacency. O'Keeffe, Gordon and Law can all cover Benning but none are natural there, or likely to oust him. We may also require a winger who can provide a 'Plan B' off the bench. The difficulty will be finding a player of sufficient quality who will be willing to join the club knowing they do not necessarily fit into 'Plan A'. Gordon, O'Keeffe, Maris and Sinclair can all perform in a wide role, but are probably best utilised elsewhere.

So, what would pass as a successful season in this most unique of campaigns? 'Do better than last year' is the message from The Radfords, a noticeably more cautious approach than in previous seasons, which is most welcome as far as I am concerned. We are extremely fortunate as supporters to be able to focus on anything other than our club still being in existence this time next season, with the owners confirming the club is financially secure. David Sharpe has moved from director of football to CEO, to oversee the day to day running of the club whilst the Radford's reside in Portugal. In my eyes, with the squad available, top ten should be the minimum expected, with a play-off place the main goal. Whatever happens, and despite the inability to attend games as it stands, it's good to have football back.