Friday, 10 August 2018

A return to the Conference years! (but in a good way)

The QLE in full voice in 2013

Upon entering the turnstiles on Saturday, I couldn’t help but feel a tad nostalgic.

It was the first time I’d been in the Quarry Lane End since that epic last day in the Conference in 2013 - Matt Green’s penalty, a drunken conga, and Muzza lifting the trophy being my favourite hazy memories of that fateful 90 minutes that delivered us back to the Promised Land.

Memories came flooding back of an Adam Chapman screamer, thrashings of Barrow, and our plucky, unlucky boys giving Liverpool a right old game.

The Quarry Lane End in all its glory against Liverpool +1 bitey basketballer

Everyone who stuck by with the team through those times, especially those who turned the QLE into a cauldron of noise in later Conference years, deserved their share of the credit when it came to winning promotion that year. It was ‘job done’ all round. A new era in the Football League beckoned, and for me that meant a return to the West Stand to take my place, as I had done, since I was 8 years old.

But fast forward to this summer and that all changed with the announcement of the QLE membership scheme.

Now I understand that one or two season ticket holders were a bit miffed by the lack of an early bird scheme. I do perhaps think the club may have scored an own goal here (VAR needed for conclusive proof) and indeed it was partly due to the club taking this decision that I opted for the QLE membership rather than a season ticket for myself and my long suffering better half.

Were there 'early birds' back then?

However, you can’t argue that it is not fantastic value for money. What it has also seemingly  brought about is a return of an atmosphere around the ground rarely seen since Greeny smashed home that penalty over 5 years ago.

With kick off fast approaching, the atmosphere was brilliant. Maybe not 'electric', but still really good - we were playing the mighty Newport after all. It stayed that way for the majority of the 90 minutes.

It seems a good portion of the ‘older’ members of Q-Block have made their way over to the QLE to not only take advantage of the £10 tickets, but to create a whole new 'singing section'. The atmosphere generated seemed to really compliment the noise made by the Q-Block youngsters in the far top corner of the West Stand.

And whilst there was some superb noise generated by Q-Block in the previous two seasons, it rarely went around the ground like it did last Saturday.

I’ve always felt that it is important that the majority of the singers and loudmouths at football matches congregate behind the goal. There's a tired cliché of ‘sucking the ball into the net’, but it’s still doing the rounds after all these years so there may well be something to it. Take Liverpool, for example (twice I've mentioned them now. I feel dirty...) – would the atmosphere at Anfield be the same if the Kop was along the side of the pitch? It works at Crystal Palace because their atmosphere makers are behind the goal. Look at all of the ‘ultra’ elements across European football. There’s a common factor… they all stand behind the goal.

Palace's 'Ultras' making noise behind the goal at Selhurst Park

It would appear the players appreciated it also – they usually clap the West Stand first after a win (with it being closer, I’d imagine!), but last Saturday most of them came straight across to the QLE. It must have been a refreshing change to have the sound from the crowd carry to them ‘in stereo’. We scored two goals at that end too – no doubt coincidence, but a little bit of me wants to claim them for myself and the other loud and proud folk who no doubt woke up with sore throats on Sunday morning.

It has brought about a debate on social media along the lines of ‘QLE or Q Block?’ and ‘which one is better/louder?’ etc. I think the fact that these debates are even happening is testament to the atmosphere generated behind the goal last Saturday. Of course, it really doesn’t matter. What’s significant is that the team is benefitting from an improved atmosphere, and the overall match day experience - no matter where you are in the ground - is improved.

If, between us all, we can turn Field Mill into the cauldron of noise we had during our final season in the Conference, maybe we can help make it 'job done' again this season as we did then.

Similar scenes in May this season?

The QLE is never going to be the ‘Yellow Wall’ at Dortmund. But it can certainly make an impact, improve the atmosphere… maybe even influence games in our favour. If you are likeminded, loud and proud, why not come and join the fun behind the goal? Hopefully this is just the beginning of something special. You might even like it!

Clearly not as good as the atmosphere in the Quarry Lane End

And I must say - when Otis Khan scored that second goal, I couldn’t help but feel that I couldn’t have been in a better position to watch it fly in… 

Maybe I’ve found my new home...

…until we get the North Stand back, of course.

P.S. Speaking of Otis Khan, did you know he'd been on Ninja Warrior?

Monday, 5 February 2018

Mind The Gap

The gap is now almost non-existent

It looks like 17th March 2018 could be a massive day for football in Nottinghamshire.

Cast your mind back to just over a month ago. Boxing Day, to be precise.

Whilst Mansfield suffered a slight Christmas hangover, eeking out a gritty draw in sunny Cleethorpes against a determined and physical Grimsby Town side, Notts County were doing the business away at Morecambe, smashing them 4-1. If truth be told and judging by the highlights, it could have been eight.

“Mind the gap!” Magpies’ fans taunted on social media.

Mansfield were lurking in 8th place in by no means bad form, but Notts County were ELEVEN points better off in 2nd position. They almost looked uncatchable. They were on a roll, and their fans were as optimistic as they had been since the ‘glory’ days of Sven and Sol.

Sol Campbell wishing he was absolutely anywhere but Meadow Lane

Fast forward a month.  Not quite egg on their faces just yet, but they definitely spoke too soon.
The points difference has all but evaporated. County’s year has begun with Nolan attempting to push their wheel-less wheelbarrow uphill.  They lost crucial midfield playmaker Yates, and struggled to replace him with anyone of significant quality.

The fact that some fans on their forums are claiming that deadline day signing Mason Bennett (4 goals in his last 68 appearances) is a more astute signing than Ricky Miller (42 goals in 43 games for Dover) is simply mind boggling, and smacks ever so slightly of clutching at straws. Hardy promised their fans a goalscorer, and they hardly got that.

Actual image of Kevin Nolan attempting to push a broken wheelbarrow up a hill

It will be interesting to see how January signings for both clubs settle into their respective squads and how quickly.

Could it be that Nolan motivated an average squad to play their socks off for the shirt in the first half of the season, and that purple patch has now come to an end? Have they simply run out of steam? Fair enough, they scored a comfortable victory in front of a bumper crowd on Saturday (£2 a ticket) against a poor Crewe side destined for a relegation scrap, but it may be too soon to tell. It’s wasn't exactly an ideal time for a poor run of form though, however you dress it up, and County’s season may very well hinge on their signings breathing new life into a stagnant team.

Stags, on the other hand, seem to be simply slotting the final pieces into the jigsaw, and made light work of Barnet on Saturday to keep up the pressure on the top three and maintain that one point 'gap' with County.

With regards to our fixture on March 17th… It’s definitely worth mentioning at this point that Notts County haven’t beaten Mansfield in the league since 2005. Fair enough, we’ve spent a few seasons a couple of leagues apart, but it’s still a remarkable stat when you consider how County have always historically been the ‘bigger’ club both on and off the field. The aggregate score since our return to the Football League is 13-2 to the Stags...

It's been party time since 2005...

As much as they try to dress it up, that stat hurts them. Take it from someone who has been on the ‘inside’ (I was backroom staff at Notts once upon a time!), whilst they obviously have significant history (they’re the oldest league club in the world, ya know!) and infrastructure, the fact that they can’t beat their noisy ‘little’ neighbours does more than just rankle. It infuriates.

Their fans’ obsession with attendances does little to hide that contempt. Sure, they average more through the gates on your usual Saturday than rock up at Field Mill. But in a city with a population in the urban area of almost ten times that of Mansfield, their inability to draw a significantly larger crowd week in week out should be - at the very least - slightly concerning, even with the ever more fashionable Forest just across the Trent.

A sea of Amber will be taking over the Waterfront on 17th March... probably to the bemusement of Paddy's day revelers

It’s apparent that February is a huge month for both Notts and the Stags, ahead of a big day out (read ‘drinking session’) for us at Meadow Lane. The Stags have the momentum and the signs are hugely promising, but we don’t want to be sucked into the same trap as County were before January… (‘counting your chickens’, ‘chatting shit’ and all that).
That said, it’s a great time to be a Stags fan and a time we should definitely enjoy. Things have never looked better both on and off the pitch, and for that we owe John & Carolyn Radford, the management team and the directors a debt of gratitude. The atmosphere at Field Mill has never been better and very rarely has our prospects of promotion.

The slayers of Keith Haslam in all their glory

Of course, most Stags fans will be looking to April 14th and the chance to do one over on our fiercest rivals, Chesterfield. But perhaps we are looking at the wrong Derby game when it comes to defining our season. While it’s always enjoyable to smash the Spireites, perhaps we should be focusing our attention on this textbook ‘six-pointer’ (to coin a horrible footballing cliché).

Besides, at the time of writing, we are 26 points ahead of Chesterfield. They’re hardly worth paying attention to, really… how's that for a 'gap'?! 😂




Thursday, 23 November 2017

It Matters. (No Matter What They Say)

Why our differences – and uncomfortable similarities – make Mansfield v Chesterfield still one of the fiercest and best rivalries in the Football League.

Stags fans celebrate victory after prolific goalscoring legend Calvin Andrew won it for Mansfield back in 2013.

“Did ya go on Sat-dee?”
“Ahhh, wish I’d stayed at hom’ though. They wo’ crap.”
“They wo' woss than that! Still goin’ tomorrow night though?”
Ahhh mate

I’m in the gym on a Monday after the Saturday before, and two blokes nearby are shooting the shit about the game at the weekend. It’s a very familiar conversation to me - one I’ve heard umpteen times before in almost the exact same tone, format and language in plenty of Mansfield’s finest sticky-carpeted drinking establishments.

I stop myself seconds before I pipe up to join in though. It’s probably a good job I do.

You see, I’m deep in ‘enemy’ territory. I’m west of the blissful boundary and safe haven that the east side of the M1 affords me. I’m a true Stag in the true Spireite heartland of Brimington - the very definition of an imposter.

The M1 - the correct side is signposted

But I’m alright if I keep quiet. In fact, even if I don’t keep quiet, I’m relatively sure no one would suspect a thing… well unless I started talking about my footballing allegiances, for example.

That was one of the first things that caught me off guard when I moved to the wrong side of the motorway from my beloved Mansfield a few months ago. Far from being an outcast on some sort of alien planet, I found things strangely – and perhaps uncomfortably – familiar.

That wouldn’t exactly be a complete surprise to a layman, given the geographical location between my homes old and new. But I have lived and breathed Mansfield Town Football Club since I was 7 years old (early 1990s). I know all about the history of the rivalry. I know exactly who the ‘enemy’ are, almost as much as I know my veins bleed amber and blue, and it’s taught from a very young age. We are taught that they are ‘different’ to us on many levels and I’m sure they are taught the same.

The bitterness of the social and political divides is epitomised in very visual terms by that physical border the M1 provides.

But it doesn’t feel a massively different place.

I don’t really know what I should have expected really – I mean, it IS just down the road. If I was a Liverpool fan and moved to Manchester, I’d probably get a bit of piss taking now and again down the pub. But I certainly wouldn’t expect to have my windows bricked at night, regardless of location or allegiance.

But that’s precisely what I thought might happen when, on mine and my long suffering (Stags fan) lass’s second night in our new home, there was a knock at the door which was so hard I thought we were being raided by the Old Bill. Cautiously answering, I found a displeased looking chap in his 50s stood there, arms folded. His opening line: “Interesting car sticker you have…”

He was referring to the Stags badge proudly on display on my windscreen. 

A very similar potentially offensive car sticker (available at all good club shops)

Quite luckily though, it turns out it was the next door neighbour. And it also turns out, he is a Stags fan too (and a top lad!), and is ecstatic that a mini Stags invasion of his quiet cul-de-sac in the middle of Chesterfield is quietly occurring. (Though we are planning a Catalonia-style bid for independence from Derbyshire in the near future...)

I’ve seen plenty of running battles on the streets between fans of both clubs, and have experienced all the vitriol and hated at matches since my first local derby, back in 2001.

But this experience, on my own doorstep, brought home a reality to me that the Mansfield v Chesterfield rivalry is different, despite - or maybe fuelled by - the similarities we share. It runs deeper than any outsider could ever truly see. The fact that  - even for a split second – it crossed my mind that a fan of the opposition had actually come to my house, looking for a scrap... It would (probably) never happen of course, but nevertheless, it was indeed a passing thought and a provoking one at that. Though luckily our lass is scary as fuck, so I doubt there'll be any bother. (only joking dear...)

There’s no doubt that clubs like Man United and Liverpool, for example, enjoy good rivalries. And sure, there are real, true fans of both of those clubs. But they are heavily outnumbered by the ‘Sky Squirrels’, happy to pay their hard-earned wad to snakey Rupert Murdoch every month, who would probably have to Google how to get to their own ground from their house 200 miles away. There's the so-called 'fans', content to watch their team from the comfort of the pub week in, week out, spouting statistics. ("We've won it 19 times!" *yawn*) 

And don’t even get me started on the tourists.
It all seems to water it down somewhat.

A typical 'Sky Squirrel' in its natural habitat

Inner-city rivalries are obviously usually fierce too. But the lines are constantly blurred, with fans living side by side for the most part, with even some families having split allegiances. That simply doesn’t happen with the rivalry between us and Chesterfield. There are very definite divides.
Man United fans are allowed to have mates who are Liverpool fans and are quite content watching their derby match in the pub together... probably even in Manchester or Liverpool itself. But the day that happens with Mansfield and Chesterfield fans is the day that hell freezes over – or Carlton Palmer becomes a decent manager.

Carlton Palmer during a televised Keith Haslam love-in in 2007

Being a fan of either Mansfield or Chesterfield isn’t exactly a path you take for the glory it brings. Both sets of fans have been through thick and thin, mainly thin. And that has created a commendable loyalty, camaraderie and sense of community. Sure, attendances have swelled when either has been doing well. But realistically, there’s a genuine core of 2,000-4,000 for each, who will be there rain or shine. I guess that commands begrudging respect on both sides.

The towns we reside in themselves are not that dissimilar either. With almost identical populations (Mansfield – 99,000. Chesterfield – 101,000), both economically and socially devastated by 1980s politics (which I really don’t know enough about to truly comment here – as well as it being a fucking big can of worms to open here on my first ever blog post!). This was compounded on both sides by a complete lack of government support in the years that followed and has led to a major economic downturn for both, despite a few green shoots now beginning to appear.

But while the similarities are stark, the rivalry is as fierce as ever, and is one that transcends demographics.
A good proportion of fans at Saturday’s game won't have even even a glint in their Dad’s eye during the early 1980s, but that sense of bitterness and loathing is still engrained within them, and crosses generations in a way rarely seen nowadays in English football.

The rivalry is one Chesterfield fans seem to want to play down in recent years.  While Mansfield were rotting in the Conference for the best part of 6 years, the Spireites were enjoying jollies away at Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday, citing them as their ‘true’ rivals on our forums as a result.

But it’s mainly bluster aimed to score points. Sure, they had a couple of good away days over in Steel City against the ‘Deedahs’. However, despite the Spireites’ protestations, most fans of both Sheffield clubs couldn’t really give a rats arse about Chesterfield, really. It was just a passing rivalry, similar for the one we had with Alfreton for a couple of seasons (take a bow Anthony Howell, and I mean that!).

They’re good days out I’d imagine. Just like ours are when we take 4,000 to Nottingham for a few beverages on the Waterfront. But they are ‘plastic’ local derbies, make no mistake.

Stags regularly takeover away at the bed wetters... but it isn't our 'real' local derby, even if it is theirs.

Ask any (truthful) Spireite who their main rivals are. What the first fixtures they look out for are when they come out in July. They will say Mansfield. And the same goes the opposite way.
After our time in the Conference, and their foray into League One, it would appear absence really does makes the heart grow fonder – or the ‘hatred’, in this case.

And now it looks like the pendulum in this long rivalry has swung again. We are are a club very much on the ascendency after years of financial mismanagement by the Dark Lord who shall not be named.

In the Radfords, we are extremely lucky to have two fantastic people who genuinely love the club. Their investment – not only financially, but emotionally – leaves Field Mill a completely different place to the one left by the Calver Cowboy- one of optimism, one of hope, and one of pride and stability. Average attendances are on the rise, and the atmosphere in and around the ground is as good as it has been in years.

The 'Q-Block' has transformed the atmosphere at Field Mill
Of course the Spireites gloated at our demise. They loved Keith Haslam so much they even made a theme park named after him (Hasland). But now they are suffering at the hands of their very own Dark Lord. A gamble to get into the Championship that didn’t pay off, followed by terrible recruitment and years of potentially questionable fiscal practices leave the Spireites pondering the very real possibility of their first ever plunge into non-league (bar an unbelievable turn around in form and some very astute January signings or a takeover) and financially are very much in the shit.

Many of their fans are disillusioned and the town’s people are no longer going to matches. Attendances would look even worse were it not for the rumoured 300 season ticket holders per game that simply aren’t going but are still counted in the official attendance. And I can guarantee, they don't sell many raffle tickets anymore!... #rafflegate

Chesterfield's predicament currently echoes our own in times gone by

Their current predicament is just another striking similarity to a situation we have previously faced. I don’t envy them one bit.

But make no mistake, even if they drop into the doldrums, we will still be their rivals, and they will be ours.

 Plenty of empty seats are to be found at Tesco Arena nowadays, in stark contrast to a few seasons ago.
It is undoubtedly a good time to be a Stags fan and a bad time to be a Spireite, but anything can happen on derby day. While I’m confident we will beat them, the result is much less relevant than our league positions on Saturday 5th May at 5pm.

While our differences will always be the focus of our rivalry, that rivalry is only enhanced by the similarities we share.

But whatever they might say about Saturday, it matters.

Just as it matters to us.