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Can Nigel Clough convert Mansfield from perennial underachievers into a success story?

Mansfield manager Nigel Clough is bidding to spark a push for promotion
Mansfield manager Nigel Clough is bidding to spark a push for promotion

The narrative that surrounds Mansfield Town is set in stone.

The Stags have been broadly fancied for promotion – or at least a top seven finish – in each of the last four summers, only to fall short of expectation.

In 2017-18 and 2018-19, they were close: Steve Evans’ exit halted what could have been an automatic promotion charge in the former case, then in the latter they could have gone up on the final day if they had avoided defeat at MK Dons.

The subsequent Play-Off heartache saw manager David Flitcroft dismissed, and what followed was significant underachievement in 21st and 16th respectively.

Academy manager John Dempster, who replaced Flitcroft, was far too lenient with his players and successor Graham Coughlan, too coarse.

League Two Odds

The current manager, Nigel Clough, lies somewhere in between Dempster and Coughlan, possibly slightly closer to the old-school side of the spectrum.

Clough has a stronger track record than his predecessors, but his first 14 months in charge of the Nottinghamshire club have been rather streaky.

83 points from 57 games offers a points per game return of 1.46, which would lead to 67 points over a full season – almost always less than the requirement to finish in the top seven.

What falls in Clough’s favour is the here and now, with his side having won seven of their previous eight league games, on top of FA Cup victories over League One opposition in Sunderland and Doncaster.

Is this merely good form, akin to the results Mansfield produced under Clough at a similar stage last season? Or the sign of genuine contenders capable of taking advantage of a wide open promotion race in League Two?

We’re about to find out…

Bishop rules

Nathan Bishop has been one of the best goalkeepers in League Two since signing for the Stags on loan from Manchester United.

Bishop’s diagonal move from Southend to the Red Devils raised some eyebrows, given that at the time he was playing for a defensively inept side in League One that was conceding goals at a rate of knots.

It seems for elite clubs to pick up 21-year-olds from lower leagues, especially if they’re struggling due to circumstance rather than actively thriving.

United clearly saw something in Bishop, though, and the stopper is looking to build on that promise in League Two, where he has made 55 saves – only five goalkeepers in the division have made more this season.

Stirk in the middle with Ryan

Clough’s shrewd use of the loan market this season is not restricted to Bishop, with Ryan Stirk impressing on loan from Birmingham.

The 21-year-old was not quite able to make himself part of Lee Bowyer’s plans for 2021-22, having started two dead-rubber games at the back-end of last season and experienced heavy defeats to Cardiff and Blackburn.

The left-footed midfielder, though, has relished a long awaited run of EFL games at Mansfield, inspiring their ascent into promotion contention.

The Stags have accrued 15 points from seven league games when Stirk starts, compared with 17 from 15 when he does not – and that’s without taking account of nuances like the 2-1 win at Stevenage, where he came off the bench to score the winner.

Stirk dictates play superbly and offers alternative creativity to George Maris, and brings energy to the game as well, which speaks to Clough’s strong coaching.

League Two Promotion Odds

Mansfield Town
WIN PROB: 18%
1
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Odds correct as of 2022-01-20 23:52 Odds subject to change.

Usual suspects do the business

Maris continues to control games at the base of midfield, having done so superbly last season.

Ollie Clarke, meanwhile, brings valuable drive and verve to the Stags as well as promotion-winning experience, having been a key part of Bristol Rovers’ success at this level in 2015-16, prior to a couple of decent seasons in the one above.

Clarke averages 1.8 shots per game for the NG18 outfit – the most in the squad – and even when some of those efforts do not come off, he has still got the team up the pitch and potentially forced a block or clearances that leads to alternative openings.

Quinn and McLaughlin combo

Talking of records with and without key midfielders, Mansfield have taken 26 points from 15 games Quinn starts, compared with six from seven when he does not.

Natives could have been forgiven for being sceptical when Clough cited the 35-year-old’s absence as a factor behind the Stags’ poor form over September and October, especially as they had lost three straight games he started just before hand.

There is no denying, though, that when Mal Benning was dropped last season in favour of Stephen McLaughlin, the stand-in left-back forged a great understanding on his flank with Quinn, who sets an example to his teammates, remains a consummate professional and is fit as a fiddle.

Oates kept healthy

Rhys Oates has had a modest career so far, broadly a mixture of League Two dogfights and non-league football at various levels.

The Pontefract-born forward has only tended to stand out in terms of his work rate and his aerial spring, which is why he struggled to extend his Barnsley career beyond nine League One appearances back in 2014-15.

Clough, though, has got more than most out of Oates, who has been crucial to the Nottinghamshire club’s excellent form – likewise Jordan Bowery, who has produced some outstanding showings this Winter, both up top and out wide.

Hawkins’ versatility

After a modern day Steve Walsh, Dion Dublin or Paul Warhurst? Look no further than Oli Hawkins.

The former Portsmouth aerial specialist has played 11 league games in central defence and nine up top, both with reasonable success. 

The form of Jordan Bowery and Rhys Oates up top has seen Hawkins deployed at the back more recently, but if Mansfield are chasing a game, Clough can always turn to the option of pushing his target man forward.

Hewitt handles the heat

After August’s 3-2 home defeat to Bradford, Clough was openly critical of right-back Elliott Hewitt.

The Stags boss said he should have picked Kellan Gordon in that position, owing to Hewitt’s friendship with opposing wide man Charles Vernam, whom Clough claimed his defender “didn’t get near” all game.

Very rarely in the modern era does a manager question an individual’s mentality, and for many players, those damning words would have backfired.

It’s hard to ignore the subsequent results, with Hewitt since impressing both at right-back and in central defence.

Perhaps Clough could judge that a public kick up the backside was exactly what the former Notts County man needed. Equally, perhaps Clough’s comments and the ensuing improvement in form is correlation rather than causation.

Either way, Hewitt is an intelligent, versatile defender and a key asset to Mansfield.

The rest of the season

January promises to be a key month that will have a big say in Mansfield’s fortunes.

While form paints them in a favourable light right now, the Stags have only recorded two victories against top half opposition – Newport and Tranmere.

Three of Mansfield’s five league encounters in the first month of the year come against top half opposition, another comes against 13th-placed Walsall – who beat them 3-1 in the reverse fixture – while even 19th-placed Barrow are playing better football and creating more chances than results suggest.

Clough’s troops will have the ultimate acid tests against leaders Forest Green, high-flying Swindon and Play-Off contenders Leyton Orient.

Get a decent tally from that lot and Mansfield can challenge, but if not they may be looking at another streaky campaign that ultimately ends in midtable.

Clough’s future

What about Clough?

The 55-year-old might not be doing much more than a decent job at Mansfield so far, but his managerial pedigree arguably lies above League Two.

This is the man who took over Burton in the Northern Premier League, step-3 of non-league football, and built a side that got into the Football League for the first time ever.

Who took Derby out of a dark era and laid the foundations for future promotion challenges.

Who did the best job at Sheffield United in the period between relegation to League One and the appointment of Chris Wilder.

Who gave Burton two seasons in the Championship in his second stint with the Brewers.

And yet, Clough may not get the jobs that his standing in the game arguably deserves. 

Firstly, many clubs may seek a younger coach who would not dream of calling out a player in public.

Secondly, all his managerial jobs have come in the area between the East Midlands and Yorkshire, which is part of why Mansfield were able to attract the one-time Liverpool player.

Clough has the managerial credentials to manage at a bigger club, but for various reasons he may be settled in Nottinghamshire and happy to stay at a well-run club Mansfield.

One thing is for certain, though: he doesn’t want to stay in League Two.

League Two Promotion Odds

Forest Green Rovers
WIN PROB: 95%
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WIN PROB: 42%
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Swindon Town
WIN PROB: 38%
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WIN PROB: 33%
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Port Vale
WIN PROB: 27%
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Exeter
WIN PROB: 22%
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Leyton Orient
WIN PROB: 20%
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WIN PROB: 20%
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Mansfield Town
WIN PROB: 18%
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Salford City
WIN PROB: 14%
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Bradford City
WIN PROB: 17%
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Harrogate Town
WIN PROB: 7%
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Rochdale
WIN PROB: 5%
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Bristol Rovers
WIN PROB: 5%
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Crawley Town
WIN PROB: 3%
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Barrow
WIN PROB: 2%
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Hartlepool
WIN PROB: 2%
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Walsall
WIN PROB: 2%
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Carlisle
WIN PROB: 1%
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Stevenage
WIN PROB: 1%
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Colchester
WIN PROB: 0%
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Oldham
WIN PROB: 0%
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Scunthorpe
WIN PROB: 0%
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Odds correct as of 2022-01-20 23:52 Odds subject to change.
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