Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
League Two - 8th; W 18 / D 18 / L 10 / F 67 / A 52 / Pts 72
The Stags, much like this coming season, were one of the bookies’ favourites for promotion from League Two, and there many valid reasons that lent credence to that lofty position. Steve Evans, the very epitome of a divisive manager, had been sanctioned to make many signings that seemed of sufficient quality on paper to make a real crack at the top three. The opening games were a portent of things to come, with a high number of score draws. An inconsistent September and October meant the Nottinghamshire side were well out of contention after a third of the campaign. The subsequent three months were much more impressive, and the majority of Evans’ captures were starting to produce.
However, with the Peterborough United position vacant in the tier above, the Glaswegian moved to London Road whilst they were very much in the hunt to escape League Two. A few days later, David Flitcroft was recruited from Swindon Town, another side at the right end of the standings. Unfortunately, he couldn’t maintain the winning formula, gaining only four points in his first eight matches. They finished the term unbeaten in five, but it was insufficient to prevent a fall from the play-offs, missing out by three points.
Top Goalscorer: Kane Hemmings (15 goals in 36 starts/2,945 minutes)
Top Creator: Alexander MacDonald (6 assists in 40 starts/3,564 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: David Flitcroft; the Bolton native had a fruitful lower league career as a tough-tackling midfielder and was more known for his light-hearted personality than any particular skills he had, although few could question his passion or resolve on the pitch. Chester City, Rochdale and Bury were where he made the most appearances, returning to Spotland to assist Keith Hill in the dugout, eventually retiring in 2010.
Perceived as an integral part of the relative success Dale enjoyed, he followed his close friend to Barnsley and when Hill received his marching orders a year later, he became permanent manager after a short stint as caretaker, guiding the Tykes to safety on the last day of 2012/2013 against the odds. The next season was pockmarked with heavy defeats, and he too suffered the same fate. He was not out of work for long, with Shakers chairman Stewart Day proclaiming at the time of his arrival back at Gigg Lane that he was pursuing his signature whilst still in post at Oakwell.
His tenure in BL9 continues to divide opinion, even now. With substantial backing, he was able to galvanise a bloated squad of disparate personalities away from danger, leading to a respectable mid-table finish. ‘Promotion’ was the word banded about from before 2014/2015 kicked off. As was his pattern in charge at Bury, things started off well and petered out as temperatures dropped, only to perform once they rose again. The signing on loan of goalkeeper Nick Pope was crucial in turning around their fortunes, and their charge up the standings was built on a series of narrow victories and clean sheets. Third place and promotion was secured on the final day away at already relegated Tranmere Rovers on an occasion that will live in the memory for everyone involved.
The two subsequent seasons in the third tier followed the ‘Flitcroft Pattern’, with an inability to devise a credible Plan ‘B’, as well as injuries to key players, hamstringing his efforts to make good on his proclamations and star names that entered the revolving doors. An insipid 5-0 defeat to AFC Wimbledon was the final nail in his coffin, and it would take more than half a year for him to find work. Swindon Town came calling, and as already noted in my preview of the Wiltshire outfit, he didn’t wholly convince there either, but was always unlikely to turn down the opportunity to jump ship to a club he felt could continually support his efforts in the transfer market.
A down-to-earth person, his interviews tend to be full of modern business terminology, which whilst ultimately unimportant, often has a grating effect on fans after a while and especially so if form is poor. He has to win over many Stags fans wholly impressed with either his rhetoric or utter incapability to at least book a play-off berth last season.
Ins: Matt Preston (Swindon Town), Neal Bishop (Scunthorpe United), Craig Davies (Oldham Athletic), Tyler Walker (on loan from Nottingham Forest) & Otis Khan (Yeovil Town).
Outs: George Taft (Cambridge United), Lewis Collins (free agent), Alfie Potter (free agent), Jimmy Spencer (free agent), Joel Byrom (Stevenage), Jack Thomas (free agent), Johnny Hunt (Stevenage), Rhys Bennett (Peterborough United), Zayn Hakeem (free agent) & Zander Diamond (free agent).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: Flitcroft has at his disposal real competition in every area of the pitch, save for right-back. Conrad Logan opts to punch rather than catch more often than not, and is particularly strong for a goalkeeper. Matt Preston has joined his old boss at Field Mill, and is undoubtedly one of the most promising centre-backs in League Two. Combining aerial prowess with controlled aggression, he also covers ground extremely quickly. Kristian Pearce is the leader in defence, and he should be able to forge a formidable partnership.
MalvindBenning possesses plenty of skill for a full-back and is an alternative option for direct free-kicks to Alex MacDonald. He will burst forward up the pitch to offer a wide outlet for his teammates. Hayden White will do much the same, but his crossing isn’t quite of the standard, and has a serious tendency to make rash decisions in tense situations.
If selected, Calum Butcher will hold fort in front of the backline, mopping up lofted balls forward to the opposition’s frontmen; he will compete with Will Atkinson, who has been taken off the transfer list. Probable captain Neal Bishop will dictate the tempo from deep, picking passes for the marauding full-backs and Jacob Mellis. The former Bury attacking midfielder also has a lot of technical ability and favours playing through balls to the strikers. His vision is his greatest asset, and he should get plenty of time on the ball.
Otis Khan’s dynamism is something Flitcroft will be leaning on considerably, as well as to take some of the burden away from Mellis when it comes to chance creation. He’s likely to cut in from the left to allow room for Benning to operate in, as well to lend support the striker(s).
Tyler Walker’s pace and finesse will cause chaos for his marker. He can play as a wide forward or through the middle, and will have the likes of Craig Davies, Lee Angol and Danny Rose to supply and receive the ball from. The former of the trio provides the greatest focal point and had a fruitful (half) season with Oldham Athletic in that role. Angol is also potent in the air, and allies that with a knack of timing his runs well to beat offside traps. Rose’s agility and ‘hangtime’ have seen him flourish in yellow and blue, as his goal tally in 2017/2018 illustrates in bold terms.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Play-off chasers; the squad is (pretty much) there; the financial clout from the Radfords is there. What’s still not there, however, is a manager who I feel who can employ a style of football that will please supporters and yield results. Flitcroft will be judged from the first whistle of 2018/2019, and I don’t think he will outstay his welcome if things don’t go his way immediately, but not through choice. In that event, it’s almost certain that someone else could come in and pick up the pieces if they’re of sufficient quality and have tactical nous. Of course, there’s every chance he could prove me wrong and the Stags will be celebrating promotion next May… but I just don’t think he ranks in the same bracket as a Tisdale, for example. That could be key.