There was a thing on the news last week about researchers who were trying to work out whether dogs were intelligent. The researcher said she was using only Border Collies in the experiment, aiming to eliminate all possible variants that might determine why one dog might be able to do something and another not. For example, if a labrador is more intelligent than a dachshund, is it because they’re better at learning or because the labrador has longer legs? Don’t ask me, that was just what she said.
With three consecutive home defeats, in front of full houses, two against teams from higher divisions, in the glare of the media, it was difficult to really work out whether we were in a bad run of form, or if it was just an unusual sequence of games. Tuesday felt like we were eliminating the variables to work out just where, exactly, we were at.
Of course, it’s difficult to know what normal is nowadays. The last home game which you might describe as ‘normal’; that is, typical of a game from the last five years or so, was Carlisle in mid-December. Maybe big crowds and big games is the new normal.
At first, on and off the pitch, we looked shell-shocked that 6,000 people had suddenly found that our promotion push took a lower priority to Pancake Day, central heating and Holby City. We sold more than 5,000 tickets for Wembley on Monday, I doubt we sold more than 50 in advance of Tuesday. For all rhetoric about dedicated, real fans and how promotion was the most important thing; for most people, there’s nothing better than a big one-off set piece.
This was anything but a big one-off set piece. Adam Murray knows exactly what he is dealing with at Mansfield; as his first managerial appointment and working with a limited budget, he sees the value in keeping things physical and functional. Nicking goals from set pieces and hanging on for grim death is a key part of the plan. It wasn’t sophisticated, but it was very effective, and we didn’t know what to do about it. The corner routine that lead to the goal, which was comically agricultural, and Sam Slocombe’s inability to deal with the sheer physicality of it all, was a microcosm of the rest of the game.
Thank god, then, for Danny Hylton; while most of the team seemed to take a sharp intake of breath at the quiet and cold, Hylton just seems to enjoy the chance to run around in the fresh air chasing a ball regardless of the occasion. His enthusiasm seemed to drag us out of our stupor.
We did wake up eventually, but we could still benefit from being more direct in the final third, we’re constantly overplaying things, which can be great to watch but frustrating when you need someone to slam the ball in the net. As I say, thank god for Danny Hylton.
The last minute goal was frustrating, but it does happen, it may even be a blessing in disguise, showing that just because we’re at Wembley and have beaten teams in every division this season, that it’s called a promotion fight for a reason.