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Mansfield Town: Nigel Clough's side enjoy staggering start in League Two

“Good managers make good sides. There’s no such thing as a side making a manager,” Brian Clough once remarked.

It’s a quote that his son, Nigel, has demonstrated across his 25-year career in football management. 

His CV might not feature First Division titles and European Cup success like his father, but Clough junior will be able to reflect proudly on his achievements - none more so than his influence in Burton Albion’s remarkable ascent.

Joining Burton as a player-manager in 1998, who were a seventh-tier side at the time, Clough had the Brewers leaping up the divisions before Derby County came calling in 2009.

A four-year stint with the Rams followed before moving to Sheffield United, whom he guided to the semi-finals of both the FA Cup and League Cup when the club were in League One.

A return to Burton followed and Clough produced the miraculous; leading the Staffordshire club to the second tier of English football for the first time in their history.

Promotion the target at Mansfield

Now at Mansfield Town, the 57-year-old is hoping to get another promotion under his belt.

In his first full season he’d taken the Stags on a record-breaking run of 11 straight home league victories. Reaching the play-off final that campaign, they were defeated 3-0 by Port Vale at Wembley and suffered further promotion anguish last term; missing out on a top-seven finish by a single goal.

"Next season, we will be good enough to challenge, without a doubt,” Clough said when reviewing Mansfield’s shortcoming in May.

22 games into the 2023/24 season and Mansfield are challenging. Not only are they occupying an automatic promotion spot, but they’re doing it in some style.

They’ve won three matches on the spin and have a game in hand on those around them, which if they win would see them leapfrog Wrexham into second.

Suffering only one league defeat so far this campaign, the Stags boast the best defensive record in League Two and have a goal difference only bettered by league leaders Stockport County.

Second-favourites to win the League Two title at 9/4, they're now as short as 1/5 to win promotion to League One.

And their underlying numbers suggest they can sustain their early success too.

Only Stockport boast a better xG than Mansfield’s 41.7, and a glut of their chances are fashioned from their ability to retrieve possession deep in opposition territory, with only Newport County winning possession more in the final third.

At the forefront of their attacking enterprise is Davis Keillor-Dunn. Signed from Burton in January, the 26-year-old has provided a consistent source of goals since his arrival.

With a tally of 13, his odds have shortened to 14/1 in League Two's Top Goalscorer market. Ranking third for chances created, Keillor-Dunn has registered the most shots per 90 and the most shots on target, reiterating his attacking influence.

Down at the other end, Clough has forged a mean defensive unit.

The fact they’ve conceded the fewest goals coincides with their xG against. At 22.0, it’s a mark lower than everyone else in the division and demonstrates how the Stags are capable of keeping things consistently secure at the back.

Rejuvenated following his summer switch to Field Mill, Aden Flint’s acquisition has been a key factor in their resilience. 

The former Stoke City defender has been the one consistent figure in a backline that’s frequently changed as a result of injuries, which makes Mansfield’s defensive figures all the more remarkable.

Selection inconsistency often yields defensive instability and it’s testament to Clough and his coaching staff that they’ve been able to find solutions.

Playing through the pain barrier

A theme that had hindered them in the previous campaign, Mansfield had as many as 12 players out injured in September.

Alfie Kilgour, a key figure in the second-half of last season following his move from Bristol Rovers, is sidelined for the rest of the year after rupturing his Achilles tendon.

Callum Johnson, Aaron Lewis and Hiram Boateng were withdrawn with injuries in the same fixture, and at a point when Clough had hoped for some returnees to alleviate his squad issues, Rhys Oates and Stephen Quinn were added to the treatment table.

It was a testing scenario but nothing Clough hasn’t dealt with before. Much to his delight, the Stags' injury woes have eased in recent weeks.

Jordan Bowery, who is a forward by trade, has been forced to deputise at right-back and centre-back. His performance at the heart of the defence earned Mansfield a valuable point away at Grimsby earlier in the season and Bowery highlighted how the bond with his manager gives him the confidence to play in any position. 

Clough prides himself on his man management - a skill that he feels he’s inherited and honed from his father and that’s evident in his ability to extract the maximum from his players, no matter the circumstances.

Like father, like son

He might not be as outspoken as his father but there’s some family traditions that have been maintained.

Clough senior would bring his dog Del Boy into training at Nottingham Forest every day. Whether it was observing a session or intimidating players in contract negotiations, Del Boy would always be by his owner’s side.

Animal assistance is also on hand at Mansfield, with Clough enlisting the help of his Hungarian Vizsla, Bobbie, at the training ground.

Bobbie has not been short of walks in recent months with injured players encouraged to walk him as part of their rehabilitation. The canine companion is also a regular in squad photos and charity appearances.

Honesty and discipline remains a key ingredient in Clough’s coaching style, whilst his desire to win burns stronger than ever.

Nottinghamshire football already has a lot to thank the Clough family for. Securing Mansfield’s return to the third tier for the first time since 2003 would be the cherry on top of a glamorous cake.


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