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Mansfield boss Clough on promotion: ‘I’m trying not to even think about it’

Mansfield have been back in Sky Bet League Two for a decade now.

Twice they have reached the play-offs in that time; under David Flitcroft in 2018/19, they were knocked out by Newport in the semi-finals and under Nigel Clough in 2021/22, they got to Wembley, only to see their hopes disintegrate when they went 2-0 down to Port Vale inside 25 minutes.

Last year, they missed out on another chance, with Salford pipping them to seventh on goal difference alone – but this year, they have arguably their best chance of promotion yet.

With six games to go, they lead the way at the top ahead of a busy Easter weekend that starts with a tricky trip to fellow title hopefuls Wrexham, which is live on Sky Sports Football on Good Friday.

Friday 29th March 2:45pm Kick off 3:00pm

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The Stags are in an ideal spot going into the final stretch. Hopes of the title are out of their hands at the moment, given a win for second-placed Stockport’s from their game in hand could see them nip one point clear, but there’s a six-point gap between themselves and third. Their automatic promotion chances are looking pretty rosy right now.

That said, Clough is reluctant to speak about such an eventuality.

“You’ll have to ask me that in a few weeks!” he jokes as he sits down to speak to Sky Sports‘ Dan Long.

“Honestly, I’m trying not to even think about it.”

The 58-year-old former England international is long enough in the tooth to know it is not over until it is over. Recent history has reminded him of that.

Clough's side were beaten by Port Vale in the 2021/22 Sky Bet League Two play-off final
Image: Clough’s side were beaten by Port Vale in the 2021/22 Sky Bet League Two play-off final

“The Port Vale defeat was very difficult. To lose in the manner we did took everybody a long time to get over. You don’t turn up for pre-season four or five weeks later and everybody is fine. It took us a bit of time to recover.

“Similarly to if you suffer a relegation, there’s always a hangover when you lose a play-off final.

“Last season, to get so close with the injuries we had wasn’t a bad achievement or a bad season, but we knew where we had to improve.

“The players had a good break in the summer and we spoke at the end of last season and said, from the first day you come back, be ready because we’re going for it, and they’ve all taken that on board.”

Clough’s side were unbeaten in the first 18 league games of the season and only lost one of their first 26 which, remarkably, was not enough to take them to the top of the league at any point.

Five of their six defeats throughout the campaign have come since January 6, yet they have been leading the pack for the last month. The unpredictability of the EFL is unmatched.

He admits that the 5-1 win at Bradford just under a fortnight ago eased some fears that had begun to rear their heads.

“We were going into that one off the back of two defeats out of three,” said Clough. “We were a little bit worried.

“At this time of the season, you don’t want an extended losing run by any means and it was good to get back on it, in terms of performance, scoreline, everything. It was probably as well as we’ve played for some time, with the all-round performance.

“At times I certainly think, ‘what if?’ All of the defeats this season have just been by a single goal, two of them in stoppage time away from home. They are frustrating.

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Mansfield manager Nigel Clough discusses ‘marquee signing’ Aden Flint and the impact he’s had since joining the club on a free transfer last summer. 

“We’re not going to change our approach at this stage, though, and we are still in a great position.”

His caution is understandable.

Mansfield have won seven of their last 11, scoring 32 goals across that period, but they have only kept one clean sheet in their last nine and they were held to a 1-1 draw by Danny Cowley’s relegation-threatened Colchester in front of the Sky Sports cameras last time out.

“We realise we’re in a reasonable position, but there’s still nothing taken for granted at all, in any shape or form,” Clough adds.

“We’ve still got 21 points to play for and anything can happen. We were happy to get over that 70-point mark again with eight games to go and we go into the final seven games in reasonably good form and reasonably confident.

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Highlights of the Sky Bet League Two match between Mansfield and Colchester.

“We know that if we perform and teams will find it difficult against us but, if we dip slightly, as we have done in a couple of games, anybody can beat us at any time.

“It’s great that we’ve got four out of the final seven games at home. That’s a good advantage and it’s almost a situation we’re in where, if you can win your home games, or the majority of them, it nearly gets you over the line. That’s an incentive in itself.”

Clough and his players have seven games to make history and banish the demons of years gone by to finally return to the third tier after 21 years away.

Sky News
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