Conference League: Mourinho’s trophy?

THERE ARE some big names still in the Conference League, probably bigger than UEFA expected, and three of the clubs are past winners of the European Cup/Champions League: PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord and Marseille. Furthermore, Leicester City and Roma are also still involved, making it a reasonable last eight.

While Leicester will fancy their chances, they face PSV, but the Foxes are less consistent this season and are currently 10th in the Premier. They probably expected better after winning the FA Cup in 2021. PSV are not the force of old, but they are second in the Eredivisie and just two points behind Ajax. Their line-up is likely to include the sought-after winger, Cody Gakpo. The 22 year-old has netted 16 goals this season and is being eyed by Premier League clubs, including Arsenal. This is a tie that could go either way. 

PSV’s stablemate, Feyenoord, face Slavia Prague for the second time after meeting them twice in the group stage.  Slavia, who have had reputational problems due to accusations of racism on the pitch, are are just one point behind Viktoria Plzen in the Czech First League and are capable of surprising a few people.

One team that could emerge as favourites for the inaugural Conference League is Marseille (OM), no strangers to European success in recent years and now second in Ligue 1 but 12 points worse off than leaders Paris Saint-Germain. OM face PAOK and should be too strong for the Greek side. Marseille have an Arsenal player on loan in the form of William Saliba, who has been in excellent form this year.

The other quarter final is between Bodo/Glimt of Norway and Roma. These two sides met earlier this season and José Mourinho’s Roma were beaten 6-1, the worst defeat in the managerial career of the “special one”. One would assume that Roma won’t get fooled again and Mourinho may just see the Conference League as an ideal way to end what has been a patchy first season in the Italian capital. Roma are considered to be favourites to win the competition.

Mourinho always sees the value of winning silverware and no matter how unimportant some people think the competition is, he will be keen to add to his haul of major prizes. Roma have spurned the chance of challenging for a Champions League place in a campaign in which Juventus have been transitioning, but they have been in good form recently and are unbeaten in nine Serie A games, including a 3-0 win against Lazio in the Rome derby. What’s more, their € 40 million signing, Tammy Abraham, who joined from Chelsea, has proved to be an excellent acquisition, scoring 23 goals.

The final is scheduled to be hosted in Tirana, but UEFA are considering a switch due to possible political interference in football. Greece has been mentioned as a possible new venue.

The quality of the Conference last eight must be something of a relief for UEFA, but three of the quarter-finalists have arrived via the Europa League. Nevertheless, a decent winner will add to the credibility of the competition. 

The men who made Mansfield Town’s big night

WEDNESDAY February 26, 1969 remains one of the greatest dates in Mansfield Town’s history, the night three World Cup winners were beaten at Field Mill, the Stags’ unpretentious home.

West Ham’s Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, not to mention Bobby Ferguson, Billy Bonds, Trevor Brooking and Harry Redknapp, lined up for the Londoners, but the Hammers’ lost 3-0, a scoreline that was arguably the biggest shock in the FA Cup that season. As one newspaper said: “West Ham walked into a disaster seven miles off the M1…in a Notts mining town of narrow, snow-covered streets.”

West Ham were seventh in the first division when they arrived at Field Mill and had just drawn 1-1 with Liverpool at the Boleyn Ground. They had beaten Bristol City and Huddersfield Town in the previous rounds and nobody expected them to lose the fifth round tie at Mansfield.

The Stags had disposed of Tow Law Town, Rotherham United, Sheffield United and Southend United on route to round five. Their team had been virtually unchanged all the way through. Dave Hollins, brother of Chelsea’s John, was in goal, a Welsh international (as opposed to his sibling, who had won an England cap) who had played for Brighton and Newcastle United. 

Stuart Boam, a 20 year-old defender, started his career with Mansfield, but was bound for greater things. He was eventually sold to Middlesbrough for £ 50,000 and was renowned as a strong, determined and reliable performer. Scotsman Johnny Quigley arrived at Mansfield from Bristol City, costing the club £ 3,000. He had won the FA Cup with Nottingham Forest in 1959 and was 33 when he joined the Stags.

Dudley Roberts and Nick Sharkey both caught the eye during the FA Cup run. Roberts, who was 23, joined from Coventry City and played 200 league games for Mansfield, scoring 66 goals. He had been the hero in the third and fourth rounds of the competition against Sheffield United and Southend United. Sharkey, a Scot, came from Leicester City and represented his country at under-23 level.

Mansfield were struggling in the third division and relegation was a distinct possibility. They were one of four teams – Orient, Crewe, Hartlepool were the others – on 24 points. They went into their clash with West Ham after one win in eight games. But West Ham were a team that had earned a reputation of being a purist footballing side under Ron Greenwood, which occasionally made them vulnerable to opponents who adopted a blood and thunder approach. They had been beaten by teams from a lower division before, notably Swindon Town in 1966-67 and Huddersfield in 1967-68.

The pitch was very heavy, recent weather had caused the game to be postponed twice and there had been snowfalls. In the circumstances, Mansfield had a good chance to pull off a shock result as West Ham would be unable to play their short-passing game. The crowd at Mill Field was over 21,000 but very few West Ham fans had made the trip to Nottinghamshire.

The pitch closed the gap between the first division and the third. For example, England’s World Cup winning skipper, Bobby Moore, struggled at the start of the game and was also jeered every time he touched the ball as he had brought down Roberts early on. Later, Geoff Hurst missed an easy chance as he shot the ball across goal from six yards.  Mansfield, by contrast, made some early mistakes, but then accepted the challenge with gusto and took the tie to their illustrious visitors. 

Initially, they packed their defence to thwart Hurst and his forward-line team-mates, but once they grew in confidence, their long-ball game started to trouble West Ham. In the 22nd minute, Roberts, who constantly troubled West Ham, gave Mansfield the lead, receiving a pass from former Leicester man Jimmy Goodfellow through a packed area – “opening West Ham’s defence like a tin of sardines”-  and side-footing past Bobby Ferguson in the Hammers’ goal.

Mansfield strengthened their hold on the game in the 37th minute after Ferguson punched the ball clear from a Goodfellow cross, but Ray Keeley volleyed it straight back into the net from the edge of the area. Keely described it as a “dream goal which you never think will really happen until it does”. 

The game was settled five minutes into the second half with a third goal that owed much to a clumsy mistake by Ferguson. He ran out of his area to meet a long pass from Boam, dropped the ball and allowed it to fall to Sharkey who gratefully finished in front of goal. It was an uncharacteristic error by Ferguson, but summed up a miserable night for the Hammers.

The town of Mansfield celebrated their 3-0 victory, singing and dancing in the streets. Manager Tommy Egglestone was, understandably, proud of his team: “They ran and fought to the last ounce. They have done Mansfield proud but realised we were going to win the moment our second goal went in.”

Ron Greenwood was sporting in defeat: “If you miss your chances, you can’t grumble about losing. I wouldn’t say we played too badly so there must be plenty of credit for them for playing so well.”

Mansfield didn’t know who they would be facing in the quarter-final as Leicester and Liverpool had still to decide their tie, but Bill Shankly was watching at Field Mill and expected West Ham to win, even when they were 2-0 down. It turned out to be Leicester City but they proved to be too good for the Stags. In front of another big crowd, Rodney Fern scored the only goal to send Leicester through to meet West Bromwich Albion.

Mansfield still had to secure their place in the third division for 1969-70 and they managed to do just that, finishing in 15th place after winning seven of their last 12 fixtures. A year later, they enjoyed another good FA Cup run, reaching the last 16 before going out to Leeds United. They’ve had good and bad days since that time, but has there been a greater 90 minutes in the club’s history?