Mansfield Town hit form at the right time, can they now shine in the fast lane?
AFTER the euphoria of last season's race to third and the play-offs, then heartbreak, it is fair to say this season has failed to conjure up too much optimism for Mansfield Town.
A slow start to the campaign and some terrible early away form has led to much criticism, a nagging feeling of doubt whenever a promotion push has been discussed.
The great FA Cup run and Liverpool match aside, when it comes to the Blue Square Bet Premier, the fire has never really been ignited.
Cup runs and dreadful weather have made the league action somewhat stop-start.
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And, at half-time on Saturday against Dartford, it just about summed up the season. The Stags were 1-0 up, yet there was a flat feeling as the performance did not even merit that.
But, in the second-half, the Stags came out and blitzed Dartford 5-0. They had ridden their luck but suddenly found their destructible best.
In doing so, it was a third successive win was in the bag, three on the spin for the first time this season and just three points off the play-off places with games in hand.
But deeper than that, you look at the form table, and the Stags are top with six wins from their last eight league games, a period averaging 2.25 points per game.
The statistics don't lie. Mansfield are on a great run and if ever there is a time to be hitting form, it is now, with games coming every Saturday, Tuesday, starting with Barrow at home next weekend.
Far from pessimism, the Stags are the dark horses, the team to fear.
Manager Paul Cox said his side was coming around the bend and not getting ahead of themselves. But with a side that boasts four away wins on the spin and one of the best home records in the league, you have to be confident.
Last season, they won 13 and drew one of their last 15 games and while such a record would be hard to replicate, the Stags are positioned nicely.
Yet, it still feels like Mansfield have had a relatively average season at best so far, given the expectation created following last season's near-miss, when they lost to York in the semi-finals of the play-offs.
That is why the weekend's 5-0 demolition could be the start of something special. They went from being lucky, despite winning, to being ruthless and bursting with confidence.
At half-time, they were fortunate. Alan Marriott had saved the Stags on four minutes when Nathan Collier had been played in but one-on-one, the veteran stopper denied the striker. And a minute later, the tenacious Adam Murray won the ball back 25 yards out and then drilled in an unstoppable shot to give the Stags the lead.
And while James Jennings, in at left-back on his debut, demonstrated his prowess from dead-ball situations, the hosts were disjointed and somewhat lucky to go in at half-time ahead, Lee Stevenson having cleared one effort off the line.
Louis Briscoe replaced Lindon Meikle at the half-time and from the off, with some tasty words still ringing in the ears, the Stags got about their visitors.
On 54 minutes, Antony Howell doubled the lead. Jennings' free-kick into the box was knocked back by Luke Jones, perfectly teeing up the midfielder, who took a touch to his right to find space before firing low into the net.
Stevenson and Jones went close before, on 66 minutes, it was 3-0. A poor corner was cleared and from deep on the left wing, Colin Daniel whipped in a stunning first-time delivery into the box and Jones rose to plant a superb downward header into the bottom corner.
Matt Green and Daniel were both then denied before the fourth came as Stevenson and Howell combined to find Briscoe, whose measured pass split the defence to put Green through and he stayed composed to lay it back across goal into the far corner.
Jones was denied again before Stevenson saw an effort cleared off the line and then, late on, Stevenson was tripped in the box by Adam Green and a penalty was given. Stevenson took, firing into the top corner. So, in the end, it was emphatic - a convincing win.
Jennings came in and impressed, Stevenson got a third goal in three games since finally getting his chance. Matt Green was again among the goals.
And players like Exodus Geohaghon, John Thompson and Ben Hutchinson could not even find a place on the bench.
There has to be realism. But surely now, there has to be room for optimism.
The Stags are, officially, on a great run of results. They are edging closer.
And the fact they under-performed at the start but still came back to record such a solid win must create confidence.
Saturday's result could prove the moment where people actually start to believe – Mansfield could do this again.
Six wins from eight is some record, one that has been overlooked in some quarters.
And with obvious room for improvement, maybe the weekend will prove a turning point.
They are coming around the bend, now only time will tell if they can handle the fast lane.