A year is a long time in football – as both newly-crowned Premier League champions Leicester City and Mansfield Town manager Adam Murray know only too well.
The Foxes’ incredible transformation from relegation battlers to England’s best has, of course, been well-documented in recent weeks and months, particularly since Claudio Ranieri’s side was confirmed as title winners when nearest rivals Spurs drew 2-2 at Chelsea on Monday night.
And while the resurgence of Murray’s Stags in the past 12 months cannot match that of their more celebrated East Midlands rivals, the 34-year-old (who remains one of the Football League’s youngest managers almost a year-and-a-half since his appointment in November 2014) has quietly and efficiently brought about positive change.
Whereas supporters, officials and players alike were genuinely worried about the club’s Football League status right down to the final few games of last season – a 1-0 home win over relegated Tranmere Rovers proving to be the key to securing safety – there have been no such issues this time around, with all concerned able to look up the table, rather than down.
Murray feels that is partly a result of the hard work that he and his players have put in during a tough League 2 campaign that has seen the club finish in 12th place.
But he also recognises that the club stability that is now in place – with John Radford at the helm as chairman – has been equally crucial, if not more so, for a club that doesn’t have the purchasing power of some of its bigger rivals. Just like Leicester in the top flight, in fact.
“Infrastructure is key at a club – and I can honestly say this is the most stable I have seen Mansfield Town in all the time I have been here, with everyone pulling in the same direction,” insists Murray. “I went to Leicester last season when they were in relegation trouble and the atmosphere was incredible. I went back this season and it was exactly the same.
“It’s absolutely brilliant for team spirit and togetherness, plus you have owners who have got patience and are prepared to look at the bigger picture and see what it takes to ensure continuous progress, rather than looking short-term.
“It’s been the same with Burton in their fantastic rise and Wimbledon too, with staff – on and off the pitch – who believe in the project and everyone is prepared to make it happen. The great thing is that I think we have got that here too, and the chairman understands how it works.
“He gave Paul (Cox) a few years and that brought success with promotion and I think now he trusts me to run the club in an efficient way.
“We are not a club that gets consistently big crowds, so it is important that our progression is at a sustainable pace and we have to make sure that we make each step with intelligence and the right thought process, to ensure that the club is in a competitive position.”
Given the general continuity now in place, Murray’s hope is to maintain that in the playing squad, with decisions already made on the futures of a number of them.
In fact, the ‘gaffer’ says he is determined to complete his retained list ‘by the middle of next week at the latest’.
Murray adds: “We need the consistency in the personnel, rather than having to start again like we did last summer. I don’t want wholesale changes and I would like to keep 95 percent of the squad the same. 12 months of this team being together is worth more than anything I can bring in.
“But we do need a little bit more. We need a bit more experience, with the average age of the side something like 23 this season. When we went fifth after beating Dagenham away, a lot of the lads had never been in that situation before and, when expectations rose after our good start, there was a pressure on us that we didn’t need and didn’t necessarily handle that well.
“We have got through this season with around 21 players and I think we need five or six new faces. It’s healthy to have some changes – it gives the group a boost, and gives us a little bit more ‘X-Factor’. With the loan players who will go back and some young players leaving us, it frees things up to bring others in.”
Top of the list of Murray’s signing priorities is another striker to assist Matt Green, who has manfully led the line to score 16 league goals. But the former Derby, Oxford and Luton player has other targets in mind, several of whom have already been contacted.
“We had Westy (Craig Westcarr) for his intelligence, Beardo (Chris Beardsley) as a target and Adi (Yussuf) who has a bit of both to support Greenie, but Beardo has been injured and Adi took a while to get up to speed, so it didn’t quite work out how I envisaged,” admits Murray.
“We got to Christmas and had to tweak the style to go more direct because we couldn’t fit the right bits in around him. In hindsight we maybe left it too late to bring someone else in, but when we had such a good dressing room, you don’t want to say to players ‘thanks for getting us this far, now go and sit in the stands’.
“Matt has 16, but could have had 25 and, learning about him as I have, I know he needs to be pushed and know that he’s not straight in the team. Looking over your shoulder at the competition was always important in the sides where I got promoted, as long as there are not too many players.
“I have spoken to a lot of players already, and that’s important with the way the transfer windows are going to work next season with no emergency loans outside the window, as it stands. There will be four-and-a-half months where you can’t sign anyone and then, after January, until the end of the season.
“We have nothing in the recruitment department, that’s down to me, which is why I’ve been out watching as many games as I can and following players on the data websites we have. The good thing is now that Mansfield is an easier sell. No disrespect to what has gone before, but players are no longer put off by the way we play or our league position.”
In a season where a number of players have come to the fore, Murray finds it difficult to pick out his best signing, but he has no doubts as to the overall highlights of the campaign – and the low point from which he feels he learned so much.
He says: “Mitchell Rose has been excellent in what is his first full season of League football and Mal Benning has been superb too. I also think Krystian Pearce has done a great job after missing the first three weeks of pre-season, which has affected him.
“Because there’s been so many games he’s never been able to catch up, which means he has been physically, and then mentally, tired in games, which has led to the mistakes and sendings off. But he’s proven people wrong who saw him at Notts County and said he was no good.
“The two Notts County games were massive. To be 5-0 up on your local rivals and running riot was fantastic and I was also delighted how we dug out wins at the likes of Dagenham, Yeovil and Exeter when people thought we had ‘gone’.
“The one game that came as a shock and was the biggest learning curve was Exeter at home (a 2-0 defeat). They did ‘a right job’ on us that night and I phoned Paul Tisdale up to tell him the next day. But in many ways it was an inspirational defeat because I learned from it.”
From a personal development point of view, Murray is pleased with how things have gone and has realised that sticking to his beliefs is a must in the management game, even when the going gets tough.
“There’s now so many opinions flying around on football from the Gary Nevilles of this world and on social media, and you have to accept that you can’t hide from those opinions,” explains Murray.
“But the biggest thing I have learned is that when you have a blip you can’t go chasing results too much.
“I changed and tweaked things – formations and players – instead of sticking with my philosophy that had worked earlier in the season. You have to accept that sometimes you are going to have bad runs and stick to what you believe in.
“I think understanding the players and their issues is one of my biggest strengths and I have got a really good relationship with all of them. Without them saying anything, sometimes you can pick up that something’s wrong and so you can do some more digging.
“Sometimes a player will ask to speak to ‘me’ rather than the ‘gaffer’ – that’s very important – and on Mondays we have a session where we go through everything, mistakes and all, and get it all out in the open.
“Nathan Thomas (who moved to Hartlepool in January) was a very good player, but he had personal issues where he needed to go home and be around his family – and you can’t stand in the way of that. I know, because I have been there myself.”
This is the first season since 1998-99 that Murray has not kicked a ball in anger and insists he has not missed being out on the field. He does, however, regret not having a final farewell, meaning fans are advised to watch this space!
He says: “I played last season because I felt I needed to be on the pitch to affect things. This season I don’t think I have needed to be. Chris Clements and Adam Chapman have passing ranges as good if not better than mine, Jack Thomas and Mitchell Rose can get around the pitch better than me and Jamie McGuire has the grit, determination and fight.
“My only regret is that I have never brought down the curtain on my career properly, having played more than 500 senior games. At some point I would love to do that.”
Given the fact that it’s been a season of learning for everyone – not just the players, but Murray himself – it seems only appropriate that the manager’s final assessment of 2015-16 should come by way of a teacher-style, end-of-term school grading.
“I’d probably go for a B,” concludes Murray after a few moments of pause for thought. “And my accompanying comment would be ‘excellent progression, but needs to keep learning and improving to move to the next step.”