(First published in Stags fanzine "Follow The Yellow Brick Road", 1st March 2003)
In early December 2002, Mansfield Town parted company with manager Stuart Watkiss. Watkiss had guided the Stags to their first promotion in 10 years just six-and-a-half months earlier. In this article we profile the career of Watkiss, highlighting the enormous contribution he made to the club over a period of six years.
Stuart Watkiss was born in Wolverhampton in 1966 and served his apprenticeship with Wolves. As a 17-year-old, in 1983, he made two first team appearances, but he explained that "I thought I had already made it, and not surprisingly they didnt like my attitude; within a year I had been bombed out totally". He then spent a year at Crewe as a junior professional, but he was getting married and he couldnt afford to continue. He hung up his boots, and got himself a job at the Post Office. But after two years not kicking a ball in anger, he then joined Rushall Olympic in the West Midlands league and spent 6 years with them. He continued to earn a decent wage as a postal worker, while turning out in front of crowds of 150 on Saturdays. In an interview just after joining the Stags, Watkiss explained: "I worked on the counter, dealing with car tax and that kind of thing. I still go back and work for the Post Office every summer, just to keep my hand in. One day when my football career is over, I might go back to my old job".
He was spotted playing for Rushall and joined Walsall for the 1993/94 season. In his first season in professional football, Walsall missed out on the play-offs in the last game of the season. Watkiss played 39 league games and scored twice. Then in the next season, he was part of the side that was promoted from Division Three, though he only played 8 league games. But in the following season, 1995/96, with a new manager, Chris Nicholl, at the helm, Watkiss fell out of favour despite playing the first 15 league games of the season, and joined Hereford in February 1996. Watkiss missed just one game in a run of 20 games that saw Hereford lose just twice and reach the Third Division play-offs.
Watkiss joined the Stags on a free transfer from Hereford United in the summer of 1996. Stags boss Andy King said he was delighted to capture the 30-year-old: "He will be a major asset to this club. He is a very strong, solid left-footed defender with a lot of experience. I tried to sign him from Walsall last year but they wanted £25,000 and we thought he may well be released on a free transfer in the summer, which has been the case".
Watkiss described his reasons for joining the Stags: "The main selling points for Mansfield were Andy Kings enthusiasm; he is a typical Cockney, very cheerful. It was also the fact I didnt have to move house. My family are settled in Wolverhampton. Fans will get 100% from me, Ive always been associated with successful clubs".
Watkiss made his debut for Mansfield in the first game of the 1996/97 season, in a 1-0 defeat at home to Exeter. The season got off to a bad start, and after just 3 games boss Andy King was sacked. Club captain Steve Parkin, just 30 years old (the same age as Watkiss), took over as manager (initially as caretaker). Watkiss was installed as Club captain, and soon earned the nickname of "Skip" which was to remain with him throughout his time at the club.
Watkiss scored his first and only goal for the Stags in a 4-2 win at Darlington in October, when his downward header from a Ben Sedgemore cross bounced down and up into the top corner of the net. He was an ever-present until December, when he was suspended for 6 matches after picking up 21 disciplinary points and then being sent-off in the next game at Cambridge. The sending-off came after he was adjudged to have fouled Paul Raynor on the halfway line. Boss Parkin however felt that the sending-off was completely unjustified. Stags lost the game 2-1.
A good run catapulted Stags close to the play-offs and when Carlisle visited Field Mill in April in front of the Sky Sports live TV cameras, a win was vital for Mansfield. But Stags were denied what would have been a crucial victory when a header from Watkiss was deemed not to have crossed the line, though TV pictures clearly showed that it did. The game ended 0-0. Stags ended the season five points behind a play-off place and Watkiss made 31 league appearances (including 1 as substitute).
In 1997/98, Watkiss played in 6 of the first 7 league games, but then got damaged ankle ligaments in a 1-0 defeat at Notts County in September. He was out for over 6 months, and just before he returned to the side, he explained the problem: "My ankle isnt right by any means but Im prepared to play through the pain barrier. Im just sick and tired of sitting around as games pass by. The pain is just about bearable so Ive decided to make myself available. I had keyhole surgery to start with - the surgeon hoped he could cure the problem by cleaning the ankle up. But x-rays and scans revealed that I had broken the ankle 18 months earlier when I was at Walsall and hadnt realised. It obviously hadnt mended properly and I had a second operation in January when the surgeon took a piece of bone out." Watkiss was anxious to get away from Walsall at the time he initially hurt his ankle and played in a practice match for Preston despite being in agony. "I filled myself up with painkillers so that I could play in that trial game. I was so desperate to get away but I didnt realise what Id done."
Watkiss made his return in a 3-2 home victory over Exeter in March but played in just 4 more games. His injury nightmare then came back to haunt him after a 2-2 draw with Torquay at Field Mill when he took a knock on his troublesome ankle. Watkiss explained that he had been taking lots of painkillers to get through the games and said that he had been nowhere near fully fit despite returning to the side.
The last two months of the season were overshadowed as the players were not paid in successive months, as chairman Keith Haslam came under fire. Watkiss was the Stags Professional Footballers Association rep and explained to the press when the first non-payment happened: "The fact that we have had no money for 4 days is bad enough, but it is the way it was handled that has upset everyone. We were never told there might be a problem and were not kept informed by the club at any stage. We all have mortgages to pay and standing orders, and most of us are now facing expensive bank charges. I was on the phone to the PFA constantly for four days and fortunately they were able to step in and resolve the situation. If the club cant afford to pay us after a couple of home games, how will they stump up our wages in the summer? We cant understand how the chairman can be planning to build a £5m stadium when he cant pay our wages on time."
At the end of July 1998, Stuart Watkiss was forced to concede defeat in his ten month battle against injury, and retired. Thus Watkisss playing career was over, having made just 124 league appearances in total, scoring 3 goals, while for the Stags he had made 41 league appearances, scoring 1 goal.
But Watkiss remained at the club as youth team coach taking over from Tony Ford.
Though disappointed at having to hang up his boots, Watkiss said he was relieved at ending his summer of uncertainty: "Obviously its disappointing to retire as a player. But Im really looking forward to starting with the youth team, which is a new challenge for me. There was an operation they could have done but its not guaranteed and it would have been a four or five month job."
The youth team had a successful season and, midway through the season, after a game against Wolves, Watkiss told the press that the Wolves manager had told him we were the best Mansfield youth side he had seen in years. Stags finished just about mid-table in the Youth Alliance Midlands Conference and Watkiss explained to the press how he was turning into a manager: "When I was a player, I would always sit in the dressing room at half time and wonder what the manager was ranting on about. I couldnt understand why they got so hot under the collar but, since I took over the running of the youth team, I am beginning to realise. Some people say you turn into your parents, well I am turning into all of the managers I ever had. It is sometimes difficult to get your point across to players without shouting. I think Ive only lost it once or twice but you do find yourself tearing your hair out sometimes. Its so frustrating when youve asked them to do something on the pitch and they do not do it." Watkiss admitted that he often found himself taking the role of father figure to some of the youth team players.
In June 1999, manager Steve Parkin resigned. In the immediate aftermath of the resignation, the CHAD announced that the duo of Tony Ford and Stuart Watkiss could be appointed number one and number two. However within two days, Billy Dearden was appointed manager. Tony Ford soon left to join Parkin who had taken over at Rochdale. Two weeks after Deardens appointment, chairman Haslam told the Evening Post that "Stuart is a very strong candidate for assistant manager post, but there are other possibilities." Watkiss himself said that "I would be very interested in the job, of course I would. I am very optimistic about it but we will have to wait and see. But I have started a job with the youth team which I enjoy greatly." Two weeks later Mark Kearney was appointed assistant manager by Dearden.
During the 1999/2000 season the youth team reached the fourth round of FA Youth Cup and forced a replay against Sunderland, before losing out. The team included Liam Lawrence, Lee Williamson, Jamie Clarke and Andy White, whilst skipper Dave Jervis missed out through injury. Meanwhile in the league, the youth team had been top of the youth alliance for a while. Watkiss said "All this success is a bonus. My job is to produce young players good enough for the first team. Its nice to have all this publicity, but a small club like Mansfield needs to produce its own talent, and thats what Im here to achieve. Meanwhile in the Midland Floodlit Youth cup, the Stags reached the final, after a win on penalties over Wolves at Field Mill in the semi-final, in a game that this writer remembers well. Colin Larkin was in the Wolves side and scored one of their penalties. Stags lost the final to West Brom, though Watkiss said afterwards "Yes Im disappointed but Im proud of the way they went about their business. I was very pleased with the commitment of the lads. The experience will stand them in good stead for the future."
At the end of the season, Lawrence, Williamson, Andy White and Jervis all signed professional contracts. Meanwhile Alistair Asher was actually voted first team player of the season. Asher, along with Craig Disley, Bobby Hassell and Michael Sisson had all broken into the first team, having been part of Watkisss youth team the season before.
For the following season, 2000/2001, Watkiss explained that it would be a more difficult season for the youth team as he had a team now mainly of first years and that if he retained his under-19s (who had now moved on to the reserve and first team) he could probably win the league. Danny Holyoak was a regular in the side with goalkeeper Jason White playing occasional games. Lawrence, Williamson, Andy White and Jervis were regulars in the reserve team which finished a creditable third in the Avon Insurance League Division 2. Meanwhile Lawrence, Williamson and Jervis also played over 10 games each in the first team, and Andy White made 4 appearances as substitute. These players also played in youth team cup games, as the team reached the quarter finals of the Youth Alliance cup before losing 3-0 at Leyton Orient in a disappointing game that this writer attended.
In June 2001, assistant manager Mark Kearney left to join Northampton Town as youth team coach. Speculation mounted that Watkiss would step up to assistant manager. Watkiss told the press "I do feel that the job would be a natural progression for me. A lot of the lads who have come up through the club were with me and I would like the chance to work with them again." A couple of weeks later, the clubs official website exclusively revealed that "the worst kept secret in the clubs history had been confirmed", and Watkiss was indeed promoted to assistant manager. Billy Dearden explained "I gave the position a lot of thought and have decided that Stuart is the best man for the job. He is a young coach who could go a long way in the game. He is at the right age to work with me, and it is a huge reward for him. He has done an excellent job with the youth team and it was a huge wrench to take him away from the youth team." Watkiss said "I am confident in my ability, I wouldnt have gone for the job if not. Obviously time will tell if I am a success or not, but I am cautiously optimistic. It will be great working with Bill Dearden. He has a wealth of knowledge and experience within the game and I will be watching and learning all the time." Neil Richardson stepped up from the clubs Centre of Excellence to youth team manager.
Stags started season 2001/2002 very well and were in the promotion shake-up. In an interview with the Football Post, Watkiss said he was enjoying his new role: "We have had a good start to the season, which has helped and I knew a lot of the players anyway. Results really dictate if you are enjoying it or not, so Im pleased with the way it is going, but Im learning all the time. Im enjoying it very much and the Saturday afternoon buzz is a great thing to have after three years in charge of the youth team". Watkiss paid tribute to his manager and former manager: "I will forever be grateful to Steve Parkin for giving me a chance as youth team manager. He gave me full licence to be in charge of all the lads aged 19 and under. But I still needed advice. Now the Gaffer (Billy Dearden) has probably forgotten more about football than I will ever know. Im fortunate he is always asking me what I think, he is receptive to my ideas. We have the same football principles. He is very good one-to-one with the players and I have learned a lot from that."
By New Year 2002, Stags were sitting third in Division 3 and through to the Third round of the FA Cup away to Leicester. But after defeat in that game at Leicester, Billy Dearden stunned Mansfield Town by announcing his resignation to take over at Notts County. Watkiss told Mansfield 103.2 that he was shocked by the news: "Shocked and sad. Ive worked with Billy now for 2 and a half years, the last six months very closely, and Ive got an awful lot to be grateful to Billy Dearden for and Im sorry to see him go." Just three days later, on 9 January 2002, Watkiss was confirmed as manager. Chairman Keith Haslam explained the decision: "I wanted to make sure there was continuity and that there was a minimum of disruption. Stuart has been a great influence since moving up to the first team and it would really be silly to change things too much at the moment. He has been very positive since he took up coaching over the last three or four years but needed a bit more experience. I think Bill has given him that experience and hopefully he can take it on from there. He is a young talented coach, not too much different from Steve Parkin in his type of character. He is very down to earth, knows this level, and ambitious to progress."
Watkiss said "It is a big step up but I do have faith in my ability as a football coach. This gives me a great opportunity to further and advance my career; its just come a bit sooner than everyone anticipated. Having managed many of these players in the youth and reserve teams, I know their capabilities and personalities very well which puts me in a great position."
The young players were all pleased with the appointment. Craig Disley summed up the mood: "We all have the utmost respect for Stuart. He knows how we play and we were relieved he got the job. Stuart has been a massive influence on my career, bringing me through and giving me the confidence I needed to step up to the professional ranks. He always encourages you. Hes a great bloke." Meanwhile Bobby Hassell said "The biggest problem is that I have been calling him Skip for years, so calling him Gaffer is going to take a bit of getting used to."
Neil Richardson was soon appointed as Watkisss assistant. Watkiss explained: "Neil and I work well together. Although we may have different ideas on some aspects, our basic footballing principles are the same. I can be the fiery one in the players faces, but Neil is a more calming influence which means we are a good combination." There was a major boost in Watkisss second week in charge as leading scorer Chris Greenacre, who would surely be instrumental if Stags were to gain promotion, pledged his future to the club for the rest of the season. Watkiss said "I have to be honest, I thought Chris would leave for pastures new last week which is a blow in your first week in the job. But I explained to Chris that he may never get a better chance to actually achieve something, and Chris wants to be part of that. I am delighted he is staying."
Watkiss was unlucky that inspirational midfield Craig Disley, who was having such a great season, picked up an injury around the same time that Watkiss was appointed, and missed much of rest of the season. Then in mid February, Liam Lawrence, who had been providing balance down the right hand side, was injured in a car crash and missed the rest of the season. Watkiss soon brought in David Kelly, to provide vital experience and he popped up with some vital goals. However at times, it looked like Lawrences injury could be really costly. But then young manager Watkiss made one truly inspirational loan signing. He brought in Adam Murray from Derby and what an impact he made. In the last 12 games of the season, Murray scored 7 goals from midfield, including 2 goals at home to Scunthorpe in a memorable Stags comeback from 1-0 down to win 2-1 in such a crucial game. In the very next home game, Murray scored the winner again with a stunning 20 yarder in off the bar at home to Oxford. Watkiss also brought in experienced Scott Sellars, who chipped in with quality performances as the tension mounted.
It was a roller coaster three and a half months for the Stags boss, as Stags held on to a promotion place until 30 March, when Stags lost at home to Rushden with 5 games to go. Watkiss told the press that "at the moment we cant play under pressure. I havent come up with a way that can relax them sufficiently that they can go out there and show their undoubted talents. At the end of the day it is down to me as I am the gaffer." Cheltenham Town had always had games in hand and slowly but surely they were catching the Stags up. Then after the next game, Stags were suddenly 4 points adrift of the Gloucestershire side and having played a game more. With just 4 games left, Stags beat Bristol Rovers 2-0 with goals from Adam Murray and Andy White, whilst Cheltenham lost at Macclesfield. Stags were back in it. Watkiss told the media after the game that he had been receiving hate mail as Stags had slipped out of the promotion places: "It seems I have gone from being a good up and coming manager to a complete idiot within two weeks. Its been very hurtful to me and the players, but we are sticking together."
Then came the big showdown as Cheltenham visited Field Mill. On a memorable evening in front of the biggest crowd at Field Mill for 11 years, Stags sneeked a 2-1 win with goals from Greenacre and Andy White, who was quickly turning himself into a hero. But just 4 days later a huge following of fans travelled to York only to see the side throw away a lead from Adam Murray and lose 3-1. It was total despair for Stags fans. Watkiss explained afterwards "weve had 75% of the play, but weve defended appallingly and we keep doing that. I know whats costing us and I will sort it out, but it may be too late for automatic promotion."
Cheltenham could seal automatic promotion with a win in their game in hand at Carlisle on the following Tuesday night. But the Cumbrians did Stags a massive favour by holding out for a 0-0 draw. Watkiss was at that game and told Mansfield 103.2 that he was "ok and more importantly we live to fight another day". He had sat with the Rochdale manager John Hollins who really needed a Carlisle win to keep Rochdales chances alive, and Watkiss explained that "we were holding our hands, holding each others hands, and clutching each other, such was the tension!" Any Stags fans who listened to the commentary on the internet knew exactly how he felt!
Now it came down to the final Saturday: 10th April 2002. Stags had to beat Carlisle at Field Mill whilst Cheltenham had to lose at champions Plymouth. And thats exactly what happened. It was another day that Stags fans will never forget. Both games stood at 2-0 after half an hour and both games remained that way. At the end of the game at Field Mill, boss Watkiss was raised aloft by jubilant Stags fans in sensational scenes. Later on, Watkiss told the ITV Sport Channel that his day had been "Not bad", in one of the understatements of all time. He also told the press that "Sometimes its your day in football and this was certainly ours. You have got to enjoy moments like these as you never know if they are going to come around again. To see the faces of the fans at the final whistle made all the lows of recent weeks worthwhile."
As Stags faced up to their first season back in Division 2 for season 2002/2003, Watkiss was handed a three year extension to his contract as manager. He admitted "There is no doubt that we are going to be outsiders, but I am confident the lads can adapt to Division 2. Im confident in their ability and in my ability to take this club forward. We like to get the ball down and pass it and that is what we are going to strive to do. At the same time, we are well aware that mistakes are going to be punished." As expected, striker Chris Greenacre left for pastures new in pre-season, following his 28 goals in the promotion season. More of a blow was the long-term absence through injury of both full-backs: Bobby Hassell, who had been player of the season, and Allen Tankard. Centre-half Les Robinson had been released, and Stags defence looked vulnerable from the very first league game. Stags won it, but still conceded three goals in a 4-3 victory over Plymouth. A 3-2 defeat at Wigan followed, and then Stags led 3-2 at Wycombe before more disastrous defending in the final minute meant an equaliser was conceded. A disastrous league run continued as bitter rivals Chesterfield walked away with an easy 2-0 victory at Field Mill, and then after another defeat at Stockport, Crewe helped themselves to a 5-0 win at Field Mill, in possibly the worst defensive display this writer has ever seen from a Stags team. The run continued as QPR won 4-0 at Field Mill, and then Stags lost 6-1 at Oldham. The sequence of league defeats: 0-5 against Crewe, 0-4 against QPR and 1-6 against Oldham, represented the worst sequence of league thrashings in the clubs history (defined in terms of goal difference, in 3 successive games), beating the previous worst sequence of 0-7, 2-5, 1-4 in 1933. Watkiss was starting to feel the pressure and after the Oldham game, told the press "I am not going to throw in the towel. It is a massive job we have got."
A 3-2 away win at Luton followed and was the first away win since a 4-1 win at Lincoln City in February - a run of 11 away league games without a win. Even in that game, Stags were 3-0 ahead and nearly threw it away with two late goals conceded. Two more defeats followed, but then a 6-1 win over Tranmere signalled hope.
A roller-coaster season continued, as Stags consistently played entertaining attacking football but shipped goals hopelessly. Stags were rooted to the foot of the table, but seemed to be heading towards a morale boosting victory in late November over high-flying Bristol City. Stags led 4-2 after 87 minutes but incredibly still lost the game 5-4. It was devastating. A week later, Stags travelled to Port Vale and took the lead within 25 seconds. Vale had only scored once in five games, but rattled in four goals to win 4-2. It turned out to be the final straw. Immediately after the game, Watkiss said: "I will continue to do the job until told otherwise. If the chairman feels there is somebody out there who can do a better job that is a decision for him to take. The players have to be man enough to say they are not doing what they should be."
But just two days later, on 2nd December 2002, Mansfield Town announced that they had parted company with Watkiss, and assistant Neil Richardson. There was confusion over whether he had been sacked or whether it was mutual consent.
Watkisss record as Stags manager showed that his teams had conceded 96 goals in 45 games:
Stuart Watkiss record as Stags manager:
|2002/03 Cup (*)||3||1||0||2||5||9||3|
|Footnote (*) = equivalent points|
Stags chairman Keith Haslam tried to clear up the confusion as to whether Watkiss had been sacked saying: "Stuart said that he couldnt walk away without any sort of financial compensation, which I could understand. But we were not in a position to sack him because he still had two-and-a-half years of a contract left. We agreed on a compromise."
In an interview following his departure, Watkiss told the PFA website: "The first thing I did was to re-introduce myself to the wife and kids! I had been working very long hours, so its been nice to be able to spend more time with them - and Ive also piled up the brownie points by doing plenty of housework! I am hopeful of staying in football in some capacity and I fully believe in my own ability, although I am not too proud or pig-headed to take an assistant managers job or to take on the role of reserve or youth team manager."
We have a lot to be grateful to Stuart Watkiss for. He produced at least ten players who progressed into the first team during his three years in charge of the clubs youth set-up, and then he guided the first team to their first promotion for 10 years. We wish him well for the future.
Photos of Stuart Watkiss:
Below: Watkiss is welcomed to Mansfield by Andy King in 1996. Photo: Evening Post.
Below: In action, on his Stags debut against Exeter in 1996. Photo: Football Post
Below: The Evening Post reports Watkisss retirement in 1998
Below: Watkiss celebrates a goal for his youth team against Wolves in the Midland Floodlit Youth cup in 2000. Photo: Dan Westwell
Below: Watkiss and Dearden cant believe Tankard has missed a late chance at Leicester in January 2002. It was Deardens last game in charge. Photo: CHAD
Below: Watkiss celebrates a crucial win over Scunthorpe in March 2002. Photo: CHAD
Below: Watkiss is held aloft as Stags celebrate promotion in April 2002. Photo: Evening Post
Below: Watkiss looks on in despair in his final game in charge, at Port Vale. Photo: Dan Westwell
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