Old friends will be reunited as Luton Town take on Mansfield at Field Mill on Sunday, writes Mark Wood.
Struggling Stags had been one of the pre-season favourites for the Conference title, but have failed to live up to their billing, sitting 10th in the league, seven points behind the Hatters with a game in hand. But they have been in great form at home, winning six, drawing two and losing just once.
Mansfield stole Town skipper George Pilkington and young midfielder Godfrey Poku away from the Hatters in the summer, while also acquiring former Luton player Jamie Hand.
But none of them have settled at Mansfield with Poku having been loaned out to Southport and Hand to Conference South outfit Eastleigh, while Pilkington is out of favour with the Stags management, which includes former Town midfielder Adam Murray.
Buckle said: “I’ve been so busy I haven’t really had a lot of time to focus on Godfrey or George.
“I wished them all all the best when they moved on from Luton.
“Both terrific lads, good lads, good players and they are at a different club now with a different challenge and I’ve not seen enough of them or Mansfield to make any sort of comment on how they’ve done or not done.”
Buckle admitted he had been disappointed to see skipper Pilkington lured away in the summer, but still had a lot of time for him.
He said: “I was disappointed that George ended up going, but I was happy for him because he got a good deal and he deserves a good deal.
“It was a case last year when I came in of looking at players’ ages, looking at what they can bring and what they can’t bring and he was definitely somebody I wanted to keep at the club.
“But the one thing with George and we were both transparent with each other and I was totally honest with him and I wanted him to think long and hard about the offer that we made him and the role I wanted him to take this season.
“Because I didn’t feel George was going to play 46 games. I had an honest chat with him and he agreed. We wanted to structure a contract around that and George understood that.
“He’s a really good man, a top guy, I loved working with him and I was as gutted for him as anyone that we didn’t do it (win promotion) last year while he was part of us.”
Former midfielder Murray is assistant coach with the Stags, and Buckle believes Mansfield have plenty of players to choose from for the encounter.
He said: “He’s got good experience and they are a big club and they’ve got a lot of good players.
“You look at their team, or their squad they’ve brought a lot of good players to the club.
“I’m sure they’ll be looking to put a run together and I’m sure they’ll be looking to stay in the pack because there is a pack at the top of the league.
“No-one’s running away with the league this year.
“So it is all to play for and I’m just so pleased we put it right the other night (against Nuneaton).
“It was a big game for us. It was a game where we wanted to put a lot of things right and the players came up trumps.
“They showed tremendous character to go away to a difficult place and, like I said there, to keep a clean sheet was the real big thing for us.
“We’ve not kept enough clean sheets this season and that’s what everything’s built on the last three or four days.”
Mansfield will however be missing influential defender John Dempster who was sent off as the Stags overcame Slough on penalties in Tuesday night’s FA Cup replay.
Buckle said: “I think Dempster’s been a real strength for them.
“I think since he’s come back in they’ve picked up some good results and he’s an experienced player so I’m sure he’ll be missed. They’ve got a big enough squad to replace him I’m sure.”
Mansfield had been one of the pre-season favourites, but Buckle doesn’t want to write off anybody too early in what has proved a topsy-turvy division so far.
He continued: “I’m reluctant to talk about them in terms of struggling, I don’t know enough about them to be honest. Yes they are a big club, as we are, and I’m sure they would have wanted to have started their season better.
“But at the same time the league is very tight and there are enough games left for everybody to make a real challenge.
“I would rather concentrate on my team. I started doing that straight after the Dartford game last Saturday and I feel we got out rewards on Tuesday night from having a real honest few days.
“Getting back on track, not only from a really good win but also a good clean sheet.”
On the importance of Sunday’s game, he said: “I think they all are, they’re important.
“If you’re sitting at the top of the league or sitting at the bottom of the league you’re probably saying the same things.
“I said a week or so ago I think the division will sort itself out come the new year.
“I think Christmas is always a big thing. There’s so many games in quick succession and so many points and so many points can be picked up.
“And I think anyone would be foolish to try and call now what’s going to happen because it’s been such an up and down league, it really has.
“And I think a lot of people are talking about it. A lot of people are wondering who’s going to pull away and at the moment no-one’s pulled away.
“So everyone’s got a chance and we’re included in that.”
He didn’t think either club’s FA Cup exertions would have any real bearing either, saying: “I would imagine they would be a lot happier having gone through on penalties rather than having come back without being in the hat.
“I don’t think it will make a lot of difference. I think players are feeling strong these days and I’m sure they’ve got enough players to choose from when we go there.”
Mansfield may boast an excellent home record, but the Hatters have been in stellar form on the road and Buckle is expecting both teams to push for victory.
“I’m sure they’ll want to try and win this game,” he said. “I think in this league we know how important the home form is because it’s tough going away.
“But it’s sort of been in reverse for us, we’ve done ever so well away from home, eight wins out of 11 is a fantastic return from the players.
“So we’ve showed we’ve got a real steel about us because I think that was something that was possibly lacking last year.
“I think we’ve either equalled or surpassed what we done away from home last year.
“I’m very pleased with that, but we’ve got another tough challenge away from home, they’re a big strong physical side and we’ll be challenge again.”
On why Town have been so good on their travels, Buckle continued: “I think we’ve got the right players at the club.
“I massively believe we’ve got the right footballers at the club in terms of their mentality.
“If you go away form home and you’re weak and you’re not up for the fight, at this level especially, you’ll be rolled over.
“And I don’t think we’ve been rolled over, I think we’ve gone on the road, and yeah it’s impossible to win every game, but we’ve gone on the road this season and to take eight wins out of 11 has been a fantastic return and it’s something that shows where we’re at as a club.
“I think we’ve got the right mentality of player to the club, we’re willing to go and work and do the nasty side and it will be no different Sunday because it’s two teams I feel will go for the win.”
Buckle though is, as always, concentrating on his own team and is looking to get his team more balanced.
He added: “Again I always like to concentrate on our team and our performance levels and our results have been good by and large.
“Certainly I felt again Hereford we were very unfortunate the more I look at that game. The players gave everything to try and win the game.
“We know we were off the pace at home, we’ve accepted that and moved on.
“I’m looking for the right balance in the team. I’m looking for it, I take full responsibility when we get beat or draw or whatever and the players take full responsibility.
“That’s the ethos I’ve created at the football club, there’s no blame culture.
“It’s a case of whichever player plays. Obviously it helps if he’s 6ft plus but you’ve to have a willingness to put your head in where it hurts if you are going to win something.
“If you get your foot in, get your foot stuck in. Now we done that the other night and got our rewards.
“We didn’t do it at home and we maybe felt we could just go out and play at home. We can’t do it.
“It gives me the opportunity when we play a more aggressive team, you might see a different approach from us next time we play at home.”