JUST when it seemed strugglers Nuneaton Town were going to deny Mansfield Town two precious points in their chase for the title, up popped sub Louis Briscoe with what could prove his most important goal of the season at the One Call Stadium tonight.
Briscoe had only been on the field for five minutes when his deflected free kick finally broke the stubborn resistance of Nuneaton to extend Stags’ new club record winning streak to 10.
The win takes the Yellows to within a point of leaders Kidderminster with three games in hand.
On a dreadful surface, surrounded by piles of snow, Stags laboured long and hard in a game which had survived two earlier pitch inspections.
In the first half they twice hit the woodwork and wasted a string of chances with keeper Lee Burge in fine form.
The frustration continued after the break, especially after sub Matt Rhead won a penalty within three minutes of coming on, only to see Matt Green’s kick saved.
But, just when Mansfield must have thought it wasn’t to be their night, Briscoe finally ended the agony soon after as Stags made it a magnificent 14 wins in 15 games and set themselves up for Easter games at Tamworth on Saturday and at home to Gateshead on Monday.
Stags skipper and assistant manager Adam Murray once again went through the pain barrier as he elected to play, despite looking likely to miss out with an ankle injury picked up in training.
With one eye on a home clash with Woking 48 hours later, Nuneaton, who had only lost once in eight games, decided to rest six of their expected starting XI as winter continued to bite throughout the division.
Stevenson put Stags onto an immediate attack when he caught McNamee in possession and forced a corner inside 20 seconds. That was headed out for a second, taken by Jennings, which saw Jones head against the crossbar with two minutes not elapsed.
Jones was then caught out when the ball lost all momentum in the sand and McNamee tried to break into the box, Jennings doing a superb covering job.
The visitors then won a fifth minute corner of their own which Stags cleared at the second attempt.
A long Chapman throw reached Stevenson who, from 12 yards out, dipped a header just over.
The home side came so close again on 10 minutes as Beevers’ searching ball down the right set Green off on a run to the by-line. His cross was over the keeper and hung tantalisingly for Daniel who, under pressure, was unable to guide his final header into the empty net.
Former Stags loanee Moult was too high with a central 25 yard free kick after Beevers had caught Walker very late, no card shown.
A mazy run by Cartwright carried him into a shooting position, but his finish lacked conviction and was easy for Marriott.
Stevenson put Green to the by-line for another cross towards Daniel who again failed to get his header on target.
On 26 minutes Stags again hit the woodwork. Jennings’ corner was headed goalwards by Jones where the ball bounced back towards Green, saw saw his first shot hit the foot of the post and keeper Burge smother his close-range follow-up.
Burge also did well to race towards Meikle, as he latched onto a superb Chapman through ball and try to stab it past the advancing keeper, Burge getting his body in the way.
Nuneaton defended two more home corners before wasting a good chance to break into the home box from the second with a loose pass.
Stevenson’s looping header only just missed the target from a Beevers cross as Stags continued to chip away patiently at the visiting defence.
Burge was again the hero on 36 minutes as Daniel put Green away from the halfway line, the striker steaming into the box only to see Burge spread himself, the ball strike his body and fly up and onto the roof of the empty net.
Three minutes later Marriott had to make sure he was behind a low 20 yard drive from Dance.
Green missed another one-on-one three minutes from the break as Murray sent him clear. This time he got into the box but, with only Burge to beat, he dallied too long and allowed Gordon to hook round a leg and rob him. The ball ran to Meikle who sent it low in front of goal where Green again got a touch only to see it deflect narrowly wide of the far post.
McNamee was booked for hacking down Green as he tried to run clear in stoppage time, Chapman too high with the free kick as the half somehow ended goalless.
Home supporters tried to rally the troops with increased noise as the game restarted, a Stevenson cross immediately eluding Daniel right in front of goal.
But Marriott did have to stick out a leg to tackle Walker as he ran onto a Moult pass in the box.
There was a heartstopping moment on 54 minutes as Cartwright’s 20 yard shot took a deflection, wrong-footing Marriott, who was happy to see the ball fly over the bar.
Mansfield then suffered a blow on 57 minutes when Jennings had to come off injured, Sutton making up the 11 two minutes later.
The change seemed to unset the home side’s rhythm and Nuneaton enjoyed a worrying spell of pressure.
After Jones had headed a long Chapman throw over on 62 minutes, Stags sent on Rhead and Briscoe for Daniel and Stevenson.
A bizarre mistake by Burge then almost gifted Mansfield an opener as he let a through ball somehow bounce past him and inches wide.
On 65 minutes Stags then wasted the best chance of the night from the spot.
Cowan was booked for his foul on Rhead in the box, but Burge guessed correctly as he went to his right to block Green’s spot kick.
Soon after Burge spilled a Meikle centre and Cowan had to hook of the goalline as the agony went on.
But we didn’t have to wait long as sub Briscoe made the breakthrough with the aid of a bit of much-needed luck.
Taking control of a central free kick 25 yards from goal, Briscoe drilled the ball hard and low and it took a deflection off the wall which left Burge stranded.
But Marriott quickly had to get in the way of a Walker volley from a half-cleared throw as Nuneaton looked for a quick reply.
Then Briscoe seemed to get away with a handball as he laid a pass to Green in the box which saw Burge make a great save from Green.
Green did help a long ball into the net with five minutes to go but an offside flag was already up as he ended a busy night without a goal.
But that mattered little as Stags safely got to the end of three added minutes to complete a very hard-earned victory which will have delighted the army of fans who cleared the pitch of snow over two days.