Adam Murray’s new, young side took another big step forward in their development this season when they held Plymouth Argyle’s high-flyers to a 0-0 draw at One Call Stadium on Saturday.
Stags’ defiance denied the Pilgrims the chance to go top of the table and rightly earned them warm applause from home fans at the end.
Plymouth had won three of their four away League games – and you see why as they knocked the ball about with aplomb, showing good movement and swift, crisp passing.
It was attractive to watch and stretched Murray’s men in all directions as they struggled to gain some possession and create problems of their own.
In the end the two defences ended up honours even with the home rearguard by far the more overworked, but Mansfield preserving their unbeaten home record for the season.
The Pilgrims had won three of their four away League games and sat third, so were always going to provide a stiff test.
They created most of the best chances with Brian Jensen winning a personal duel with Graham Carey, denying him three times.
But in front of Jensen, central defensive Krystian Pearce and Ryan Tafazolli were simply outstanding with Pearce having his best game since joining in the summer.
It was telling that Argyle withdrew highly-rated striker Reuben Reid on 65 minutes, his one real chance having come after only five minutes when he showed his qualities by pulling away at the far post to meet a Peter Hartley cross with a rasping 16-yard volley that dipped against the crossbar with Jensen helpless.
On the day Mansfield were missing the services of midfield star Chris Clements, with injury, and right back and skipper Nicky Hunt, with suspension.
Although replacements Jack Thomas and Lee Collins, making his full league debut for Stags, gave their all – you could tell they were short on match action this season.
Thomas raced around and get involved but didn’t stamp his authority on the midfield like he can while Collins, a centre half by trade, had a torrid first half before growing into the game after the break.
It was his mistake at the near post that let the ball run to Carey for his first chance on eight minutes, Jensen there to get him off the hook.
It was all Plymouth for the first 20-30 minutes and Ryan Brunt really should have buried a header that bounced wide of the far post from close range on 19 minutes.
However, Mansfield slowly but surely began to enjoy some forward play of their own and former Arygle winger Nathan Thomas came very close on 37 minutes as he drilled a low shot across the face of goal, Craig Westcarr also shooting wide in stoppage time.
Carey twice tried to beat Jensen at his near post with free kicks soon after the break, the second a cheeky attempt from tight on the right by-line, but ‘The Beast’ showed his agility to get down to both and block.
Carey pulled another low shot wide from a good central position and Peter Hartley saw a long cross from the right bounce off the top of the far angle as the visitors continued to flood forwards and there was also a big shout for a penalty as Josh Simpson’s cross was blocked by the flailing arm of Pearce, though the defender had thrown himself in the way of the ball and had his back to it when it struck him.
Twice in two minutes Adam Chapman almost carved out a winner for Mansfield. On 64 minutes he sent Mitch Rose through for Stags’ clearest chance, Luke McCormick saving well, then he lofted a pass forward for Matt Green that bounced kindly off Hartley’s attempt to clear, Green chipping the ball just wide into the sidenetting.
Three times in the second half, Murray made positive changes to the side and line-up as he went for the win by throwing on Adi Yussuf, Reggie Lambe and Matty Blair.
The biggest home cheer of the afternoon came when Blair took the the field on 78 minutes, eight months after his serious knee injury. And he almost provided the key to unlock the Plymouth defence as he got to the right by-line and drilled in a low cross that Yussuf turned wide.
It was frustrating that the ball wouldn’t go in, but Stags still ended the game with a creditable clean sheet against a very strong Plymouth side and now only Wycombe have conceded fewer, Mansfield having let in just six goals in their nine games so far.
Murray always said that a solid defence would be the foundation for the season. He now seems to have that. So if Green and Co can start finding the net on a more regular basis for him, we could be in for a very interesting campaign.
The only worry is that, again, Stags failed to attract back the stayaway fans with less than 2,800 home fans in the ground.
At some stage, particularly by mid-season, the board will want to know how much they should invest if they feel they have the backing of the town.
This young side is probably over-achieving so early in the season and certainly deserves more people watching it right now. Maybe a couple of back-to-back wins would help matters?
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