After two major decisions went against them, Mansfield Town could hold their heads high at the end of Easter Monday’s pulsating 2-2 home draw with runaway leaders Northampton Town.
Stags had gone into this game as clear underdogs but turned in a fantastic first half performance to lead 2-0 at the break in front of the biggest home gate of the season.
But a harsh red card for Jamie McGuire in first half stoppage time and a debatable penalty award to give the Cobblers a way back into the game saw referee Darren Handley change the course of the afternoon and join a lengthy list of officials crossed off the club’s Christmas card list this season.
It was a game you feel Stags would have won with 11 men, but in the end it was a sixth game without victory, two more points dropped and saw the sun set even further on their faint play-off hopes.
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Click HERE to read boss Adam Murray’s thoughts
But what this game did do was offer real hope for next season.
Somehow the Stags still haven’t beaten a side in the top half of the table all season.
But on Monday they more than proved a match for the very best League Two has to offer – a talented Cobblers side that are now 17 League games unbeaten and set to go up next week.
Northampton will know they were very fortunate to preserve that unbeaten record on Monday as Stags stuck to their guns in the face of real adversity.
As Storm Karen blew across the area, it needed another minor miracle from the ground staff to get the game on at all.
Conditions were horrible with gusts of wind and intermittent showers, but with the away end sold out, the game enjoyed an electric atmosphere and proved a thriller.
Stags made a confident start and were rewarded with an unexpected 2-0 lead inside 16 minutes.
Chris Clements had already come close with a free kick before Matt Green stole in with a powerful header to bury a superb right wing free kick off the trusty left peg of Mal Benning on 11 minutes.
Green looked back to his very best on Monday and within five minutes had taken his season’s tally to 14 after getting a head onto a long Clements free kick from wide on the left to beat Adam Smith a second time.
Despite having to make a defensive reshuffle as early as the 23rd minute when Ryan Tafazolli limped off, Stags dominated and had Clements hit the target from 18 yards from Mani Dieseruvwe’s intelligent pull-back from the by-line, it could all have been over on 36 minutes.
The Cobblers were on the ropes and hadn’t even managed a goal attempt until the 44th minute when Danny Rose shot over.
But the game exploded in the fourth of five added minutes as the recalled McGuire was sent off for a second bookable offence.
He had been cautioned for a clash with Marc Richards on 24 minutes with Northampton claiming he had thrown an elbow.
John Marquis was lucky not to be booked in that after a violent shove on McGuire, designed to draw retaliation.
But, while McGuire’s challenge on Marquis in stoppage time might have been a foul, it was never a bookable offence and the anger of the home fans and management was justified.
Straight after that Scott Shearer finally had his first save to make as he tipped a Zander Diamond header over.
It felt like the longest 45 minutes of the season lay ahead, and there was a let-off on 58 minutes when lively sub Ricky Holmes saw a long range shot hit the bar and come down, but fail to cross the line.
Frustrated Northampton needed a way back into the game, and it came on 64 minutes when the referee decided Krystian Pearce had brought down James Collins and gave a penalty.
Stags claimed Pearce was letting the ball run through and Collins had bounced into him. Either way he went down very easily and it looked harsh.
On this occasion Shearer could not produce more spot kick save heroics as Holmes rammed the ball home.
Within five minutes Northampton were level as Shearer failed to claim a corner under pressure and Marquis slammed the loose ball in from close range.
At that stage you feared for the home side, but to a man they gave everything they had and, with boss Adam Murray making tweaks to the shape, dug in for a thrilling finish in which both sides had chances to win it.
The players were rightly applauded off while the officials, as at half-time, were booed off.
Northampton won few friends on the day with their theatrical dives and rolling around in mock agony only to jump up seconds later, though Jack Thomas could have been sent off for a dive, having been booked too.
Still eight points short of the top seven with just seven games to play, the table suggests Stags will be playing League Two football again next season.
But Murray’s men showed on Monday that they have the basis of a talented squad that, with the right additions, can cause serious ripples next time around.