Mansfield Town’s brave season-long chase for the play-offs ended in disappointment on Saturday as seventh place finally went beyond them with two games to go.
Indeed, their efforts ended on something of a whimper and not a bang as they were held 1-1 at home by mid-table Barnet with a tired performance that saw some wayward finishing.
But the Stags can still go into summer on a high with their highest League finish for many years and keep optimism bubbling for next year.
After last year’s escape from the drop, the bookies, and probably few fans, thought Mansfield would be in the play-off running for so long this time around.
Boss Adam Murray has worked minor wonders on a tight budget and remains convinced success is round the corner.
The biggest problem for the club is that many of the Mansfield public don’t seem to care.
Stags rightly drew in over 4,600 of their own fans for the local derby with Notts County the weekend before.
Mansfield then went on to pull off a superb 3-2 away win at Exeter City in midweek to keep them in the play-off reckoning. That was three wins in a row, scoring 10 goals.
So, with the club looking at how much they can or able to budget for next season’s push, how disappointing it was to see less than 2,500 return on Saturday for the must-win game with Barnet.
Sadly the stayways didn’t miss too much, apart from a first League goal for Chesterfield loanee Mani Dieseruvwe.
The afternoon was hard work from start to finish against a confident, in-form and physical Bees side who defended well, broke quickly and wasted as much time as possible in between.
Everyone knew pre-match about the threat of Barnet’s big 19-goal striker John Akinkde, yet he was gifted his 20th goal after just six minutes.
Ryan Tafazolli allowed him to get away from him as he chased Michael Gash’s long, high forward ball and keeper Scott Shearer hesitated and allowed himself to be caught in no man’s land as Akinde nodded over him into the empty net.
Former Alfreton hitman Akinde was a handful all afternoon and looks to be exactly the sort of physical presence up front Stags could have done with this campaign.
The jury remains out on the inexperienced Dieseruvwe, but he did show his potential with a terrific finish for the equaliser on the half-hour.
He had a little luck as his first touch fell nicely to Matty Blair, who did well to get to the left by-line and pull back a low pass.
But the finish was quality as Dieseruvwe made space for a powerful, curling finish high into the right of the net, hoping he has done enough to earn a deal next season.
With the crowd behind them, Mansfield were now finally starting to tick and when Jack Thomas headed a Blair cross back in front of goal two minutes later Matt Green should have put them ahead but sent his header over from four yards.
Adam Chapman, who won man of the match with a hard-working display as holding midfielder, might have crowned it with a goal, but powered a header across goal and wide from a Lee Collins cross.
Stags were delighted to see Bees’ long throw expert Sam Muggleton – son of ex-Stags keeper Carl - substituted 10 minutes into the second half.
But on came the diminutive Luke Gambin, who really livened up their attack and twice forced good saves out of Shearer.
Green had a couple of other chances, sending a header wide and lobbing into the sidenetting, while Jamie Stephens turned a powerful Chapman free kick over and pushed away a shot from sub Reggie Lambe.
The draw was the right result in the end, though Barnet might have stolen in when Bondz N’gala stole in to beat Tafazolli at a corner and guide a six yard header wide.
With AFC Wimbledon winning, the whistle meant Stags could no longer overtake them into seventh with Mansfield knowing that it was a seven-game run without a win in and around the month of March that did for them in the end.
Only the fact they had been in the thick of it for so long left a taste of disappointment on Saturday night as Stags’ achievements this season should be celebrated.
Murray immediately challenged his men to finish eighth with two tough games to go.
After the game the experienced and charismatic Barnet boss Martin Allen said he saw Murray as a young manager to really look out for.
Most Stags fans will back that view and, despite the end of the play-offs trail, the club couldn’t be in better hands right now and maybe Murray will give fans a taste of the future by blooding a youngster or two in the final two games ahead of what should be an exciting summer.