EVERY football fan remembers Newcastle United’s famous capitulation in the 1995/96 season which cost them the Premier League title at the hands of Manchester United.
Few fans, however, will remember an equally catastrophic collapse by Mansfield Town 23 seasons earlier which saw the Field Mill club miss out on promotion from the old Division Four on the last day of the season.
Mansfield had topped the table from day one until a 0-0 draw at home to Doncaster Rovers on 30th December saw them slip from top spot for the first time that season.
But Stags still remained in the promotion places despite three successive away defeats at Exeter, Bury and Peterborough and a home point against Hereford United.
Struggling Mansfield, who had been relegated from Division Three the previous season, then rallied to pick up five wins out of their next seven games, and as the season drew to a close the club’s promotion bid looked like it would end in success.
But a disasterous string of results saw Stags win just two of their next nine games to leave them languishing outside the promotion places and needing victory against Cambridge United to avert disaster.
Stags took an early grip on the game against a United side, who sat one place and point above them in the table and also needed victory to satisfy their own promotion ambitions.
Jim McAffrey smacked an effort against the post after just 12 minutes, with Dave Thompson pouncing to fire home the rebound.
But, as Stags prepared to celebrate, referee Jack Taylor, who went on to referee the 1974 World Cup final between West Germany and Holland, cut short the joy and wiped the goal out for offisde.
Mansfield continued to push forward as the tension amongst the crowd grew. And they took a richly deserved lead in the 27th minute after a bursting run by former Leicester City man Paul Matthews beat two defenders before unleashing a powerful shot which United goalkeeper Peter Vasper could only parry.
Tricky outside left Jim McAffrey, who went on to win the Division Four title in 1975 and the Division Three title in 1977 with Mansfield, then raced in to put Danny Williams’ Mansfield side into the lead with a well placed header.
But all their good work was undone just four minutes later when the visitors conceded a sloppy free-kick just outside the penalty area close to the right touchline.
Skipper Terry Eccles’ free-kick was only partially cleared and Ron Walton found himself with the time and space to slot his shot just past Arnold’s right hand to level the contest.
With two minutes left in the half Stags once again hit the front as the memorable promotion battle began to really hot up.
Again it was the ever lively McAffrey, who won England youth international honours during his time at Nottingham Forest, who was at the heart of the danger.
He chased a loose ball out to the right before delivering the perfect cross for Dudley Roberts to restore Stags’ crucial lead.
But that was to be as good as it got for Mansfield as they once again switched off at the back to allow the hosts back into the contest just moments later.
In first half stoppage time, which had been created after Rod Arnold was clattered heavily by winger Ron Walton in the opening 60 seconds, Cambridge bagged their second after confusion in the Mansfield penalty box.
Arnold appeared to have been fouled as he attempted to punch clear, but he sent the ball straight to Ross who chipped back into the empty net as Sandy Pate retreated to the goal-line.
With Arnold out of position, the Scottish defender was left with little option but to punch the ball over the bar and concede a penalty.
Ross made no mistake from 12 yards as he sent Arnold the wrong way.
It was Cambridge, roared on by the club’s first ever five-figure gate in the Football League, who showed the extra desire and fight to earn Division Three football as they took control of the second half.
Stags survived a scare on 56 minutes when Greenhaigh had a goal ruled out for a clear foul on Arnold.
But five minutes later United bagged the goal which was to wreck once and for all Mansfield’s faltering promotion aspirations.
Greenhaigh found Walton with a beautifully timed through-ball, who showed superb skill to beat two defenders and pick his spot past the helpless Arnold.
Williams hauled off Jarvis to be replaced by John Fairbrother on 67 minutes in a desperate bid to retrieve the bleak situation.
But the switch failed to have the desired impact as United stood firm to deny Stags and secure the final promotion place for themselves.
It was a bitter disappointment for young goalkeeper Rod Arnold, who was in the first of his famous 11 season career at Field Mill.
Rod, who holds the club’s record for appearances at 513, said: “We needed to win to go up and it was a massive game. I got clattered very early in the game just like I did against Wrexham a few seasons later.
“The game was similar to that game really where both teams needed a result.
“We were all massively disappointed to have missed out on promotion. I was young and it was the first time in football I had experienced such a disappointment.
“It was a real downer for us for a long time and felt just like a relegation would.”
But despite the disappointment Arnold believes the result did Stags a lot of good in the long term.
“You have to come back stronger when you are dealt a blow,” he added. “We were very successful in the next few seasons and I guess the result made us stronger and determined not to suffer the same disappointment.”
MANSFIELD TOWN: Arnold, Pate, Walker, Jarvis, Ellis, Bird, Thomspon, Roberts, Wignall, Matthews, McAffrey.