Mansfield Town’s eight-game unbeaten run was halted in defeat in the big top versus third showdown at leaders Fleetwood Town this afternoon.
In boiling temperatures at Highbury Stadium and backed by a magnificent, noisy away following, Stags gave as good as they got in a tight first half with Mansfield controlling the first 20 minutes before keeper Alan Marriott had to produce two fine saves to keep out the hosts as they finally woke up.
But the classy Cod Army broke through with a goal from full back Shaun Beeley five minutes into the second half.
And when Jamie Vardy bagged his 28th goal of the season just two minutes after being introduced as a 61st minute sub, it left Stags with a mountain too steep to climb against a side that has now gone 25 league matches without defeat.
And, with Wrexham beaten by Forest Green, it was a massive result in the Cod army’s challenge for the title.
The afternoon began with e minute’s applause for the late Fleetwood junior coach Rob Wilkinson, who has died aged only 19.
The huge Stags following made it sound like a home game with all the noise coming from behind Marriott’s goal at kick-off.
An untidy first seven minutes saw Stags create the first half-chance as Dyer headed on a long Marriott clearance and Green ran onto it before firing a powerful shot at goal from a difficult angle that Davies parried and was lucky the incoming Meikle could not get a decent contact on it as it bounced badly for him.
Then Roberts picked out Dyer for a far post header into the centre which was cleared to O’Neill who, with a shooting chance begging, fired into the sidenetting.
Stags won a corner on the right which was cleared out to Murray whose rasping 35-yarder took Davies by surprise and he clumsily parried it up and over.
Roberts was lectured by the referee after bringing down Seddon in full flight, but no card was produced to the disgust of the home fans.
Mansfield continued to make the running and Howell had a shot blocked just inside the home box.
On 15 minutes Green almost made the breakthrough. Howell nodded a down a far post O’Neil cross for Green six yards out who just couldn’t get over his stretched finish as the ball spooned up and over the bar.
On 19 minutes the Cod Army carved out their first chance as Cavanagh floated the ball high into the box and McGuire rose highest to send a looping header over Marriott but also over the bar.
He probably should have done better and, after all Stags’ pressure, it served as a warning of the home side’s abilities.
All of a sudden Fleetwood had their tails up and Marriott came up with a stunning save to preserve the parity on 22 minutes.
Goodall sent in a corner which Pond met hard and true with a header that Marriott just managed to turn up and against the bar.
Three more corners quickly followed and, from the second of those, the ball came back to Goodall, who swapped passes with Seddon to burst into the box but, faced with just the keeper to beat, Marriott again did the business as he spread himself well to block.
Ther home side enjoyed a spell of keep-ball, but Mansfield stood their ground in the sweltering sunshine and the possession ended with an offside flag.
On 32 minutes Fowler’s brilliant cutting pass down the left put Goodall into space. He then whipped in a low cross in front of goal which McGuire just failed to reach as he slid in trying to turn it home.
Having survived Fleetwood’s onslaught well, Stags began to enjoy some possession of their own to the cheers of the travelling fans.
Both sides made half-hearted appeals for penalties just before the break. But Stags went in all square at half-time, and deservedly so.
Fleetwood almost made an explosive start to the second half as Mangan played a one-two with Till to get into the right of the box but blazed into the sidenetting.
In response Roberts tried to get Dyer away on the right of the box, but his low attempt lacked direction and passed across the box to stay in play.
Stags won a throw near the right corner flag for Geohaghon to send in a long throw on 50 minutes.
But, when that was cleared, Fleetwood broke quickly to steal the lead.
Goodall carried the ball down the left before flicking a fantastic ball inside to free Cavanagh.
Beeley ran on well outside him and the through ball was perfect to cue him up for a finish slotted between Marriott’s legs.
McGuire was screaming for a penalty three minutes later, but Geohaghon had clearly won the ball to concede a corner which Seddon, from a tight angle, headed inches over the bar.
On 56 minutes Dyer almost levelled from a Meikle through ball, but he blasted into the sidenetting when he should have hit the target.
Another good run from full back Beeley saw him set up McGuire for a first time curling effort over the angle from 20 yards.
As if to underline their superior firepower, Fleetwood made a big statement on 61 minutes when they brought on goal aces Vardy and Brodie for Till and Seddon.
Stags’ response was to introduce Briscoe for Meikle as they stuck with the 4-3-3 line-up.
But the deadly Vardy quickly showed his goalscoring prowess as he found the net within two minutes.
The ball initially broke kindly for Goodall on the left, but his low curling cross away from goal was perfection and Vardy popped up to expertly turn home from close range for number 28 of the season.
Briscoe was high and wild with his first shot just before Rhead replaced Murray as Stags finally went 4-4-2.
Geohaghon did well to stick with the pacy Vardy and rob him to the right of the box.
Andrew was given a run at left back in place of Sutton for the last 17 minutes.
Andrew quickly saw the game’s first yellow card for his late, sliding challenge on Beeley.
On 83 minutes Stags worked keeper Davies as Rhead nodded an O’Neill corner back into the middle where Geohaghon’s header was on target but a comfy take for Davies.
Then Rhead had a volleyed effort deflect wide for a late corner.
But there was to be no consolation for Mansfield to at least give their superb following something to cheer by the seaside
FLEETWOOD: Davies, Beeley, McNulty, Pond, Till (Vardy 61), Goodall, Mangan, McGuire, Seddon (Brodie 61), Cavanagh, Fowler. Subs not used: Vieira, Charnock Stevenson.
STAGS: Marriott; O’Neill, Geohaghon, Riley, Sutton (Andrew 73); Howell, Roberts, Murray (Rhead 70); Dyer, Green, Meikle (Briscoe 62). Subs not used: Redmond, Worthington.
REFEREE: Scott Duncan of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
ATTENDANCE: 3,106 (480).
CAUTION: Stags – Andrew 78mins (foul).
CHAD STAGS MAN OF THE MATCH: Martin Riley.