DEPLETED Mansfield Town gallantly held high-flying Luton Town to a goalless draw as the Hatters failed in their FA Trophy revenge mission at Field Mill this afternoon, reports John Lomas.
With a long list of injuries, added to after only 34 minutes with talented young defender Tom Naylor limping off, Stags looked to be sitting ducks for big-spending visitors determined to gain some revenge for Mansfield’s unexpected two-legged semi-final success.
But Mansfield, who had already played twice in the previous four days, dug deep into their reserves of strength and guts to frustrate the play-off bound Hatters with on-loan keeper David Grof again outstanding with a string of saves.
Not surprisingly, visiting keeper Mark Tyler didn’t have an on-target shot to save all game as Stags soaked up everything Luton could throw at them, with debt-making defender Mark Preece impressive after replacing Naylor.
Naylor’s injury was deemed to be a tight hamstring and fatigue and early suggestions were that he would be fine for Wembley.
And Stags, so often under fire from the home fans in recent weeks, were rightly warmly applauded off the field for their superb efforts.
Mansfield made two changes, both enforced, as Higginson replaced the injured Luke Medley up front while Istead came into central midfield with Adam Murray not permitted to play under the terms of his move from Luton earlier this season.
Before the game Mansfield chairman John Radford addressed the crowd, thanking them for buying Wembley tickets in such good numbers.
Gnapka needed treatment in the opening seconds after a thunderous tackle by Naylor.
Luton had the first chance to cause problems with a Howells free kick on the right but it was launched far too long and went out harmlessly for a goal kick.
Hesitation by Naylor when he should have headed the ball back to Grof on 10 minutes saw Morgan-Smith steam the ball only for Silk to quickly retrieve the situation and block off the striker’s route to goal.
Five minutes Naylor slipped as he went to challenge Morgan-Smith, allowing the striker to nip past him. However, Grof was smartly forward to dive on the ball before Morgan-Smith could get in a finish.
Gnapka did well on the right, going past Stonehouse and crossing towards the far post where the ball passed just in front of Walker.
Stonehouse had luck as he overran the ball down the left but saw it hit the corner flag as Luton switched off for the goalkick and retrieve the ball. But Gleeson was alive to it as he dived in to block the full back’s shot.
Luton broke well and Grof had to leave his box to kick away ahead of Walker.
Then on 22 minutes Foster headed a left wing cross straight to Lawless who saw Grof keep out his sidefooted finish with his legs.
The Hatters easily cleared Mansfield’s first corner as the first side struggled to make any inroads into the Luton defence.
Grof made another great save to keep out a close range Walker header not knowing the striker had been flagged offside from Gleeson’s cross.
But there was agony for Stags on 33 minutes as top defender Naylor pulled up with a hamstring problem just three weeks from the FA Trophy final at Wembley.
That saw Preece finally make his debut for Stags following his summer siging as he replaced the youngster on 34 minutes.
Lawless tested Grof from 20 yards with a low shot but the keeper was well-placed to gather.
An inviting Lawless cross to the far post saw Walker put a free header into the sidenetting from a tight angle.
The home side enjoyed their best spell of the game in the last 10 minutes of the half but couldn’t find a way through to test Tyler as the half ended 0-0.
Barnes-Homer replaced Morgan-Smith up front for the visitors for the second half.
And within three minutes he tested Grof from a cutting Lawless pass down the centre that offered a shot which Grof beat away, diving to his right.
Two minutes later Gnapka found himself with a shooting chance in a central position, and, despite Foster steaming in to challenge, the Frenchman got away a low shot which Grof again was equal to, Gnapka and Foster staying down for treatment.
An Istead block saw the ball spun forward to give Mitchley an unexpected run at goal but, after an eternity and the striker taking the ball to the edge of the box, an incredibly late offside flag went up.
Gnapka could not shake his knock off and was replaced by Willmot on 53 minutes.
Nix was booked for an innocuous foul on Walker on 57 minutes, but Higginson hooked the free kick clear.
Luton continued to press and when Grof was pulled to the left of his goal but unable to take the ball off Walker, the Luton man put the ball across the unguarded goal but just too high for the towering Kroca to be able to keep his header down and it sailed over the bar.
Stags made a change on 58 minutes as Smith was went on for Mitchley, Briscoe pushing up front and Smith going wide.
The winger made an immediate impact, at the heart of the home side’s attacks and unlucky with a low pull-back being cleared after getting to the by-line with some typical wizardry.
Another harsh yellow card was shown on 71 minutes for a trip by Higginson.
Grof was there again on 73 minutes as a long throw was cleared to Barnes-Homer who low snapshot was kept out by the shins of Grof.
Three minutes later Willmott came in from the right and shot low but once again the Hungarian keeper was down low to beat the effort away.
Higginson’s 77th minute swerving shot from 25 yards was the home side’s first goal attempt. Tyler was behind it all the way but it would have gone wide anyway.
Willmott was added to the notebook for bringing down Smith 10 minutes from time, the players squaring up angrily afterwards.
Briscoe sliced well wide from 30 yards as the minutes ticked away.
Grof’s legs were again in the way as Lawless poked a low effort on target on 86 minutes and, as Mansfield broke away, Keane took out Higginson from behind to become booking number four of the afternoon.
Four minutes were added at the end and in that time Walker flicked a header just over from a Howells left wing cross.
Even deeper into added time, Stags won a right wing corner which was overhit by Nix seconds before a huge roar greeted the final whistle.
STAGS: Grof; Silk, Foster, Naylor (Preece 34), Stonehouse; Cain, Istead, Nix, Briscoe; Mitchley (Smith 58), Highinson. Subs not used: Collet, Thompson, Spence.
LUTON: Tyler; Gleeson, G. Pilkington, Kroca, Murray; Gnapka (Willmott 53), Lawless, Keane, Howells; Morgan-Smith (Barnes Homer h/t), Walker. Subs not used: K. Pilkington, Newton, Carden.
REFEREE: Seb Stockbridge of Tyne and Wear.
ATTENDANCE: 2,203(424 away).
CAUTIONS: Stags – Nix 53mins, Higinson 71mins. Luton – Willmott 80mins, Keane 86mins.
CHAD STAGS MAN OF THE MATCH: David Grof