MATCH REPORT: Late heartbreak as Exeter steal stoppage time victory in play-offs battle

Mansfield Town v Exeter.
Shaquile Couthirst puts one in the back of the net only for it to be disallowed.
Mansfield Town v Exeter. Shaquile Couthirst puts one in the back of the net only for it to be disallowed.

Play-off rivals Exeter City broke Mansfield Town hearts with a penalty winner in the seventh added minute as they stole a 2-1 win in a nailbiter at the One Call Stadium this afternoon.

Mal Benning’s first goal of the season on 38 minutes looked enough to win it until Ryan Harley popped up six minutes from time to level.

Even then Ben Whiteman had a low shot saved in stoppage time before Reuben Reid seemed to go down easily in the box under a challenge from Rhys Bennett to win a penalty from which he went Jake Kean the wrong way.

It was a shattering finish for the Stags who are now four points shy of the play-offs in ninth with only six games to go.

They had deserved to lead at the break with Mal Benning’s first goal of the season and Danny Rose also headed against the bar.

But Exeter raised their game in the second half, finally had a shot on target after 70 minutes and then grabbed the two late shock goals to take the honours.

Mansfield reshuffled their back line after right back Hayden White suffered a slight hamstring strain in training yesterday and was not risked.

Rhys Bennett was moved across to right back, Kyle Howkins was also dropped to the bench and in came a new central defensive partnership of George Taft, his first start since September, and Krystian Pearce, back from an ankle injury.

Taft had an impressive afternoon and, tiring, was given a decent ovation when he was replaced by Howkins after an hour.

Skipper Lee Collins returned from a hamstring injury to take a place on the bench with a place also on there for young striker Zayn Hakeem.

Stags went into the game a point behind Exeter, who sat in seventh, with a chance of jumping into fifth place and the play-offs if they could see off the Grecians at home for the first time since 1998 – seven games in a row they had been unable to beat Exeter at the One Call Stadium.

Amid a great atmosphere, Stags had the ball in the Exeter net inside 80 seconds as Coulthirst bundled in a half-volley off the post, but the referee had spotted the striker controlled the ball with his hand.

City’s first threat came on 11 minutes as, from a free kick, Wheeler sent a firm header over the bar.

On 14 minutes some good footwork by Bennett on the right saw him cross to Green, whose on-target header was clutched safely by Pym.

A good home break on 29 minutes saw Coulthirst race down the left. His final ball to Green saw him cue up Whiteman for a first time shot that deflected up and over for a corner.

MacDonald sent that over from the left and Rose saw his header come back off the crossbar.

Coulthirst then swerved one wide from 25 yards two minutes later as the home side continued to boss the show.

Watkins, a January transfer target of Mansfield, showed Stags fans his talents on 32 minutes as he made space on the edge of the box for a low shot just wide of the far post.

But the home side were finally rewarded for their superiority on 38 minutes.

Byrom arrowed a great ball across from the right and left back Benning controlled superbly and cut inside defender Sweeney before stroking home a perfect low finish inside the far post.

Watkins threatened again for City on 43 minutes as he controlled a far post cross, turned well and sent a low finish across the face of goal and just wide of the far post.

Soon after James was wide of the goal with a 25 yard free kick. But Mansfield were good value for their interval lead.

The Stags almost made the perfect start to the second half as Rose headed the ball into the centre where MacDonald was unable to guide it on target from 10 yards.

A fortunate deflection off the referee set Mansfield on the attack again, but Green’s final low finish was poor and well wide.

There was danger on 50 minutes as Watkins tried to burst clear between Bennett and Pearce 35 yards from goal and was sandwiched down, Bennett shown a yellow card.

Taylor was booked for bringing down Benning a minute later.

On 59 minutes Pearce came up with a very important clearance as the ball bounced across goal towards the waiting Stacey.

Kean finally had an important save to make on 70 minutes Stacey burst into the box on the right and tried to beat him at his near post, Kean getting his body in the way.

Coulthirst might have added a second to ease nerves on 75 minutes as he was sent clear by Rose only to see Pym time his challenge to perfection and drop on the ball as he tried to get past him.

With eight minutes to go and Bennett down with a knock, Watkins let fly with a curling shot that Kean had to push away.

But, with six minutes left, Exeter conjured up an equaliser.

Harley seemed to have lost the ball as he tried to race into the box, but the loose ball was knocked back down to him by Reid and, from 15 yards, he dispatched a low finish down the centre.

In six added minutes Whiteman sent a tame shot at the keeper.

Then another low Whiteman finish saw Pym pull off a great low save.

That seemed to be that, but this game had a dreadful late twist.

Reid tried to burst past Bennett in the box and went down under contact.

The home side felt he’d dived, but the referee pointed to the spot and Reid sent Kean the wrong way to steal all three points.

STAGS: Kean, Bennett, Pearce, Taft (Howkins 60), Benning, MacDonald (Collins 73), Byrom, Whiteman, Green, Coulthirst, Rose (Potter 80). Subs not used: Jensen, Hamilton, McGuire, Hakeem. 
EXETER: Pym, James (Reid 64), Harley, Wheeler, Watkins, Moore-Taylor, Taylor, Stacey (Grant 80), Croll (Oakley 75), Sweeney, Brown. Subs not used: Olejnik, Tillson, McAlinden, Ampadu.
REFEREE: Ben Toner of Lancashire.

ATTENDANCE: 3,878 (379 away).
CHAD STAGS MAN OF THE MATCH: Krystian Pearce.