MAGNIFICENT Mansfield stormed to their third consecutive win and third straight clean sheet in eight days as an early Matt Green brace won the day at Darlington.
It was the first time since October 2009 that Mansfield had won three league games on the bounce and winning away to another of the fancied sides after Monday’s win at Stockport, sends a strong message to the rest of the league about Stags’ capabilities this season.
It was a far cry from when the sides met at Wembley Stadium in May in the FA Trophy final and it took a last gasp winner for the Quakers to see off a patchwork Stags side that couldn’t even name a full bench.
This time, in the North-East rain, Paul Cox’s men completely dominated the first half-hour with Green finding the net on five and 14 minutes.
Darlington had the edge of possession for the last hour and managed to chalk up 15 corners.
But Stags’ defending was again magnificent and the majority of the chances were at the other end as only a fine save from Sam Russell and then a post denied the rampaging Green a hat-trick.
Stags were unchanged while Darlington, who, like Stags, had lost only once this season, included former Mansfield winger Adam Rundle. But the Quakers were unable to play new Spanish star signing Jonatan Sanchez-Munoz as his international clearance had not arrived in time.
The opening exchanges were even as both sides probed the opposition in the pouring rain.
But a moment of magic from Green gave Stags the perfect start on five minutes.
Meikle laid the ball into space on the right which Green chased and reached.
He then cut inside and, ignoring Dyer to his left, went inside one defender, delayed the shot, went inside another and then drilled an inch-perfect low left-footed finish inside the far post.
Better was to come as Stags controlled play, kept possession and doubled their lead on 14 minutes.
Howell was fouled 35 yards from goal, Briscoe drilled an ambitious free kick at goal, and the ball flew at Green who controlled, turned and steered a high finish into the net off the inside of the near post.
Three minutes later Futcher got up well to head just wide of goal from Kendrick’s long free kick as the home fans grew increasingly impatient with their side’s early failings.
The home frustration was evident on 18 minutes as Bowman left a foot in on O’Neill as the full back cleared, the yellow card shown as O’Neill received treatment.
It took Darlo 22 minutes to have a shy at goal, a loose pass from Futcher allowing Darlington possession and ending with Rundle flashing a shot wide.
A great run down the centre by Meikle saw his attempt to set Dyer clear on goal thwarted by an offside flag.
A spell of sublime possession football followed for the visitors as they completely dominated the game, leaving Darlington chasing shadows.
Briscoe pumped another free kick into the box which came off Green towards Howell who saw his shot deflect over for the game’s first corner.
Tempers began to flare and Murray was warned for a tackle from behind on Arnison.
Then Arnison went down under a Briscoe challenge in the box but no penalty was given.
Arnison grabbed the ball and remonstrated with the referee as players from both sides squared up, the end result being a booking for Arnison.
Darlington at last began to enjoy a spell of their own and Lee was too high with his header from the home side’s first corner, taken from the right by Arnison.
Then Marriott went up to safely grab Lee’s looping header from a long Arnison free kick under the near angle.
Darlington won another corner in first half stoppage time which curled dangerously through everyone, clipping off a Stags player in front of goal for another corner.
This one was half-cleared to Rundle whose dangerous ball back in was punched clear by Marriott. The pressure ended with a poor effort sliced over by Arnison.
Kendrick was shown a yellow card in the second minute of three added on for his foul on Purkiss. Rundle sent the free kick in and Lee outjumped the giant frame of Futcher at the far post but was over with his header.
Seconds before the whistle Kendrick threw himself in the way of a Rundle shot to preserve Stags’ well-deserved two-goal interval advantage.
The game restarted with Mansfield knowing how important it would be to avoid conceding a goal in the first 10 minutes of the half.
But it was the visitors who threatened within three minutes as Miller had to head clear before Green’s dinked cross found an unmarked Dyer.
Green then had a chance to score himself as a defender slipped while trying to cut out Meikle’s pass and Green dragged a low finish wide of the far post.
Futcher headed clear from the Quakers’ first flag kick of the second half.
On 51 minutes home keeper Russell made a fine save to turn away a Dyer blast after O’Neill’s accurate pass had put Green in space and seen the striker get to the line and pull a tempting low ball back towards the edge of the box.
Dyer needed treatment for a facial injury as he helped clear another home corner.
The Darlo pressure continued as O’Neill conceded a free kick 30 yards form goal, but Campbell’s effort was wild and high.
But they came desperately close on the hour when Campbell’s low 25 yard shot was deflected narrowly wide and then home sub Atkinson was too high from the half-cleared corner.
Stags threatened briefly on the break but Dyer’s final pas for Meikle lacked enough pace to carry the attack forward quickly and, eventually, Russell was down to smother at the feet of Briscoe.
The home side continued to rack up the corner count, but Kendrick produced a great block as Lee let fly just inside the box.
The increasingly desperate Quakers had used all three substitutes by the 63rd minute as they looked for a way through Mansfield’s resolute defence.
As the Quakers pushed forward, Meikle led another Mansfield counter-attack from which Briscoe finally sent a low shot wide of the far post.
It was Meikle’s final action as he was replaced by Connor, Dyer dropping back into midfield.
There was a huge cry for handball against O’Neill. But the defender was trying to head clear and the ball clipping his hand was the last thing he needed and was certainly not deliberate.
On 74 minutes another chance passed by for the home side.
Grey Taylor did well to reach the by-line and pull the ball back for Walshaw. Marriott saved his shot but failed to hold onto it and the ball bounced against the incoming Atkinson but mercifully rolled wide of goal.
Futcher’s name was added to the book 15 minutes from time for hacking down Walshaw.
The ever-dangerous Green’s snapshot forced Russell to save well to his right three minutes later.
When Stags failed to clear yet another home corner, Miller saw a close range effort deflect wide in a scramble.
From the second corner Kendrick had to kick clear from almost on the line. And from a nailbiting third corner Stags stood firm and cleared upfield to ease the pressure.
However, Stags almost sealed it on 82 minutes as Dyer saw his close range finish, from Kendrick’s free kick, blocked by a firm outstretched arm from Russell and Connor had a follow-up charged down.
Rundle lashed over at the far post at the other end soon afterwards as a long cross was helped onto him at the far post to huge groans from the home fans.
On 86 minutes Green thought he had grabbed his hat-trick goal from Connor’s pass but, although the ball beat Russell, it came back off the inside of the left post.
Marriott turned away a Greg Taylor shot in the final minute as the Quakers forced another two corners in vain.
DARLINGTON: Russell, Purkiss, Miller, Lee, G. Taylor, McReady (Hatch 59), Arnison, Bowman, K. Taylor (Atkinson 40), Campbell (Walshaw 63), Rundle. Subs: Chandler, Bridge-Wilkinson.
STAGS: Marriott; O’Neill, Futcher, Sutton, Kendrick; Meikle (Connor 68), Murray, Howell, Briscoe (Worthington 87), Green, Dyer. Subs: Naylor, Stevenson, Redmond.
REFEREE: Karl Evans of Greater Manchester.
CAUTIONS: Darlington – Bowman 18, Arnison 33. Stags – Kendrick 45 (+2), Futcher 75.
ATTENDANCE: 2,647 (296 away).
CHAD STAGS MAN OF THE MATCH: Matt Green.