Anyone questioning how much surviving the drop actually meant to the players of Mansfield Town will have left the One Call Stadium with their queries well and truly answered after a gutsy, hard fought 1-0 victory over Tranmere.
The winning goal was scored by Reggie Lambe, who continues to pop up with crucial contributions towards the Stags’ safety, despite being awarded a red card during 13 minutes of stoppage time.
The Yellow defensive wall stood firm in the face of heavy pressure with some colossal performances from Raynes and Tafazolli.
With the stakes as high as they have been all season, it was a must win game for Mansfield Town, with three points meaning that the Stags would need one further point or the relegation zone teams to fail to win any of their final League games and they were safe.
Adam Murray made three changes to his side, bringing in Michael Raynes, Richie Sutton and Junior Brown for Martin Riley, Lee Beevers and Rakish Bingham.
Liam Hearn continued his rehabilitation as a substitute, whilst Jack Thomas was set to start three games in the space of eight days, as were Elder, McGuire, Lambe, Clements and Oliver. Murray had issued a rallying cry to all supporters for the most important game of the season.
Before kick-off, Jamie McGuire, Sascha Studer and Ryan Tafazolli all motioned to the crowd to lift the volume levels.
Whatever pre-battle speech the manager had used on his squad clearly had the desired effect, as the Stags came flying out of the traps and should have been ahead inside the first 20 seconds.
Straight from the kick off, a long ball was sent forward towards the returning Brown, who directed a beautiful flick through the centre of the Tranmere defence and into the path of Vadaine Oliver, who could have taken a touch but instead directed a weak effort straight at the Fon Williams.
The keeper pushed the ball away to his left but not out of play and Oliver was quickly onto the rebound but somehow managed to put the ball over the bar. A glorious chance that should have been taken.
The Stags went close again on three minutes. Clements’ corner was cleared to the edge of the area where both Thomas and Brown were converging on the ball.
Brown beat the youngster to it and lashed his effort into the Tranmere fans. The target should really have been hit from that range with the ball sitting up invitingly.
The visitors went close at the other end on nine minutes.
After a mistake by Callum Elder, the on-loan Leicester man gave away a free kick in a threatening position with a rash sliding tackle.
George Green, himself on loan from Everton, lifted the free kick over the wall and had Studer glued to the spot, but his effort hit the stanchion behind the goal, much to the relief of everyone in a yellow shirt.
Tranmere were now on top and playing some neat stuff in the middle.
Thomas and Clements were looking leggy from an early stage and McGuire was having to cover them both.
Another great chance arrived for Rovers on 17 minutes as Jennison Myrie-Williams, who was giving Elder a torrid time, pulled the ball back for George Donnelly to drag a shot wide of Studer’s right hand post.
The home faithful were getting understandably anxious as the age old problem of ball retention reared its ugly head for Mansfield.
The defence was happy to sit deep and lump hopeful balls up towards Oliver, with whom the ball was not sticking.
This allowed Tranmere to push the Stags backwards and for a good 20 minutes, without the visitors creating any chances, Mansfield just could not keep the ball.
On 31 minutes, Stockton fired a shot straight at Studer, who did well to safely handle the ball.
Despite being under the cosh for a large portion of the first half, Mansfield got their noses in front on the stroke of half-time, when they were surely on the verge of a rocket from Adam Murray.
McGuire picked up the ball midway inside the Tranmere half. He fired in a pass to Oliver, perhaps with more power than he intended.
This caused the ball to cannon of the instep of Oliver on the edge of the area, through his legs and into Lambe.
Lambe had the defender squared up, shifted the ball onto his left foot and fired a low shot across Fon Williams and into his bottom left hand corner.
Lambe had been pretty much anonymous until that point but seems to come to life around the penalty area. He had even had a rollicking from Jack Thomas for not tracking back.
He has scored some absolutely crucial goals despite his lack of consistency.
Despite being perhaps second best during the first half, with the occasion clearly getting to some of the players, the Stags headed down the tunnel with a 1-0 lead.
The hope was that the goal would not paper over the cracks during the half-time team talk and that Murray could instil belief in his team that they could obtain all three points.
The midfield were chasing shadows at time, particularly Clements and Thomas, the latter unable to influence the game as he had in recent weeks.
Their desire and commitment could not be questioned, but their hearts were overruling their heads.
I am not sure whether Tranmere were out early or Mansfield were kept behind for extra tuition, but there was a two or three minute difference in the teams emerging from the tunnel.
No changes were made by either side and both sets of fans were getting behind their sides.
Again, Mansfield started the better of the two sides.
On 49 minutes, Brown picked up a loose ball and drove at his defender.
He had been quite negative in possession in the first half, but on this occasion he managed to beat his marker and fire a cross come shot straight at the keeper.
This was seemingly something that Murray had mentioned at half-time.
At the other end, Donnelly again attempted a shot, only to find the safe gloves of Studer.
On 54 minutes, Matt Rhead replaced Thomas. This appeared to be a change with the aim of getting the Stags higher up the pitch with two strikers to hold up the ball and also to utilise Rhead’s stature from set pieces at both ends.
This would however weaken the midfield who had already been overrun in the first half.
On 57 minutes, Rhead almost made an immediate impact.
Oliver chased a long ball over the top and leapt to challenge the advancing Fon Williams.
The ball dropped into the path of Rhead whose effort was heading goalwards before being well stopped by the keeper.
Rhead managed to retain the ball and win a free kick on the right side of the area, which was slammed straight into the wall by Clements.
On 62 minutes, Micky Adams well and truly rolled the dice with a triple change, as Stockton, Donnelly and ex-stag Rob Taylor were replaced by Odejayi, Hume and Hill.
The Stags followed with a change of their own on 68 minutes, as the tiring McGuire was replaced in a like for like swap by Ricky Ravenhill. who had been sat next to me in the Upper West with a cast on his foot eight days previously.
On 69 minutes, Myrie-Williams hit a shot on target, which was again well handled by Studer.
Seemingly angered by their club’s League position, frustration boiled over in the away end as Tranmere supporters began brawling with police and stewards - disgraceful scenes that should never be seen inside or indeed outside a football stadium, from a club who it looks likely will feel the force of back-to-back relegations.
Play was halted briefly by Darren Drysdale as the violence threatened to spill onto the pitch.
The trigger was not obvious from where I was sitting, but both supporters and players alike had become infuriated by the Stags’ rather obvious time wasting tactics, which included ball boys kicking balls way from retrieving Tranmere players.
This incident seemed to stir Mansfield fans to life, as the Stags’ back line continued to repel Tranmere attacks.
Raynes and Tafazolli were winning everything in the air and yellow shirts were throwing their bodies in front of any second balls or fortuitous breaks.
Murray was urging his players to get higher up the pitch and appeared to be heading away every ball himself.
On 89 minutes, the Stags had the chance to seal the victory.
Lambe did excellently to reach a loose ball and went on a mazy run down the left. He cut back inside on his right foot and curled a cross come shot inches wide of both Fon Williams left hand post and Oliver’s outstretched right boot.
The board went up for eight minutes of added time, after various injuries and as an accumulation of the Stags time-wasting - 480 seconds for the Stags to keep defending as they had been doing and to maintain their concentration.
With two minutes successfully seen out, the Stags made their final change, with youngster Liam Mardsen replacing Brown, who had been struggling for a couple of minutes beforehand.
On 94 minutes, a red card was shown to goalscorer Lambe.
Tranmere had a corner on the left for which Fon Williams had come forward.
The corner was successfully defended and the ball was with Lambe in the centre circle with an unguarded goal and a Tranmere defender in front of him.
Referee Drysdale had spotted a pull back from Fon Williams on a Stags player as he rushed back to his goal and, instead of playing the advantage, he awarded the Stags a free kick in their own penalty area.
This was the second time the referee had not played an advantage to the Stags, as during the first half he awarded Mansfield a free kick inside their own half despite them winning a throw in near the Tranmere corner flag.
Lambe tried to hold on to the ball in a bid to waste time, but was shoved by Hill, to which he retaliated.
The Bermudan winger had already been booked and was shown a red card by Drysdale.
I did not see whether Lambe raised his hand during the brawl which ensued so am not sure whether this was the correct decision.
The dismissal and scrummage meant the Stags would need to keep their concentration for even longer than the originally scheduled eight minutes.
In what should have been the final minute, Marsden put in an excellent challenge when it looked like Power might be away inside the area.
In the minutes that followed Raynes headed away a set piece and Studer successfully claimed a high ball into the area.
After 13 minutes of stoppage time which felt like 13 hours, the final whistle eventually sounded with the score at 1-0 to Mansfield Town.
The team had shown tremendous character and fight to see off all that Tranmere could throw at them.
It was far from pretty, but the Stags did what they needed to do and the three points sent them eight points clear of relegation with nine points left to play for.
When the whistle sounded, Studer punched the air. Marsden turned to the Tranmere fans and celebrated passionately in front of them.
Murray ran over to the West Stand with a passionate fist pump. McGuire raised both hands and high-fived every fan lining the stands as he headed down the tunnel. It was clear to see what the result meant to both players and management.
The Stags now need one point to guarantee safety.
Safety can also be rubber-stamped should Tranmere and Cheltenham fail to pick up maximum points in all of their remaining games.
Mansfield head to Cambridge on Saturday, who are now level on points with the Stags and have only won one of their last 10 league games.
Cambridge also require one point to guarantee safety, so will be by no means easy pickings.
With some players clearly exhausted following the victory over Tranmere, there may be a few changes forthcoming for Saturday’s game.
Murray hailed the passion showed by his players and revealed he may finally sleep well this evening.
What is for certain is that his players will certainly sleep well after the effort they put in in taking a huge step towards League Two football next season.
Players Ratings :
Studer - 8 - For a keeper who has played so little football and of such a young age his handling was faultless this evening. His celebrations at the end of the game showed how much he enjoys playing for Mansfield. I for one hope he is here next season.
Sutton - 6.5 - A few heart in mouth moments including one air kick inside his own penalty area but generally solid.
Raynes - 8.5 - Immeasurably improved from last outing against York. Won every header and moved defence up well when opportunity arose. Tremendous character to bounce back. MOTM
Tafazolli - 8 - Excellent in the air and marshalled Odejayi well. A few poor clearances but again much improved from York. Like Raynes, great attitude to come back.
Elder - 6 - Jittery first half, given the run around by Myrie-Williams. Improved as the game went on but never looked entirely comfortable. Given a few harsh words by teammates in first half.
McGuire - 8 - Excellent first half. Must have been running on adrenaline as tired quickly. Great passion before and after game, exactly what was needed for this kind of occasion.
Lambe - 7.5 - Scored the winning goal and close to a second. Pretty much anonymous before the goal and even received a rollicking from Jack Thomas for not tracking back. Sending off thankfully was not costly.
Clements - 6.5 - Not involved much as Stags did not do much attacking. Some composed play in dangerous areas and put a shift in. Looked worn out at the end.
Thomas - 6.5 - Unable to have influence of recent weeks but could tell his passion was there. Worked hard.
Brown - 6 - Frustrating as started excellently but gave the ball away quite a lot and generally negative in possession.
Oliver - 7 - Poor first half including missing a sitter. Inadvertently set up the winning goal but work rate in second half after Murray gave him a mouthful was excellent. Chased down many lost causes.
Rhead (Thomas 54) - 7 - Did well defensively and caused defenders problems.
Ravenhill (McGuire 68) - 6.5 - A few good tackled. Worked hard.
Marsden (Brown 92) - One excellent tackle. Passionate celebrations at the end.