LINDON Meikle’s moment of opportunism on 64 minutes proved the ultimate difference between the division’s draw specialists as Mansfield Town edged out Forest Green Rovers 1-0 at Field Mill this afternoon.
For long spells it seemed the strong downfield wind was going to be the only winner as both sides plugged away in difficult conditions.
But Meikle popped up at the far post to turn home Luke O’Neill’s low cross and break the deadlock.
Rovers then did themselves no favours as they laboured hard for an equaliser when sub Matt Paterson was sent off for his challenge on John Dempster 12 minutes from time, though they battled hard to the very end when they came desperately close to an equaliser.
Mansfield boss Paul Cox had said after recent excellent displays that didn’t produce a win, he would love an ugly 1-0 - that is exactly what he got today.
Forest Green arrived with the second meanest away defensive in the division behind leaders Wrexham, letting in 10 in 13 games, and have drawn 11 of their league games, one less than Stags.
A frustrating first half ended goalless but, despite wasting as much time as they could at every opportunity, Rovers, playing against the strong wind, had the better of the half and saw Alan Marriott made the only difficult save of a half short on real chances.
However, Meikle made the difference in a tight second half in which both sides had their chances.
New signing Ben Hutchinson had to be content with a place on the bench today as Stags made three changes to face Forest Green Rovers.
The former Celtic and Middlesbrough striker was not quite fit enough to start, though made a debut right at the end.
But John Dempster returned from suspension, Louis Briscoe was given a start on the right for the first time since the game at Southport on 17th December while Joe Kendrick returned to the side after injury at left back for his first game since 22nd October.
Martin Riley and Anthony Howell were dropped to the bench while loanee Keiron Freeman has returned to Nottingham Forest this week and would have been delighted to find himself in their starting line-up today.
Thomson was lectured almost straight from the kick-off for his late lunge on Murray on the halfway line that left the Stags skipper needing treatment with less than 10 seconds of the game elapsed.
When the free kick went out for a goalkick, the length of time it took before the ball came back into play offered a glimpse of how frustrating an afternoon Rovers were planning to give the home side.
Briscoe almost skipped Green in down the middle of the massed ranks of defenders, but the ball reached keeper Bittner before Green could get onto it.
A poor ball in from Briscoe was easily cleared from Mansfield’s first corner, taken short, as Rovers soaked up early pressure
In Rovers’ first attack on six minutes Kendrick’s tackle stopped Henderson getting onto Forbes’ through ball.
Then Green was inches from getting on the end of Dyer’s flick from a Kendrick free kick, Bittner again there first.
Forbes went on an exciting run down the centre, took a return pass into the box and O’Neill slid in to concede a corner and stop him crowning the move with a goal.
Rovers were starting to come out of their shells and Forbes drilled a dangerous ball across goal which earned him only a corner from a deflection that could have gone anywhere.
Norwood was booked on 17 minutes for deliberate handball on the halfway line.
Green almost got on the end of a Dempster header when Turley let it run, Bittner yet again quickly off his line to save the day.
Stags again pressed hard but were almost caught out on the counter on 23 minutes as Griffin slotted the ball out to Norwood to his right who made ground before getting away the first on-target shot of the game only to see Marriott turn it over.
That earned a corner from which Oshodi headed wide.
Rovers conceded a free kick almost on the centre circle which Roberts cheekily tried to lift over Bittner with a quickly taken effort. However, Bittner was once more alert to the danger.
Sutton had to block a Klukowski shot as Rovers again looked sharp and quick on the break. And from the corner the same player saw a low 15 yard effort pass through everyone and fractionally wide.
On 36 minutes good approach play from Briscoe and then Meikle saw the ball finally with Roberts, who turned one man on the edge of the box before shooting narrowly wide.
Two minutes later Meikle came inside two players to shoot just over.
When Bittner, for the umpteenth time, took an eternity to get the ball back into play, the referee at last had words with him. But, staggeringly, he continued to waste time before taking the kick no further action taken.
Briscoe saw a loose ball bobble as he hit it well over the far angle while, on 43 minutes, Marriott was always behind Thomson’s hopeful first time shot from 25 yards.
Norwood had Marriott diving to his left to save soon after when the keeper was almost punished for a poor kick out.
And, in stoppage time, a lucky break off Kendrick’s header saw Henderson get forward and shoot low and wide.
Rovers almost snatched a lead inside the opening minute on the restart as Henderson’s pass into the box caught the home defence asleep and Forbes, thankfully, shot straight at Marriott.
Sutton’s clearance out only reached Forbes who quickly fed Henderson for a low shot that Marriott had to tip round his near post.
From the corner Oshodi lunged in late as Marriott gathered and was shown a yellow card for his troubles.
The wind was getting stronger and a Marriott goalkick was launched back past him and the post by Klukowski from distance.
The ineffective Briscoe made way for Howell on 54 minutes as Paul Cox looked for a spark.
Finally on 58 minutes Bittner had a real saver to make as Meikle stumbled wide on the left but was still able to get away from two opponents and, looking up, tried to find the top far corner, Bittner just able to reach high and tip away.
Then from a good pass by Roberts, Meike, in space on the left, went for goal from a tight angle with exasperated team mates in better positions in front of goal as the ball sailed well over the far angle.
Dyer sent the ball into the middle from the right where Miekle couldn’t force it on target and the ball bounced the Green and off him for a goal kick right in front of goal.
But the opening goal wasn’t far away and arrived on 64 minutes.
Roberts chipped the ball forward to O’Neill on the right by-line and his low ball across goal was bundled in at the far post by Meikle as he slid in for glory.
On 70 minutes Forbes somehow stabbed a finish wide centrally from six yards when Stags didn’t clear their lines from a low free kick.
Paterson, who had come on as a sub on 65 minutes, lasted just 13 minutes as he was sent off 12 minutes from time.
He went in late to flatten Dempster right in front of the home bench. Off went both players, Paterson for an early shower and Dempster injured, replaced by Riley.
The ever-eager Forbes wasn’t far wide with another speculative low 20 yard shot as Rovers continued to look for a leveller, despite their numerical inequality.
Five minutes from time Green went down under Oshodi’s challenge in the box but no penalty was forthcoming.
Oshodi then burst into the Stags box and Marriott did well to smother at his feet before he could shoot.
Stags broke quickly but Roberts was over-ambitious with his finish, blasting well over from 20 yards.
Hutchinson made his Stags debut a minute from time, replacing home debutant Roberts, who had produced an excellent first display in front of the home fans.
Hoping for help from the wind, Norwood was just over from 25 yards. Then Uwezu should have hit the target in stoppage time when he got on the end of a low left wing cross at the near post as the 10 men plugged bravely away.
An offside flag denied Green as he tucked away the ball from Hutchinson’s through ball. But it didn’t matter as the whistle heralded Mansfield’s first win of 2012.
STAGS: Marriott; O’Neill, Dempster (Riley 79), Sutton, Kendrick; Briscoe (Howell 54|), Murray, Roberts (Hutchinson 89), Meikle; Dyer, Green. Subs not used: Redmond, Stevenson.
FOREST GREEN: Bittner; Hodgkiss, Turley, Oshidi, Stokes; Thomson, Forbes, Kulukowski; Norwood, Griffin (Paterson 65), Henderson (Uwezu 74). Subs not used: Turk, Graham, Allen.
REFEREE: Tony Harrington of Hartlepool.
ATTENDANCE: 2008 (32 away).