Mansfield Town’s unbeaten home record was ended in the cruellest of fashions on Saturday as they were left bruised, battered and depleted.
The late, late 2-1 defeat by in-form Bristol Rovers saw Stags end up with nine men after two red cards plus two players battling on with injury with all the subs used.
Rovers, themselves down to 10 men, thought they were going to hold out for an undeserved 1-0 win until nine minutes from time when Ryan Tafazolli levelled for the nine men which really brought the roof off the One Call Stadium with the celebrations.
But football can be very cruel indeed and, after a nasty collision for keeper Brian Jensen, which saw him suffer head and knee injuries in a brave stop at the feet of Ellis Harrison, he got up after lengthy treatment to face eight added minutes.
Rovers swarmed round the home goal and Harrison hit the bar.
But it was left until the last of those eight minutes for Harrison to cross for Matty Taylor to guide a close range header back across the ailing keeper and steal their third away win on the trot.
Former Stag Darrell Clarke has assembled a decent side, who look set to have a good season. But their gamesmanship on Saturday and constant haranguing of referee Mark Haywood was often embarrassing and contributed greatly to a vicious game.
Under such pressure, sadly Haywood made too many wrong decisions and tempers heated up.
Several times it seemed like it would boil over and the brawl that ensued after the Krystian Pearce red card could have seen several others dismissed and the game abandoned.
Seeking a fourth win on the trot, Mansfield had dominated the first half and had Matt Green put away a golden first minute chance, volleying over from 10 yards from Jack Thomas’ header over the last defender, this game might have taken a very different course.
Instead on 16 minutes Rovers netted against the run of play as Daniel Leadbitter helped on a Lee Brown cross for Jermaine Easter to smash a rising finish home from seven yard.
But in first half stoppage time Easter was dismissed.
An outrageous dive in the box by the striker was about to be punished by a yellow card.
But when Stags midfielder Jamie McGuire raced in to inflame the situation and grabbed Easter as he rose, the pair clashed and the referee upgraded his card to a straight red.
Mansfield came back out determined and within 10 minutes Adam Murray had made all three substitutes to add more attacking threat – a gamble that was to misfire near the end.
The big flash point came on the hour. Rovers had been awarded a corner that should have been a goalkick, Jensen booked for arguing. Then as players lined up for it to be taken Tom Lockyer went down off the ball, having clashed with Krystian Pearce.
Was there a kick? Was there a headbutt? Or did he go down easily in a tussle like Murray believed?
Whatever happened, it sparked a free for all in which both sides were lucky only one yellow each was shown as well as a red to Pearce.
Though he appeared to be trying to break things up, the Stags man booked was skipper Nicky Hunt – and this would have repercussions 14 minutes later when he needlessly tripped Stuart Sinclair in the middle of the park as Rovers tried to break and Hunt was off.
It was a moment of madness and Hunt held his head in his hands as he knew that could prove costly.
The end of the game was simply breathtaking.
First on 78 minutes Taylor tucked away a low Harrison cross only to see an offside flag.
Then three minutes later a Rovers clearance to the edge of the box saw defender Tafazolli strike the sweetest of finishes inside the right post.
But, with Jensen dazed and Mal Benning limping, the seven fit men were clearly exhausted and Harrison hit the bar before the final twist came like a knife through the heart.
After such a bright start to the season, with the injuries and suspensions arising from this one and how much defending with so few players will have taken it out of the side, you now fear for Mansfield with their two long road trips this week to Yeovil and Portsmouth as Murray’s squad gets stretched to and beyond its limitations.
STAGS: Jensen; Hunt, Pearce, Tafazolli, Benning; Lambe (Nathan Thomas 55), Chapman, McGuire (Clements 55), Jack Thomas (Yussuf 51), Westcarr; Green. Subs not used: Shearer, Rose, Collins, Blair.
ROVERS: Nicholls, Leadbitter (Harrison HT), Brown, Lockyer, Parkes, Mansell (Gosling 84), Taylor, Lines (Ollie Clarke HT), James Clarke, Easter, Sinclair. Subs not used: Mildenhall, McChrystal, Blissett, Montano.
REFEREE: Mark Haywood of West Yorkshire.
ATTENDANCE: 4,196 (847 away)
CHAD STAGS MAN OF THE MATCH: Ryan Tafazolli.