MANSFIELD Town’s much-anticipated return to action from a three-week lay-off sadly proved to be a lacklustre one as they slumped to a 1-0 defeat after a dire display at struggling Newport today.
It brought an abrupt end to the recent impressive six-game unbeaten run as an out-of-sorts Stags turned in a display as poor as their last one at Ebbsfleet was impressive.
On a wet, uneven surface, time and time again Mansfield sent the ball long and, despite angry boss Paul Cox making three half-time changes, his side failed to rally enough to get back into the contest as they tamely succumbed to league defeat number six.
Debutant sub Paul Edwards aside, few of the visiting players came out of this one with any credit at all with man of the match ironically going to the industrious Adam Chapman, who recently joined Newport after a spell on trial with the Stags.
That is now seven matches unbeaten for the Exiles who should have had this one sealed well before the nervous finish with the chances they had earlier created.
Stags did have two good penalty shouts ignored, Matt Green saw the only on-target shot saved and Adam Smith headed into the sidenetting. But they didn’t really deserve anything over the 90 minutes.
The home side managed to play some football on the difficult surface and there was little for the away fans to cheer, despite the Stags Supporters’ Club paying for their side to stay overnight in preparation.
It was a far cry from the 5-0 thrashing Stags gave Newport earlier in the season and left Cox with much work to do to get rid of the damaging winter rust that quickly seems to have accrued over three weather-hit weeks before Darlington visit Field Mill on Tuesday.
With heavy lunchtime rain falling on a pitch that has struggled with drainage this season, there were worries the game would not go ahead at all.
Thankfully the rain stopped and ground staff were able to fork in the standing water.
Cox went with an unchanged side though new signing, striker Matt Rhead, replaced Louis Briscoe on the bench.
After all that had gone before, the game actually kicked off in bright sunshine with Mansfield in a change kit of sky blue shirts and white shorts.
Newport produced the first threat as Chapman’s long throw from the right was cleared out to Foley who crashed a first time shot over the bar from 20 yards.
Green took a tumble in the box in Stags’ first raid but never looked likely to win a penalty.
Riley looked to have a better claim when he appeared to be manhandled as he tried to get a head onto O’Neill’s first corner, but play went on.
On eight minutes Newport wasted a great chance from a break down the right as Jarvis cut inside Dempster and saw his shot deflected into the path of Foley who, from six yards, somehow bundled his finish wide to the relief of Marriott.
With both sides getting caught offside and passes going astray on the poor surface, fans had little to get too excited about.
Marriott did cause a momentary stir when he came for and then spilled another long Chapman throw but, he was fouled in the scramble.
A first time shot by Buchanan was straight at Marriott on 26 minutes as he got on the end of a left wing cross by Jarvis.
Three minutes later Stags finally threatened the home goal as Roberts’ far post cross from the right picked out Smith whose diving header only found the sidenetting.
But a minute later Chapman’s cutting through ball offered Foley time and space on the edge of the box only to see him pull his low finish across goal and wide.
However, Foley finally made it count on 33 minutes as the deadlock was broken.
Jarvis provided the through ball and Foley this time controlled before crashing home a fine finish from 12 yards past an exposed Marriott.
County threatened again on 40 minutes as Riley’s poor attempted clearance fell to Buchanan who should have at least hit the target from 12 yards but sent the loose ball wide.
Riley joined fellow centre half Dempster in the book for his late tackle on Minshull in stoppage time at the end of a dour first half for the visitors.
Changes were inevitable for the lacklustre Stags and when the side reappeared there were three of them, Edwards, Howell and Rhead coming on for Smith, Dyer and Hutchinson, underlining what a furious Cox thought of his side’s first half efforts.
Edwards went to left back, Sutton to right back, O’Neill to right midfield and Howell left midfield with Rhead joining Green up front in a 4-4-2.
Three minutes in, Chapman spotted Marriott off his line and tried to chip him from just inside the Stags half, the ball flying over the top.
Jarvis then fired straight at Marriott on the turn from 18 yards as he pounced on a poor headed clearance from Riley.
Roberts was too high with an ambitious free kick from 30 yards soon after.
But Stags were looking much hungrier at this point and almost levelled on 54 minutes as Rhead laid off a long thrown by O’Neill for a stretching Murray to stab wide of the far post.
Foley was well wide with a low shot as Newport went immediately back on the attack.
Green then might have found the equaliser as O’Neill’s throw from the left reached him, Rhead’s presence helping it get there, but Green, trying to hit a high-bouncing ball on the turn, didn’t catch it as well as he would have hoped and instead sent the ball to the keeper.
But still it was Newport who looked the more likely to score and home sub Reid wasn’t far wide with a diving header from Buchanan’s left wing cross. Then Minshull was inches over with a 20 yard volley after Stags only half-cleared a left wing cross.
On 75 minutes Murray’s under-pressure backpass to Marriott bobbled as the keeper tried to clear, playing the ball straight to Jarvis who fired it straight back across the keeper, only to see Marriott reach out his right hand and superbly turn it away for a corner.
Four minutes from time Green had half a chance to level as he burst onto the ball inside the right of the box but, instead of shooting, tried to flick it square to Howell and gave it instead to a defender.
Dempster won a free kick 20 yards from goal as we entered four minutes of stoppage time which O’Neill saw clip the wall for a corner.
From that Stags created a scramble in front of goal as Green’s backheel almost set up Dempster, who did seem to be fouled before the Exiles managed to hack clear.
But again no penalty was given and Stags slumped to defeat number six in disappointing fashion as they sit six points off the play-offs with that game in hand.
NEWPORT: Thompson, Baker, Warren (Rodgers ht), Foley, Jarvis, Hughes, Pipe, Charles (Reid 53), Buchanan, Minshull, Chapman. Subs: Potter, Harris, Rose.
STAGS: Marriott; Sutton, Riley, Dempster, O’Neill; Dyer (Rhead ht), Murray, Roberts, Smith (Edwards ht); Hutchinson (Howell ht), Green. Subs not used: Redmond, Meikle.
REFEREE: Tim Robinson of Bognor Regis.
ATTENDANCE: 1,285 (89 away).
GOAL: Newport – Foley 33mins.
CAUTIONS: Newport – Minshall 60, Jarvis 62. Stags – Dempster 27, Riley 45+1, Edwards 90+1.