THERE was to be no fairytale start to Mansfield Town’s latest bid for promotion as they conceded four goals to flop 4-3 at home in the opening fixture against Newport County this afternoon.
With Stags one of the two favourites for promotion, few fans on either side could have predicted how this thrilling game unfolded with Newport twice taking two-goal advantages and, the second time, holding on.
Mansfield did create the wealth of chances everyone expected, taking three of them, missing three other great openings, and had two penalty calls ignored, from one of which they appeared to have a great case.
Jake Speight also marked his return to a Mansfield shirt with two goals’ from the substitutes’ bench after Ross Dyer had been stretchered off on 31 minutes.
But all that good work was undone by some appalling defending from set pieces and, if you let in four goals at home, you won’t win many games.
To rub it it, two of the Exiles’ goals came from ex-Stags Aaron O’Connor and Jefferson Louis.
Stags had four new players making debuts for the club and Jones back in a Stags shirt for his second spell.
Although they went 4-3-3, there was no place in the side or even on the bench for Lee Stevenson while John Thompson and Nick Wright were two other players who have impressed in pre-season but didn’t make the cut.
Paul Cox bravely went without a reserve keeper on a very attacking bench that included new signing Colin Daniel.
New centre half George Pilkington was, as expected, made the new Stags skipper.
The game began amid a superb atmosphere in the sunshine and Stags were first to threaten as Tolley fired wide from 20 yards when Newport struggled to clear a free kick.
A minute later Meikle dragged the ball wide of the near post from the same distance after teasing Pipe and then bringing the ball inside onto his right foot.
Howell won a home corner which Pidgeley managed to claw away. Roberts immediately won another and this time Jones nodded wide as the home side made the early running.
Almost as good as a corner was a throw on the right which gave Owens the first chance to hurl in one of his long throw which was cleared back to him and saw the full back slice a shot so far wide it went for a throw.
However, it was the Exiles who drew first blood with their first goal attempt on 10 minutes.
Yakubu produced a fantastic leap to meet a right wing free kick from Sandell and power a header across Marriott and inside the far post.
Spurred on, Newport then won two successive corners. And, from the second, which as overhit, it reached Porter who sent it back in and the ball bounced invitingly for James who crashed home an unstoppable right-footed half-volley from the edge of the box.
It was almost 3-0 on 17 minutes as Jones’ wayward header went straight to O’Connor, who found Porter was just unable to reach the low return in front of goal.
Pidgeley did well to get a fist on another Owens throw as Mansfield began the long road back.
Two more Owens throws were cleared, then Beevers showed what he could do with a long throw and this time Evans met it with a glancing header that sailed back onto the roof of his own crossbar.
Green reminded home fans of what he can do as he had two defenders backing off from his run and fired a low shot narrowly wide from 20 yards.
Dyer’s afternoon came to a premature halt on 27 minutes when his leg seemed to twist as he went down awkwardly in a challenge near the corner flag and he immediately looked to be in agony.
Dyer was eventually stretched off and Speight joined the action on 31 minutes to make his ‘second debut’ for his former club.
With Owens screaming for a penalty for climbing on him by a defender on 34 minutes, Howell lifted the loose ball well over the bar from just outside the box.
A Howell flick from a long Marriott kick was just too hard for Green to reach before Pidgeley gathered as Stags continued to struggle to get into any sort of groove.
Roberts launched a long ball forward for Green. He laid an inviting pass square for Speight to attack but, when Pipe got there fractionally first, Speight went down heavily and called for a penalty, instead getting a yellow card for what the referee believed to be a dive.
It did seem Pipe had clipped Speight, though, probably out the area. But nothing was going Mansfield’s way.
Pipe then stuck to his task superbly to halt Speight’s run onto another Howell flick.
Speight was guilty of a dreadful miss two minutes into stoppage time.
Pilkington and Howell had both headed the ball to send him clear on goal. But with only Pidgeley to beat, time, and a wealth of options how to do that, he sent a hurried lobbed attempt tamely into the keeper’s arms.
The half ended with boos for the referee and angry words directed at him from manager Paul Cox.
But, whatever the views on the referee, the simple truth was that Stags had twice lapsed at the back and rarely got it together going forward in a bitterly disappointing first 45 minutes.
However, Mansfield were back with a bang on the restart as Speight pulled one back in the first minute of the half.
Tolley’s low shot was saved well by the outstretched arm of Pidgeley, low to his left. Speight appeared to be in an offside position but was allowed to tuck the loose ball away and the goal stood with County players remonstrating with the assistant on that side.
A minute later and it was Newport who got the decision as Evans seemed to sell himself into a tackle that felled Meikle near the by-line, but no penalty was awarded.
However, it was 2-2 on 50 minutes. Beevers lifted the ball into space on the right and, with Pidgeley well out of position, Green lobbed him to perfection.
The home fans were in full voice now, the atmosphere completely changed. But the jubilation wasn’t to last long.
Beevers’ late tackle on Crow, as Newport tried to break on 55 minutes, earned him a booking.
And, from that free kick on the left, County roared back in front. Thomson provided the ammunition with a well-floated free kick that saw O’Connor bury his header from seven yards.
Once again Mansfield had all the hard work to do.
And they found themselves back to square one, two goals in arrears, when another ex-Stag, Louis, struck on 65 minutes.
Mansfield didn’t deal with a low ball in from O’Connor from the left and, when Louis failed to put the loose ball away the first time, as the home defence dithered, he crashed home a low shot from 10 yards.
Immediately Cox sent on Wright for Tolley to try to force the issue.
On 72 minutes, with team mates making good runs around him, the space opened up for Roberts to crack a decent 20-yard shot on target that Pidgeley parried.
Wright then saw a shot blocked and Roberts whistled another effort just wide of the far post as County clung on to their two-goal advantage.
On 75 minutes Meikle curled a great pass behind the defenders that put Wright in on goal only to see him poke it straight at Pidgeley.
When Newport saw a corner half-cleared, Thomson wasn’t too far wide with a blistering 25-yard effort.
With time almost up, Stags finally bagged a third to set up a heart-stopping finish.
Meikle did superbly well to hold off a defender and send Green to the right by-line. He picked out Speight on the far post with a great cross and Speight did the rest with a powerful header.
With four minutes added on, the volume rose around the stadium.
Three corners followed amid unbelievable tension. And from the third, Roberts picked out Jones for a free header that he somehow guided wide as a thrilling afternoon finally ran away from the Stags.
STAGS: Marriott; Beevers, Pilkington, Jones, Owens; Roberts, Tolley (Wright 66), Howell; Dyer (Speight 31), Green, Meikle. Subs not used: Thompson, Clements, Daniel.
NEWPORT: Pidgeley; Pipe, James, Yakubu, Sandell; Porter, Thomson, Evans (Hughes 85); O’Connor (Charles 70), Crow (Minshull 68), Louis. Subs not used: Harris, Perry.
REFEREE: Chris Kavanagh of Ashton-under-Lyne.
ATTENDANCE: 2,924 (357 away).
CAUTIONS: Stags – Speight 45 (+2), Beevers 55.
CHAD STAGS MAN OF THE MATCH: Jake Speight.