It wasn’t pretty, but Saturday’s hard-earned 1-0 home win over Stevenage may prove crucial to Mansfield Town’s season.
Half-time sub Reggie Lambe’s 52nd minute winner leapfrogged the Stags out of the relegation zone above rivals Cheltenham, York and Tranmere and ended a run of six games without victory.
The tactics and formation by rookie boss Adam Murray were a masterstroke as was the introduction of Lambe for the second half.
Yes, it was a return to the hated, direct football of the Paul Cox era and, yes, there were a few mindless individual shouts of disapproval from parts of the West Stand.
But those ‘fans’ should have got their boots on and tried to play pretty football on that weather-wrecked pitch surface against a horrible Stevenage team that tried everything in the gamesmanship book to restore their play-off challenge after two successive wins.
Passes rolled across the surface were hitting horrible bobbles and Stags players were held and pulled back incessantly by the spoiling visitors.
Murray knew what was coming in advance and that he had to fight fire with fire.
So while ‘Project Survival’ fared very well from his changes, ‘Project Pretty Football’ had to be put on a backburner along with the wingers.
Five changes saw Stags go 3-5-1-2 with Billy Kee used just behind Matt Rhead and Vadaine Oliver.
There was a worry all week that Rhead (calf injury) and Oliver (illness) might not make it.
But make it they did and Rhead had an outstanding afternoon in just the sort of game the giant striker thrives in and laid on the winning goal.
Mansfield might have been forgiven for thinking their awful recent luck was out again as skipper Ricky Ravenhill pulled up with a hamstring problem in the pre-match warm-up.
That saw midfield tiger Jamie McGuire drafted in as player and skipper at the last minute and also thrive in the sort of contest he was born for.
Alongside him, Chris Clements somehow defied the surface to play some visionary passes and Lee Beevers and Callum Elder bombed on as wing backs.
Ritchie Sutton was superb as the third central defender with commanding loanee keeper Lenny Pidgeley immaculate behind them as he marked his 31st birthday with a clean sheet on his debut.
Indeed, a Stevenage side that recently won five and drew one of six successive games failed to force a single save of note from him.
Stags have a possible make-or-break February with six games, four at home, and their very place in the Football League again in question.
So this was the perfect start for them.
The first half saw few real chances as the sides battled it out on the mud.
Visiting keeper Chris Day did have to dive to his right to deny Clements from a curling central 30 yard free kick and he also blocked a Ryan Tafazolli header from a corner just before the break.
At the other end Bruno Andrade wasted the best chance of the half, and of the whole game for Stevenage, as he cut into the box from the right before pulling a low finish into the sidenetting with Pidgeley at his mercy on 39 minutes.
Kee, still struggling to get going with Mansfield, had a largely frustrating first half with the ball often flying over his head or either side of him.
Murray made the bold call of throwing on the speed of Lambe for the second half, and it didn’t take long to pay dividends.
Clements sprayed a great pass out to his right to send Beevers on a run. His far post cross picked out Rhead, who nodded the ball back in front of goal.
Lambe had managed to evade his marker and from six yards guided a superb rising volley high into the net under the near angle.
It was the move of the match and deserved to be the winning goal.
Stevenage did enjoy more possession as the game wore on, but Stags defended superbly, one rare lapse allowing Danny Johnson to fire a snapshot into the sidenetting.
It was a far cry from the game between these sides at Stevenage when the home side were 2-0 up after four minutes.
Stevenage won few admirers on Saturday for their tactics, especially when they elected not to return the ball to Pidgeley after he had rolled it into touch for a throw to allow treatment to Lambe.
The biggest disappointment of the day, though, had to be another poor attendance with less than 2,300 home fans turning out at their club’s time of need.
Possibly Stags’ relegation would mean far less to the town than some of us had believed.
Nevertheless, Murray, his players and the faithful that stuck behind the task so well on Saturday will soldier on and try to achieve it anyway.
STAGS: Pidgeley, Sutton, Beevers, Tafazolli, Raynes, Elder, McGuire, Clements, Kee (Lambe HT), Rhead (Brown 84), Oliver. Subs not used: Studer, Riley, Bingham, Heslop.
STEVENAGE: Day, Dembele (N’Guessan 65), Whelpdale, Charles, McAllister (Walton 68), Wells, Lee, Johnson (Beardsley 79), Henry, Kennedy, Andrade. Subs not used: Beasant, Ashton, Millard, Storer.
REFEREE: Oliver Langford of West Midlands.
ATTENDANCE: 2,436 (160 away).
CHAD STAGS MAN OF THE MATCH: Chris Clements.