MANSFIELD Town boss David Holdsworth’s huge gamble of wholesale changes for the tough trip to Southport paid off handsomely as his side notched their third away win on the bounce on Saturday with a 2-1 success .
The home side had conceded only one goal in their previous five games, but a shock new-look Stags line-up were 2-0 up at the break and it could have been four or five.
The Sandgrounders fought back well after the break but found the Stags’ rearguard, in particular Chris Smith, Steve Foster and Alan Marriott, in top form to deny them.
Smith, who looked like he was out cold for a second or two after a sickening clash of heads with Matty McNeil in the first 10 minutes, which prompted a scuffle between the sides, was immense and headed the ball so many times after that nasty knock that he must have spent the rest of the weekend on paracetamols.
Holdsworth came under fire from fans last year for too much tinkering with his side but this season had kept changes to his regular 4-4-2 formation to a minimum in the largely successful first seven games.
But, sensing the heavy early schedule had taken something out of his players and with other squad members impressing in training, he vowed before the weekend to ‘freshen things up’.
That meant Keigan Parker, possibly his best player the weekend before, Adam Smith, Tyrone Thompson and Louis Briscoe all found themselves in the stand for Stags’ first game at Haig Avenue for 35 years.
Another surprise was a 4-3-3 formation and even bigger surprise was that along with Kyle Nix, making his first start of the season, and Luke Medley, there were places for Steven Istead, also his first game of the season, and, from nowhere, young striker Lee Gregory making his debut.
But it couldn’t have gone better for Holdsworth as both Istead and Gregory found the net in a superb first half showing in which they dominated and created more chances than in 90 minutes against Tamworth seven days before.
And the formation worked well as Stags fought fire with fire against a physical and direct home side who played for set pieces and had ballboys towelling the ball dry before Matty McGinn hurled in fearsome long throws that were as good as corners.
It was also the first outing for Mansfield Town’s ‘England’ style away shirts with more passion going into wearing the colours than a certain motley crew in South Africa this summer!
Nix had seen a shot turned round before Istead opened his club account on 18 minutes with a superb individual goal, coming in from the left, going past three opponents before blasting a splendid unstoppable finish high into the top right corner.
Alan Marriott made three great stops on a strangely erratic afternoon for him, his first error seeing him stay on his line instead of coming for Adam Flynn’s 28th minute cross which allowed Steve Daly to glance a header that scraped the post.
But Stags were two to the good on 39 minutes when a mistake from Flynn allowed Paul Connor to get past him after the home player failed to cut out Kevin Sandwith’s pass and Connor tried to loop a finish over Tony McMillan from a tight angle with the outside of his right boot. As it dropped almost on the line, Gregory just managed to turn it in before his marker could stop him.
It is debatable whether it would have gone in or bounced just wide and, although Gregory’s celebrations to a goal on his debut were remarkably muted, he had to get the touch to make sure.
There were a couple of scares as Marriott had to stop a low Flynn effort on a breakaway. And then, after Marriott had uncharacteristically dropped a cross, the keeper made quick amends as he parried Liam Blakeman’s follow-up.
But it was the visitors who ended the half on a high as Kyle Nix saw his shot deflect onto the crossbar from the best move of the game involving quick, crisp passes from over half the Mansfield side.
And, from a stoppage time corner, Sandwith produced a textbook bicycle kick that also rattled the bar.
Southport could have been dead and buried. But, to their credit, they re-emerged all guns blazing and within 20 seconds Blakeman had fired low at Marriott.
Blakeman went on to miss two more excellent chances, Marriott tipping one effort over and Blakeman sending another opportunity over from 10 yards.
But, with 10 minutes left, the Sandgrounders snatched a foothold as Marriott saved well from Gray but could do nothing to stop Daly crashing the follow-up high into the net.
Inevitably it was then tin hat time for the last 10 minutes and the four minutes of stoppage time.
Even so, Mansfield wasted two chances to bury Southport on counter-attacks with Medley shooting tamely at McMillan and sub Ashley Cain showing his pace to go clear from Gary Mills’ through ball but then blasting well over.
Stoppage time was almost unbearable as four corners plus long throws hurtled into the crowded box, Marriott having one last save to pull off to claw a Kevin Lee effort round his near post.
But Stags clung on for some of the hardest-earned points they will take all season.
Now all eyes will be on Holdsworth to see if he brings back any of his four ‘rested’ players for Saturday’s showdown with twin brother Dean at Newport or sticks with the new-look side that gave the Stags fans such a good day out at the seaside last weekend.
SOUTHPORT: McMillan, Lee, Lever (Gray 10), Flynn (Williams ht), David, Blakeman (Barratt 72), Winn, Moogan, McNeil, Daly, McGinn. Subs not used: Collins, Dickinson.
STAGS: Marriott; Silk, Foster, C. Smith, Sandwith; Nix, Mills, Istead; Connor, Gregory (Cain 61), Medley (Duffy 83). Subs not used: Naylor, Parker, Collett.
REFEREE: Richard West of Beverley.
GOALS: Southport – Daly 80mins. Stags – Istead 18mins, Gregory 39mins.
CAUTIONS: Southport – Moogan 34mins, McNeil 58 mins (both fouls). Stags – Connor 79mins (unsporting behaviour).
CHAD STAGS MAN OF THE MATCH: Chris Smith.