Despite defeat at Burton Albion on Saturday, Adam Murray’s new-look Mansfield Town did offer tantalising glimpses into the possibility of a brighter second half to the season.
Murray gambled on throwing all five of his new signings into a side showing seven changes at a cold and windy Pirelli Stadium.
Adam Smith, Ricky Ravenhill, Callum Elder, Billy Kee and Michael Raynes all made debuts and Reggie Lambe and Chris Clements came into the side.
Inevitably, at times in the first half they did look like the team of strangers they were, many only having met two days earlier.
But, 2-0 down at the break to two Brewers set pieces, Mansfield rallied in the second half and their gutsy fightback deserved to yield at least a point.
Murray’s decision to play all five new boys was a bold one with most of them short of full match fitness.
But that fitness will only come from playing as will getting to know each other.
So it was a canny decision to blood them all away to a title-chasing Burton side in almost unstoppable form where a point was always going to be a tall order, with one eye on a far more important must-win home clash with Exeter this weekend.
As in their win at One Call Stadium in August, the Brewers showed themselves to be strong and well-organised, ruthlessly efficient as opposed to attractive and free-flowing.
They had not conceded for four games and had won five and drawn two of their previous eight as Stags and their army of over 1,000 followers arrived for what passes as the nearest Stags get to a local derby these days.
But the afternoon could have panned out very differently had Reggie Lambe accepted a golden chance inside the opening minute.
Former Burton hotshot Kee was booed on his first touch by the home fans but almost conjured up a goal inside that first 30 seconds as he flicked a low Chris Clements pass into the path of Lambe in the box. But the youngster stroked his finish disappointingly wide from seven yards.
Instead, the Brewers served notice of what was to come on four minutes as Darragh Lenihan was afforded the room to shoot from 25 yards and saw his shot come back off the post.
They then grabbed an eighth minute lead via a deflected Matty Palmer free kick after Ritchie Sutton had given away a needless foul just outside the box.
After Palmer had curled another free kick inches wide, the game looked all over when Kelvin Maynard powered home a free header from a 24th minute corner.
A defensive mistake allowed Kee his first and only real sight of goal all day on 28 minutes, but keeper Jon McLaughlin stood up well to beat away his finish after he had burst into the box.
However, Mansfield, playing towards a superb and noisy away following, rallied superbly after the break and, after Vadaine Oliver had twice gone close, Reggie Lambe found a way past the rock solid Burton defence to pull one back on 51 minutes – the first goal Burton had conceded in 424 minutes of football.
Raynes flicked a long Elder throw from the left in front of goal where Lambe stretched out a leg to notch his first Mansfield goal.
From the restart Lambe almost levelled as he tried to accelerate down the middle of the box but a poor touch saw the ball roll to the the keeper before he could pull the trigger.
However, Stags’ new signings were now shaking off first half nerves and rust and combining well to ask question after question of the Brewers, who were suddenly spending far more time in their own half.
Raynes had grown in stature along side the impressive Martin Riley at the back while Elder, in his first senior game, began to find his feet and his long throw was an extra weapon.
Although Riley was captain, Ravenhill was a vocal and all-action figure in central midfield while keeper Smith was hardy troubled.
But, for all their good approach play, Stags failed to give Oliver and Kee enough decent service and an equaliser proved frustratingly elusive, even with four strikers pitched together for the final push.
The game was hampered by some consistently bad officiating with referee Andy Haines having a stinker, the bad decisions going both ways.
Perhaps his worst came when Riley and Raynes ran into each other to leave Jacob Blyth clear and the referee somehow blew for a foul and booked an incredulous Blyth.
Stags kept going and a great ball by Clements put Sutton into space on the right and, having sidestepped a defender, he blazed a poor left foot finished well over the far angle.
Then another good burst of pace saw Lambe race into the box and take the ball wide of McLaughlin only to see Damien McRory shepherd him wide and concede a corner. That was cleared back out to Clements, who got the ball over at the second attempt and found Sutton, who completely missed his kick.
A Kee flick then offered Lambe a 20 yard shot which the keeper grabbed at the second attempt as time began to run out.
With Stags throwing everyone forward, they were almost caught out near the end as Blyth turned on the right on 89 minutes to fire a powerful effort on target from 20 yards that Smith did well to hold above his head.
Teenager Danny Fletcher came on for Elder in the four minutes of stoppage time for the final push, but the Brewers stood firm to take the spoils.