Fleetwood Town 2 Mansfield Town 0
A second-half rally, the most vital of first touches from a striker struggling through illness and two battling landmark performances.
Take your pick of the stories, the league table tells only one as Fleetwood Town tamed the rampant Stags to go nine points clear at the top of the Blue Square Premier because title rivals Wrexham conceded a last-minute winner at Forest Green .
With Mansfield some 20 points behind the Cod Army before kick-off, this wasn’t technically a six-pointer but it was still a huge game between two teams harbouring promotion ambitions.
Mansfield are, after all, along with Fleetwood, one of the form teams of the Conference – seven wins in their last eight (the other a 1-1 draw with Micky Mellon’s men a fortnight earlier) and 13 goals in their last two outings have seen Paul Cox’s side rise to third in the table.
And the visitors, perhaps buoyed by the fact that Fleetwood’s top scorer Jamie Vardy could only make the bench because of a chest infection, made their attacking intentions clear, enjoying the better of the opening exchanges.
Admittedly, the visitors had more than a little of a helping hand from the home side, who seemed hell bent on continuing their season-long strategy of lumping pressure on themselves.
Fleetwood’s fragile defence has, on many occasions, threatened to derail the promotion express and, with Mansfield pressing in the first quarter hour, it seemed they might be up to their old tricks again.
Two poor passes from Steve McNulty allowed Anthony Howell to break towards the Fleetwood box, Lindon Meikle setting up Luke O’Neill who could only fire into the side-netting.
Moments later, a weak clearance from O’Neill’s corner fell to Gary Roberts, whose 35-yard blast was tipped over the bar by Scott Davies.
And on the quarter hour mark, Fleetwood were again lucky not to fall behind. O’Neill was again involved, picking up on a sloppy ball from Nathan Pond, his cross headed down by Howell, Matthew Green’s close-range shot fizzing over the bar.
Having survived the early onslaught, Micky Mellon’s men began creating chances of their own.
Jamie McGuire, celebrating his 100th appearance for Town, grabbed the first clear opportunity for the home side but was unable to direct his header, from Peter Cavanagh’s centre, goalwards.
Three minutes later it was Nathan Pond, celebrating 300 Cod Army turn-outs, in the thick of the action, showing superb strength at the back-post to get a head on Alan Goodall’s corner, Alan Marriott pulling off a superb reflex save to deny the centre-half. McGuire, putting in a marathon’s worth of running at the heart of the Fleetwood midfield, was almost rewarded with 10 minutes of the first half remaining, just inches away from connecting with Goodall’s cross as Fleetwood took control of the game.
And Town had a shout for a penalty as the clock ran down on the first period. Peter Till, anonymous for the first half-hour, forced his way into the box and referee Scott Duncan waved away claims the midfielder’s progress was unfairly checked. The home side were guilty in the first half of waiting too long to put the ball into the box and, on occasion, looking for one pass too many, but they began the second half with new urgency.
And the fresh approach almost came up with immediate rewards – Andy Mangan’s run was unchecked but the 20-goal striker chose to shoot from the tightest of angles rather than cross, the side netting his only reward.
But the 3,106 fans crammed into Highbury wouldn’t have to wait much longer for a goal – which came from a most unlikely source. After Fleetwood picked up the ball from a Mansfield attacking throw, Peter Cavanagh’s long run down the centre split the Stags’ defence, his pass perfect for Shaun Beeley. The full-back showed great composure and a fine finish, slotting low through the legs of Marriott to hand Fleetwood the lead.
Gareth Seddon almost doubled Fleetwood’s advantage two minutes later, his back-post header from another Goodall corner only just over the bar with Marriott beaten.
It was to be one of the striker’s last actions of the match, Mellon choosing to roll out the big guns in a bid to secure victory.
Seddon made way for Richard Brodie, Peter Till replaced by 30-goal Vardy, whose introduction proved to be an inspiration.
You could probably count the number of touches from the striker in his 30-minute cameo and have fingers to spare, but he made his first count in emphatic style.
Cavanagh picked out Goodall on the left, the full- back providing an inch-perfect cross for a lurking Vardy, who made no mistake to take his season’s tally to 31.
The goal effectively killed off any hope of a Mansfield revival, although the Stags did their best to keep the Fleetwood celebrations firmly on hold.
Their best chance came from Exodus Geohaghon, the last-minute party-pooper at Field Mill, but he could only direct his free header straight at Davies.
Town’s defence, showing rather uncharacteristic composure and confidence, soaked up the Mansfield advances with ease, while at the other end, Fleetwood were content to run down the clock with a game of keep ball.
Brodie wasted a chance to add to Fleetwood’s goal haul when, deep into injury time, he beat the offside trap. His run into the box lacked any real gusto or commitment and Mansfield were able to clear their lines.
It mattered little in the grand scheme for Fleetwood, but could have been a welcome boost for an on-loan striker, who has struggled for confidence much of the second half of the season.
Ending Mansfield’s unbeaten run is no small scalp for Fleetwood and the manner of the victory, after a testing opening, sends out a warning shot to their promotion rivals.
It’s now officially a two-horse race for the title, with Wrexham the only side who can mathematically overhaul Fleetwood, and the clubs’ meeting at Highbury in a fortnight could still be a title decider. But to keep the pressure on Town, Wrexham can’t afford to drop any more points in the first of their two games in hand at Darlington tomorrow.
Fleetwood: Davies, Beeley, McNulty (c), Pond, Till (Vardy, 61), Goodall, Mangan, McGuire, Seddon (Brodie,61), Cavanagh, Fowler; not used: Vieira, Charnock, Stevenson
Mansfield: Marriott, Riley, Green, Murray (c) (Rhead, 70), Dyer, O’Neill, Sutton (Andrew, 73), Howell, Meikle (Briscoe, 62), Geohaghon, Roberts Subs not used: Worthington, Redmond
Ref: S Duncan, Att: 3,106