Mansfield Town 0
THE Pilgrims stood up to an examining physical battle on foreign turf from uncompromising opponents to come away from the battleground unbowed for a well-earned and deserved victory.
Albeit a late one. The clock had just ticked into the third minute of four added on at the end of the game when Neal Trotman rose to head home Conor Hourihane’s free-kick from deep.
It ended a run of eight games in which Argyle had failed to win and was a reward for manager John Sheridan’s favourite word of the moment – indeed, the season – belief.
Sheridan had made three changes to the team that had drawn 0-0 at home to Newport four days earlier, tweaking his recent 3-5-2 system without sacrificing any of his oft-stated attacking principles.
In fact, the 3-4-3 formation was, if anything, a sign of greater intent, with the pace of Lewis Alessandra and Reuben Reid allied to Rommy Boco’s spatial awareness up front.
The four-man midfield saw Curtis Nelson partner captain Conor Hourihane in the centre, with Jamie Reckord and Durrell Berry recalled to the wing-back roles. Andre Blackman was omitted from the 19 that travelled, while – with Boco retained in a different role – Paul Hayes dropped to the bench.
Nelson having supplanted Luke Young, Guy Branston was recalled to the three-man defence, no better a figure to deal with Mansfield’s direct approach.
The Stags made five changes to the side that had held out for a goalless draw at Bury in midweek, including recalling George Pilkington from his loan at Forest Green Rovers to bolster a defence that was without four-fifths of their Tuesday night line-up
Martin Riley suffered an Achilles injury at Gigg Lane; John Dempster was sent off in the same game and began a three-match ban; and James Jennings was suspended for one game. That also meant a recall for John McCombe, who was making his first appearance since a Capital One Cup tie in August, while Ritchie Sutton was promoted from the bench.
The fourth change at the back was in goal, where Liam Mitchell came in for Alan Marriott, while, at the other end of the park, midfielder Ben Hutchinson was preferred to Ollie Palmer in attack.
Argyle came under the pump from the first whistle and had to be strong to withstand a series of Stag charges.
Trotman was especially to the fore, and the inclusion of Branston was immediately justified as the ball was launched unfussily forward at every opportunity and corners and crosses were fired in with abandon.
The third centre-back, Max Blanchard, played his part, too, most notably courageously block-clearing the ball after Luke McCormick had made a super save when Sam Clucas turned Lee Beevers’ low and hard cross towards goal from no more than five yards out.
The Frenchman took some pain for that intervention but shook it off and was soon back to resume his part in the repulsion of the home side’s battering, lunging in to get his body between Matt Rhead’s shot and the goal.
Argyle’s first serious foray forward came just before the half-hour mark, when Reid, who was in as physical a battle as his defensive team-mates, tickled in Hourihane for a shot that Mitchell saved.
Then Hourihane’s free-kick found its way to Alessandra by way of the heads of Nelson and Boco, but the third header from Argyle’s number seven was too high to cause Mitchell any concern.
More possession by the blue-shirted Greens suggested that the Pilgrims were getting to grips with both their new shape and Mansfield’s robustness, but the half ended as it had begun, with the Pilgrims having to repel a couple of heat-seeking corners.
More evidence of Argyle’s increasing momentum came in the opening stages of the second half when Alessandra fed Reid, who muscled his way into position for a shot that Mitchell turned aside for a corner.
The home side’s riposte was nearly twice fatal. First, Colin Daniel failed to get his shot on target after sneaking round the back on to Read’s driven cross; then, McCormick stretched backwards to pluck out of the air a header by Read that briefly threatened to loop over him.
Another header, by Sutton, went over the Argyle crossbar before the physical battle in between the boxes resumed.
As it raged, the delicate skills of Andres Gurrieri were introduced and the Argentinean did buy the Pilgrims more time on the ball before Hayes and Tyler Harvey were sent on in search of the elusive match-winning goal. Chances, though, remained at a premium throughout.
Mansfield kept Argyle honest, with Daniel thumping a rising drive that McCormick watched into his gloves before the same Stag forced Branston to head out a dangerous cross.
Trotrman then had his what looked like being his traditional close thing, a header from another Hourihane free-kick, before returning to more familiar duties at the other end to block out Daniel.
Thankfully, it was not his last act.
Mansfield Town (3-5-2): 33 Liam Mitchell; 2 Ritchie Sutton, 5 John McCombe, 27 George Pilkington; 17 Lee Beevers, 26 Jack Blake, 18 Ben Hutchinson (20 Lindon Meikle 83), 23 Jamie McGuire, 30 Colin Daniel; 9 Matt Rhead (24 Calvin Andrew 67), 11 Sam Clucas (36 Ollie Palmer 77). Substitutes (not used): 3 Paul Black, 8 Keiran Murtagh, 10 Lee Stevenson, 13 Anthony Powell.
Booked: Hutchinson 37, Blake 68.
Argyle (3-4-3): 23 Luke McCormick; 4 Maxime Blanchard, 16 Neal Trotman, 5 Guy Branston; 2 Durrell Berry, 17 Curtis Nelson, 6 Conor Hourihane (capt), 28 Jamie Reckord (19 Paul Hayes 84); 7 Lewis Alessandra (18 Tyler Harvey 84), 9 Reuben Reid, 8 Rommy Boco (27 Andres Gurrieri 75). Substitutes (not used): 1 Jake Cole, 14 Luke Young, 15 Paul Wotton, 20 Hamza Bencherif.
Referee: Gary Sutton.
Attendance: 3,379 (460 away).