O’Connor 2, McHugh 63
Mansfield Town 1
by Rick Cowdery
THERE were not many clouds for Argyle as they climbed back into the Sky Bet League 2 promotion places with a hard-fought victory that was the epitome of the end-of-season mantra that results are more important than the performance.
The Pilgrims’ defence has been rightly praised for a resilience that has seen them keep clean sheets this season, and it was two of that unit who, on this occasion, earned the victory at the other end of the pitch.
Anthony O’Connor headed them ahead after just 98 seconds and Carl McHugh nodded them further in front midway through the second period. Or did he? Post-match, O'Connor claimed a crucial final touch on McHugh's near-post header of Bobby Reid's corner. Videos proved inconclusive and the two Irishmen left Home Park still arguing the toss. This one might run and run.
Mansfield, who defied their lowly Sky Bet League 2 status to pose plenty of problems, immediately responded through Vadaine Oliver.
It could never be said that Argyle were in command of the game, nor that they were anywhere near as fluent as everyone in another bumper Home Park crowd would have liked but, as those watching another sport in Augusta this week will tell you, it is not how, it is how many.
Argyle manager John Sheridan had made four changes to the team beaten 2-1 at Portsmouth on Easter Bank Holiday Monday, three out of choice and one forced by captain Curtis Nelson’s sending-off at Fratton Park.
O’Connor returned from a groin injury to fill the skipper’s boots on the right-side of the back three, with the armband passing, for the first time, to Peter Hartley.
Olly Lee, scorer of the Pilgrims’ spectacular consolation against Pompey, was promoted from the bench into midfield to replace Jason Banton, while Kelvin Mellor was preferred to young Everton loanee Gethin Jones for the right wing-back role.
The final of the four changes for the stag hunt was in the van, to where Lewi Alessandra was restored to partner Reuben Reid instead of Zak Ansah, the familiar front two having been separated after the former was benched at Fratton Park.
Mansfield, who arrived at Home Park hoping to stop a slide towards relegation trouble caused by four successive defeats, brought in Swiss goalkeeper Sascha Struder for Lenny Pidgeley and striker Rakish Bingham for Terry Hawkridge.
They were also obliged to make a late change to their initial 11 after Ritchie Sutton injured himself during the warm-up. The fortune to the right-back’s poison belonged to Ryan Tafazolli, who was promoted from the bench to start.
The day went from bad to worse barely a minute and a half after the Pilgrims kicked off. Tafazolli’s first significant contribution to the game was to foul Alessandra, charging unnecessarily into the Argyle number seven’s back midway inside the Stags’ half.
Bobby Reid floated a ball perfectly into O’Connor’s flightpath and the tall Irishman ran on to it and sent a powerful looping header over a stranded Studer in front of the Devonport end. After waiting his whole life to claim his first goal – against Northampton Town earlier this month – SuperAnt has now netted twice in his last six matches.
While the early breakthrough initially relieved any anxiety, on the pitch and off it, the feelings soon crept back. A Mansfield corner routine caught Argyle napping, requiring Luke McCormick to block Reggie Lambe’s powerful drive, and Oliver was denied a headed equaliser only by a linesman’s flag.
The rest of the first half fell into the not-pretty-but-effective category for Argyle as Mansfield showed the same desire to thwart as they had the previous week, when restricting second-placed Shrewsbury to a single goal win at the One Call Stadium.
Clear opportunities did not come along often – Mansfield’s priority was to spoil Argyle’s intentions; the Pilgrims could not find the inventiveness to bypass this.
Lee, Alessandra and Mellor combined on the right to send the latter in on goal from a right-wing burst. Finding himself in the relatively unfamiliar environs of penalty box, Mellor knew he had to shoot, but the ball was on left foot and the tame effort was never going trouble Studer.
The visitors, maybe sensing Argyle’s increasing nervousness in being unable to kill off the game, grew exponentially in confidence and might have gone into the interval on level terms had not Oliver shot wildly over from ten yards after fashioning space for himself.
Argyle could not shake of the visitors’ grip in the opening stages of the second half, and McCormick was called upon again to save from point-blank range after substitute Matt Rhead had headed him in.
The Pilgrims responded with a break from which Alessandra shot across the goal before giving themselves breathing space with another headed goal from a Bobby Reid set-piece delivery, this time McHugh getting up at the near post to head a corner goalwards. O'Connor was in there, certainly, and insisted he had the final touch. Whatever, Argyle were two up and in a comfort zone.
Not for long. The two-goal margin was back to one within 72 seconds as Oliver reacted quickest to his header from Lee Beevers’ cross coming back off the crossbar to volley home the reducer.
McHugh – who netted his first goal of the season only on Good Friday – gave best to one of his catalogue of injuries soon afterward, leaving only one of the back three which has been the bedrock of the Pilgrims’ promotion tilt.
Still the visitors pressed, but Argyle held on like grim death, and Ansah nearly helped settle things when, after coming on for Reuben Reid, he teed up Bobby Reid for a shot that was blocked by a desperate Mansfield lunge.
A goal would have been sweet relief, but Home Park were spared that luxury, and Hartley’s late penalty box intervention of Rhead’s through-ball possibly prevented late agony.
Argyle (3-5-2): 23 Luke McCormick; 19 Anthony O’Connor, 16 Carl McHugh (20 Gethin Jones 70), 29 Peter Hartley (capt); 2 Kelvin Mellor, 17 Bobby Reid, 21 Olly Lee (4 Lee Cox 70), 11 Dominic Blizzard, 13 Tareiq Holmes-Dennis; 7 Lewis Alessandra, 9 Reuben Reid (27 Zak Ansah 79). Substitutes (not used): 1 James Bittner (gk), 8 Jason Banton, 14 Tyler Harvey, 28 Ryan Brunt.
Mansfield Town (4-3-3): 1 Sascha Studer (gk); 18 Lee Beevers, 3 Martin Riley, 6 Ryan Tafazolli, 26 Callum Elder; 11 Rakish Bingham (9 Matt Rhead 54), 28 Chris Clements, 12 Jamie McGuire (capt), 17 Reggie Lambe (8 Alex Fisher 89); 25 Vadaine Oliver (10 Liam Hearn 77), 20 Jack Thomas. Substitutes (not used): 15 Ricky Ravenhill, 19 Liam Marsden, 32 Michael Raynes, 36 Joe Fitzpatrick.
Bookings: Beevers 33.
Referee: Rob Lewis.
Attendance: 6,626 (166 away).