CHARLIE HEMPSTEAD takes an alternative look at our 1-0 defeat at Mansfield's One Call Stadium on Saturday...Despite, or even because of, Argyle’s impressive recent form, the visit to Mansfield always had the feel of a real banana skin about it.
Not only were Argyle unbeaten in seven, Mansfield were without a win in nine and, as of the previous afternoon, without a manager either, as Paul Cox’s tenure was brought to an abrupt end.
A home banker then.
Parting ways - whichever party instigated the parting - with the manager on the eve of a big match falls into the category of ‘big call’ - particularly as Mansfield chairman John Radford had spent the last few days explaining why Cox was still the man for the job.
Clearly, though, Radford has some standing in these parts. Whereas some chairmen’s status is confirmed by having a stadium bearing their name (Madejski at Reading, Kassam at Oxford and the slightly more coy DW at Wigan), the Mansfield chief’s credentials are displayed on pitchside advertising hoardings bearing the slogan “In John Radford we trust”.
That trust was in evidence from before kick-off, with a tangible buzz all around the ground that things were on the up, even before a ball had been kicked. It seemed that for all Cox’s achievements in his three-and-a-half years in charge, the fans had reached the point where they felt that any change was a good change.
The man charged with freshening up a recipe that had clearly lost its zest was player/assistant manager, Adam Murray. Undaunted by the challenge, he not only made six changes to the starting line-up, but also switched the formation from 3-5-2 to 4-1-4-1.
That’s two big calls at the One Call in the space of 24 hours.
The early indications were that Murray might have made a mint decision, with his charges showing considerable appetite from the first minute, and Reggie Lambe looking a very tasty outlet on the right flank. Clearly these yellows were not in mellow mood.
However, the balance gradually began to shift, and it was not long before questions were being asked of the home defence, in which Ryan Tafazolli caught the eye. The biggest question though was how Kelvin Mellor failed to give the Pilgrims the lead in the 17th minute, somehow contriving to hit the crossbar from a yard out (maybe two yards, to be generous) after Andy Kellett had presented the opportunity on a plate.
A goal at that stage would surely have knocked the stuffing out of the home side, especially as Argyle have won every single match this season in which they have scored first.
As the half progressed, Mansfield continued to find space in the middle of the field, but their final pass was lacking and Argyle seemed to have things pretty much under control, even if their passing was not as crisp as it usually is.
It was therefore something of a surprise when the home side took the lead in the 45th minute, and the manner of the goal would have had John Sheridan steaming. A punt forward, indecision between Carl McHugh and Luke McCormick, and an opportunist lob into the unguarded net by the beefy Vadaine Oliver.
The roar that greeted the half-time whistle was testament to the fact that the home fans have been on starvation rations for a long time. It may not have been a feast of football, but the locals were clearly enjoying seeing their side upset the apple cart.
The second period took a while to get going, but when it did, it was the home side that looked the more threatening. Chris Clements looped one over McCormick but wide of the post, then only a superb tackle by Mellor saved the day after a slip by the previously faultless Peter Hartley.
Things had already been getting a little spicy before they took a rather distasteful turn in the 65th minute. Oliver clattered into McCormick, sparking a stand-off between most of the players on the field. The upshot was a yellow card for Oliver for starting it and one for Hartley for being rather too keen to carry it on.
As he had done at Burton, master chef Sheridan threw some new ingredients into the pot, with Deane Smalley, Ollie Norburn and Jason Banton replacing McHugh, Anthony O’Connor and Dominic Blizzard.
The reshuffle moved Lewis Alessandra to the left flank and he was quickly sowing panic in the home ranks, but his low cross fell agonisingly out of reach of any of the many Greens in the box. Then, with ten minutes to go, Smalley was only prevented from turning in Reuben Reid’s cross by a sumptuous block by Martin Riley.
Argyle kept up the relentless pressure right to the end, but applying pressure butters no parsnips if you don’t put the ball in the onion bag.
No matter how you phrase it, defeat leaves a bitter taste.