Ben Hutchinson’s strike after 96 seconds proved to be enough as Mansfield Town maintained their fine home form with a narrow 1-0 victory over Southport.
The part-time Sandgrounders lacked creativity in the final third against a gritty Stags side, who mustered up the better chances in what proved to be an intriguing contest.
Mansfield started in scintilating fashion on a mild afternoon at One Call Stadium and seized on some slack defending in the Southport backline to open the scoring after only two minutes.
Lindon Meikle won the ball with an expertly timed challenge on the edge of his own area and sprayed a delicious pass to Nick Wright as Mansfield began to move forward. Wright then combined with Louis Briscoe on the right channel, before delivering a fine low cross through the six-yard box, which allowed Hutchinson to fire home.
Southport, nevertheless, had plenty of possession in the early exchanges and almost hit back when Shaun Whalley took a tumble inside the area under a challenge from Ritchie Sutton. However, despite vociferous appeals for a spot-kick from those in sky blue shirts, referee Declan Ford was unconvinced and waved play on.
Mansfield again showed their menace when Wright drew a fine save from Tony McMillan on seven minutes, shortly before Whalley received a yellow card after he once again tumbled to the ground inside the area in dramatic fashion, this time under a challenge from Lee Beevers.
Wright and Hutchinson were both off target as Paul Cox’s side created more chances midway through the first period, whilst Whalley also failed to test Shane Redmond with a 30-yard free-kick at the other end.
Exodus Geohaghon was unable to cause any danger when he hurled his first trademark long-throw of the game into the Sandgrounders box on the half-hour mark, but from the second wave of play Chris Clements arrowed a fine cross from deep on the right, which was headed narrowly wide by Wright.
Wright again came close to doubling Mansfield’s lead when he fired straight into the arms of McMillan from the cusp of the area, before Beevers drilled over from a similar position prior to the interval.
The Stags created a series of good chances as they sought to double their advantage early in the second period.
Wright failed to test McMillan when Briscoe floated a fine ball into the six-yard box from the right channel, whilst Sutton drilled into the arms of the Sandgrounders shot-stopper from an acute angle.
Southport, who enjoyed plenty of the play throughout the game, then came close to an unlikely equaliser on 54 minutes as Alan Moogan caused havoc with his chipped free-kick into the Stags’ area, though Simon Grand was only able to head wide of Redmond’s left-hand post.
Chris Lever blazed over from distance, and Stags’ skipper John Dempster bravely blocked two powerful drives from Chris Almond and Steven Tames respectively, as the visitors continued to pose a threat to Mansfield’s slender advantage.
Nevertheless, despite all their possession and dictation in the middle, Southport lacked any distinct creativity within their play and struggled to create the one clear-cut chance that they so desperately craved.
Instead, with only five minutes remaining, it was the hosts who claim closest to scoring the second goal of the game as substitute Adam Murray sprayed a delightful ball from right to left, which was met by Hutchinson, who superbly combined with Meikle, before Howell eventually bundled an effort straight at McMillan.
Southport set up a dramatic grandstand finale when Sutton conceded a free-kick midway inside his own half after he was harshly judged to have committed a foul on Almond.
With what was literally the last kick of the game, Whalley delivered a teasing cross into a crowded penalty area from deep on the left channel, but Mansfield’s defence held resolute and were relieved as the match referee sounded his whistle and brought an end to a closely-fought contest.
Attendance: 1,918 (83 away supporters).