Magnificent Mansfield Town produced a commanding performance as they swept aside table-toppers Rochdale at One Call Stadium to keep alive their Play-Off bid.
The Stags were dominant throughout, but had to wait until the 71st minute to open the scoring when Martin Riley’s stooping low header beat Josh Lillis.
Matt Rhead made it 2-0 with a powerful header on 86 minutes, before centre-back Ryan Tafazolli rounded off a brilliant individual display with a stoppage-time header.
If the Stags’ afternoon wasn’t magnificent enough already, it was made even better deep into added time as youngster Jack Thomas made his professional debut.
The victory lifts the Stags up to 10th position in the Sky Bet League Two table – six points adrift of the Play-Off places with four matches of the campaign left to play.
Stags boss Paul Cox made four changes to his starting line-up, three of which were enforced, due to a combination of injuries and suspensions.
Those returning to the line-up were Chris Clements, Colin Daniel and James Jennings. Goalkeeper Lewis Price, signed on an emergency loan from Crystal Palace yesterday, made his debut.
The Stags, searching for their fourth consecutive victory, started well and Dale ‘keeper Josh Lillis was called into action inside the first 60 seconds as he smothered a low cross by Daniel.
Rochdale looked equally as inventive going forward and enjoyed their first chance on three minutes when Ian Henderson ran towards goal, but blazed over with a shot from 25 yards.
The table-toppers shaded possession in the early exchanges and ex-Stag Peter Vincenti tried his luck with an ambitious half-volley from the edge of the area on seven minutes, which went over.
Ryan Tafazolli was the first player to go into the referee’s notebook when he was booked for an alleged push on Matthew Lund in the centre circle, just shy of the quarter-hour mark.
The Stags’ centre-back was again in the thick of the action moments later, providing a brilliant left-wing cross into the area for Darryl Westlake, who whistled a shot over from eight yards.
Backed by a noisy home crowd, Mansfield looked dangerous whenever they pressed forward, but spurned another opportunity as Daniel fired wide following some good work in the middle.
Matt Rhead was unfortunate to have an appeal for a spot-kick waved away on 20 minutes, when he rose high at the back-post to meet an Adam Murray cross, but saw his header blocked by the arm of Matt Done.
Referee Trevor Kettle instead awarded a corner – the result of which saw Jennings’ in-swinging delivery reach Tafazolli, whose close-range shot was blocked as Rochdale attempted to scramble the ball away.
Nevertheless, the ball only reached Ritchie Sutton around eight yards out and his subsequent follow-up attempt hit the chest of Rhys Bennett, which finally allowed the visitors to clear the danger.
Mansfield continued to attack almost at will and Dale shot-stopper Josh Lillis was forced to come off his line and claim long set-piece balls into his area on more than one occasion.
Lillis’ quick, long downfield balls always meant the visitors were dangerous on the counter-attack and after one of his deliveries almost found Scott Hogan, Martin Riley was forced to defend.
The Stags couldn’t capitalise an a somewhat bizarre opening on the half-hour mark, when a sloppy six-yard clearance by Oliver Lancashire went straight to Palmer, who was unable to carve out a clear shooting angle.
The match was continuously played at a frantic pace with very little time to draw breath and only moments later, it was Keith Hill’s team who were unfortunate not to open the scoring.
Henderson fed a delightful low pass through to an accelerating Hogan midway inside the Stags’ half, but the Dale striker took a touch and Price did just enough to advance forwards and smother his effort.
However, the ball only reached Henderson, who lofted a 30-yard shot over the melee infront of him, which hit the inside of the right-hand post and forced Tafazolli into a frantic last-ditch clearance.
Straight up at the other end, Tafazolli almost put the Stags into a 1-0 lead when his goalbound header from Jennings’ left-sided corner, was cleared off the line by Joe Rafferty.
Rochdale then enjoyed two chances in the space of just a few minutes prior to half-time; firstly as Henderson blazed over from an awkward angle around eight yards out and then as Lund had a 25-yard drive saved by Price.
In the first of two minutes of added time at the end of the first half, Palmer set about on a mazy run through the Rochdale half and unleashed a low shot goalwards, which was saved by Lillis.
The Stags enjoyed the first minor opening after the re-start when Murray’s floated cross found Rhead inside the area, but the burly forward was unable to bring the ball under control and play a pass to Palmer.
On 51 minutes, Clements provided a long, teasing set-piece cross into the area, but Tafazolli’s glancing header went narrowly wide of Lillis’ left-hand post.
Rochdale gradually started to apply pressure, with Hogan central to their attacking threat, but the Stags looked strong at the back and dealt with everything in the air.
The hosts went close again on the hour mark as Clements provided another long free-kick deep into the area, which caught a glancing header off Rhead and flew just wide – though an offside flag was already up.
In an effort to shuffle things up and bolster their threat going forward, Rochdale made a double substitution on 66 minutes as Graham Cummins and Jason Kennedy replaced Vincenti and Lund respectively.
However, just five minutes later, it was Mansfield who opened the scoring.
After Daniel surged down the left channel and saw his attempted cross blocked by a Dale defender at the expense of a corner, Clements stepped up to take the subsequent set-piece.
The Stags’ playmaker subsequently delivered a teasing low ball towards the near-post where Martin Riley was brave in stooping low to guide a point-blank header into the net.
With resulting elsewhere going against them, the visitors were desperate to draw level and went close as Lancashire headed over from a corner on 77 minutes.
However, the Stags could have doubled their advantage with eight minutes remaining when Westlake’s right-wing ball towards the edge of the six-yard box was headed wide by Rhead.
The miss could have proved costly as straight up at the opposite end, Rafferty wildly miscued a slicing shot, but a swirling wind held the ball up and it ricocheted off the upright, before the Stags could clear.
Dale were beginning to attack more by this stage and spurned a good chance on 84 minutes, when Bennett rose high to meet a near-post cross from the left, but headed wide.
With only a few minutes remaining, the Stags put the result beyond any reasonable doubt as they doubled their advantage to secure a fourth consecutive league victory.
Jennings was again the provider – this time with another corner, albeit from the opposite side, towards the back-post, where Rhead powered a bullet-header beyond a flapping Lillis to make it 2-0.
The home faithful erupted with unadulterated joy as the victory almost certainly secured the Stags’ Football League status for another year, and also kept alive their Play-Off hopes.
Rochdale fans were already streaming for the exits in the hundreds by the time Tafazolli made it 3-0 in the first of four minutes of added time, with a bullet-header as Clements again claimed the assist.
Midfielder Jack Thomas also received a standing ovation as he made his professional debut in the closing stages, as Mansfield celebrated easily their best victory of the season so far.
Attendance: 3,843 (869 away supporters).