Mansfield Town ended the Sky Bet League Two season on a high as Junior Daniel’s first half strike sealed a 1-0 victory at Bristol Rovers.
Daniel fired home from 25 yards following a low pass from team-mate Anthony Howell to inflict a defeat on the Pirates, which relegates them to the Conference Premier.
A capacity crowd flocked to the Memorial Stadium –with the majority of fans hoping that Bristol Rovers could secure the point they needed to secure survival in the Football League.
The home faithful piled into the stadium well before kick-off and created an electric pre-match atmosphere, which concluded with a near-deafening rendition of ‘Goodnight Irene’.
Mansfield were forced to wear their counterparts’ change shirts due to unforeseen circumstances and as a result they were dressed in black shirts, amber shorts and amber socks.
When the two teams emerged from the tunnel, they were greeted by glorious sunshine and a rapturous wall of sound, which created a special carnivalesque atmosphere.
The Stags got proceedings underway, but on a bobbly pitch, it was the hosts that seized the initiative and dictated play in the very early exchanges.
Only five minutes had elapsed when Chris Beardsley latched onto a ball over the top and flashed a first-time shot narrowly over the upright from a tight angle on the edge of the six-yard box.
Darrell Clarke’s team kept their foot on the gas and went close again when David Clarkson’s scruffy low effort drew Lewis Price into a comfortable save, just a few moments later.
The Stags then enjoyed a short spell of pressure and won the first corner of the match, but couldn’t create any openings to test Rovers’ veteran shot-stopper Steve Mildenhall.
After a largely disjointed opening quarter-of-an-hour, both teams had chances to break the deadlock in a frantic 60-second spell.
Rovers went agonisingly close as Kaid Mohamed’s teasing set-piece delivery towards the back-post found the head of Tom Parkes, but his header went just inches over.
Straight up at the other end, the Stags won a cheap throw-in and right-back Liam Marsden hurled a torpedo-like long-throw into the area, which was only partially cleared.
Marsden picked up the resulting loose ball out on the left flank and subsequently chipped a great ball towards the six-yard box, where Ollie Palmer’s glancing header went narrowly wide.
With so much at stake for Rovers, emotions were understandably high and the home fans were appealing for a red card when Marsden’s went in strong with a challenge on Mohamed.
The 19-year-old was booked for the offence and was booed by the Rovers’ crowd for the rest of the afternoon.
Knowing that results elsewhere were going against them, the hosts continued to press forward in search of a breakthrough and soon wasted two gilt-edge in quick succession.
In the first opening, Clarkson linked up well with strike-partner Matt Harrold and threaded a low ball for him to race onto, and after doing so, Harrold flashed a low drive across the six-yard box and wide.
Rovers went close for a second time in as many minutes as Beardsley hooked a shot over the upright from close-range, having latched onto Clarkson’s clever ball over the top.
The Pirates remained frustrated in their efforts to find an opener and spurned another great chance when Clarkson’s ball across the six-yard box was gathered bravely by Price with Harrold lurking nearby.
After 35 minutes of high octane drama and near-incredible tension, the clash became even more nail-biting for Bristol Rovers supporters, as Mansfield broke the deadlock.
Anthony Howell provided the assist with a low pass inside to Junior Daniel, who looked up and unleashed a low 25-yard drive, which beat a flat-footed Mildenhall and ricocheted off the left-hand post into the net.
Daniel wheeled away to celebrate his second goal of the campaign, whilst the home faithful were staring deep despair right in the face – as things stood the Pirates were going down!
Nerves within the home terraces quickly began to spread onto the terraces as Rovers’ play began to be littered by mis-placed passes, poor ball control and bad positional play.
Things could have become even worse for Rovers just before half-time as Howell seized upon one such mistake and fed a ball through to Ollie Palmer, who lashed a powerful 18-yard drive over the target.
After 45 league games and 45 minutes, the match now hinged on what would happen in the second half – and undoubtedly the most important 45 minutes in Bristol Rovers’ long history.
The Pirates looked bright, refreshed and inventive following the re-start and won a corner in the first couple of minutes, but Mohamed was unable to cause danger with his flag-kick.
On 51 minutes, Mohamed delivered a much-better corner, this time towards the back-past, where Parkes rose high and sent a header well wide of the right-hand post.
A continuous problem for Rovers was their inability to cause any serious danger in open play, so with time absolutely essential, they made their first change moments later as Beardsley was replaced by Fabian Broghammer.
The substitution nearly paid off with an instant as Martin Riley’s sloppy attempted-clearance was picked up by Clarkson in the centre-circle, who brought the ball forward.
Clarkson shared a one-two with a team-mate as the Stags’ defence back-peddled furiously, before he broke clear and struck an eight-yard shot with pure venom, which forced Price into a spectacular one-handed diving save.
Nails were still jangling by the time of Rovers’ next opportunity as Mohamed’s quickly-taken corner across the goalmouth found the glancing head of Clarkson, but not the net.
The pure tension inside the Memorial Stadium was etched clearly upon the face of every Bristol Rovers supporter, as minutes kept ticking away without any breakthrough for the hosts.
John-Joe O’Toole made his first real impact on 63 minutes when he let fly with a speculative 30-yard strike, which bounced and bobbled well wide of the left-hand post.
The Pirates kept pouring men forward and made their second change shortly afterwards when Alefe Santos was introduced for Seanan Clucas, who hadn’t created much danger.
Minutes slowly ebbed away with agonising pair and heartache for Rovers, who still occupied a perilous position and craved an equaliser which would change their desperate situation.
On 66 minutes, the Memorial Stadium nearly erupted as Mark McChrystal had a full-stretch Price beaten with a powerful close-range header, which rattled the crossbar.
It seemed that the ball just wouldn’t go into the net for the Pirates, who were becoming increasingly desperate and frustrated by the agony of their situation.
A few moments later, O’Toole and McGuire were both cautioned following a coming together on the halfway line – despite the home faithful pleading for more.
Rovers still required inspiration to prevent their seemingly desperate plight and came close to finding it, when a swerving low shot from Broghammer was saved by Price at his near-post.
The Pirates wasted yet another great opportunity to equalise on 72 minutes, as Ritchie Sutton’s last-ditch foul on an advancing Harrold saw the hosts awarded a free-kick around 20 yards out.
Clarkson stepped up and unleashed a clean-strike with unadulterated venom, which looked as though it was going to hit the target, yet it somehow drifted agonisingly wide.
Mansfield continued to hang on to their slender one-goal advantage which was keeping Wycombe Wanderers in the Football League as the clash ticked into the last quarter-of-an-hour.
The Pirates weren’t going to lie down with a fight and they threw the proverbial kitchen sink at Mansfield in some dramatic closing exchanges which were packed with high drama.
On 81 minutes, Mohamed’s right-wing cross into the area wasn’t dealt with by the Stags and O’Toole rose high and directed a header goalwards, which went just an inch wide.
Rovers continued to apply intense and relentless pressure and suffered more agony on 86 minutes, when Clarkson rattled the upright with a powerful strike from inside the area.
Following 90 jaw-dropping minutes, five minutes of added time were indicated for Rovers to either equaliser and retain their Football League status or drop into the non-league abyss.
However, the Stags held on to record a win which means they finish in the top half of the table, whilst Bristol Rovers are left to stare at the prospect of a season in the Conference Premier.