Mansfield Town had to settle for a point after being held to a 1-1 draw by Hartlepool United in an feisty Boxing Day clash at One Call Stadium.
On a wintry afternoon, Adam Murray’s side made the perfect start as Junior Brown opened the scoring after just 10 minutes with a well-executed drive which was too powerful for visiting ‘keeper Scott Flinders.
Matt Rhead almost doubled the Stags’ advantage in first half stoppage-time, but his header was cleared off the line by Darren Holden, who had taken up a good position at the near-post.
The Pools looked brighter after the re-start and equalised when Michael Duckworth’s shot took a wicked deflection off an opponent.
Referee Scott Mathieson was then thrust into the spotlight – firstly as the hosts thought they had re-took the lead when Rhead’s header ricocheted off a defender and cannoned off the woodwork, appearing to cross the line, but no goal was given.
After both teams couldn’t take advantage of opportunities to go ahead, Ryan Tafazolli became the first of three players to be given his marching orders – the Stags defender getting a second yellow card after a foul on Joe Ironside.
Hartlepool were reduced to 10 men with just a couple of minutes of normal time left to play, after Marlon Harewood lashed out having tangled with Jamie McGuire.
Incredibly, in the last few seconds of the match, Pools playmaker Michael Woods was also red carded for violent conduct as he stamped on McGuire, who was trying to retrieve the ball after a foul on Martin Riley.
A point apiece means the two teams still occupy the positions they were in at the start of play – Mansfield in 16th and Hartlepool, rooted to the foot of the table, in bottom position.
Stags’ boss Adam Murray made one change to his side which won at AFC Wimbledon last time out with Reggie Lambe given a starting place in the absence of the suspended Rob Taylor.
The early stages of the game were played in the middle of the park, with neither side creating any early chances.
Hartlepool did have an opportunity in the ninth minute when Duckworth played a one-two with veteran forward Harewood, but his shot went wide.
A minute later, the Stags went ahead. Brown drove through the heart of the Pools’ defence, he managed to dribble through the centre after a return ball from Vadaine Oliver and slide the ball past the helpless goalkeeper.
Hartlepool had a good chance to equalise straight from the kick-off when Ironside managed to wriggle past three Stags defenders, but his shot rolled wide of the goal.
Mansfield nearly doubled their lead in the 14th minute when Oliver attempted a spectacular scissor-kick at the back-post, however it flew just over the bar.
The first booking was issued on the 16th minute when a mis-timed challenge from Ryan Tafazolli just inside the Stags half meant the defender collected a yellow card.
The visitors continued their efforts to draw level and Jonathan Franks headed just over the bar from a good cross on the wing from Dan Jones.
Both sides continued to make good goal scoring opportunities, in particular a cross from captain McGuire was headed just over the crossbar from Rhead, who appeared to be winning every header.
Reggie Lambe was threatening down the right flank when his ball had both goalkeeper and the defender struggling at the far post under the presence of Oliver, but the ball just went out of play.
Kieron Freeman then linked up with Rhead twice in a matter of minutes with both his crosses finding the striker, but both times he was unable to steer the ball goalwards.
Harewood was allowed space 30 yards out in the 38th minute to shot at goal, but it was well wide and no threat to Evtimov who had enjoyed a quiet game so far.
In the closing moments of the half, Woods was awarded Hartlepool’s first yellow card for a crunching tackle on Brown which left the Stags’ winger writhing around in agony.
In added time, Mansfield gained their first corner of the match that was taken by Chris Clements and yet another header from Rhead was cleared off the line by defender Darren Holden.
Hartlepool almost responded immediately after the re-start when Woods had an effort from just outside the box go narrowly wide of the goal.
In the 51st minute, Mansfield conceded a free-kick on the edge of the area, as Tafazolli bought striker Ironside down.
The resulting free-kick was drilled in to the wall by Jones and the ball was subsequently cleared away from danger.
The visitors’ lively start to the half paid off just a few moments later when a deflected shot from Duckworth swerved past the helpless goalkeeper Evtimov, after being laid off by the chest of Harewood.
Mansfield tried to regain the lead straight after and a looped cross from Freeman deceived goalkeeper Flinders and had to be tipped over the bar.
From the corner, it appeared that Rhead’s header crossed the line as fans and players celebrated, however no goal was awarded.
The Stags, enraged with the decision, nearly took the lead moments after when Brown weaved in to the box past a defender and fired the ball across goal, but Oliver arriving at the far post couldn’t stretch out a leg to convert the ball.
A string of Hartlepool corners followed, in which no clear-cut chances threatened the Stags goal.
Rhead had yet another header fly just wide of the goal in the 67th minute, this time from a Brown cross, as both sides pushed for a winner.
Another Mansfield chance followed, this time defender Luke Waterfall sliced his shot at the far post from a chipped Craig Clements free kick.
Mansfield were then reduced to 10 men as Tafazolli stopped a counter-attack by pulling Ironside’s shirt and the referee quickly issued his second yellow card.
A forced substitution saw Martin Riley replace Lambe, as Mansfield looked to hang on to the point.
Hartlepool also made a late substitution with Ironside replaced by Scott Fenwick as they looked to capitalise on the extra man.
A good chance fell to Franks for Hartlepool inside the box but he fired his shot just past the goal.
Despite the man difference in the 81st minute, Mansfield had a good chance to secure the points, when a flick on from Oliver found the substitute Bingham whose shot went wide.
Hartlepool were then reduced to 10 men as Harewood was red carded after an incident with McGuire. The striker appeared to wrestle the Stags’ captain to the floor and a straight red card was shown to Harewood for violet conduct.
It appeared as though Mansfield were most likely to capitalise and in-form striker Oliver had two half chances at goal, but the goalkeeper saved both times.
An additional five minutes of time was added to the match, as both sides looked for a crucial winner.
Neil Austin had a glorious moment to win the game when the defender blazed the ball over the bar from just two yards out.
Woods was shown a second yellow card in the last minute of injury-time for a stamp on a Mansfield player, as they finished with just nine men.
Attendance: 3,357 (419 away supporters).