Mansfield Town were left with nothing to show for their efforts despite a valiant performance in a 3-2 defeat to Exeter City.
In a pulsating end-to-end match full of unpredictability, the visitors took the lead when Tom Nichols headed home from a right-wing cross.
Goals by Billy Kee and Vadaine Oliver put the Stags ahead, but the drama didn’t end there as Scot Bennett levelled things up with a quarter-of-an-hour remaining, before Alex Nicholls’ penalty won the points for Exeter.
The Stags began at a high tempo and created the first chance of the afternoon on three minutes, when Junior Brown slipped a ball inside towards Billy Kee on the edge of the area, who turned away from his marker to bring the ball onto his favoured right foot, but his effort didn’t trouble Exeter ‘keeper James Hamon.
Adam Murray’s continued to press forward and put the visitors under pressure and Jordan Moore-Taylor was forced to make a vital interception just a few minutes later, when he stuck out a leg to stop Billy Kee’s ball from finding an unmarked Reggie Lambe inside the area.
An opener nearly arrived on eight minutes. After Callum Elder’s long-throw towards the near-post was headed precariously wide by Arron Davies, the Grecians midfielder was then in the right place at the right time to clear Martin Riley’s header off the line from Chris Clements’ resulting corner.
Mansfield settled by far the better and the pressure continued with another half-chance on 10 minutes when Elder floated a long ball into the area from the left, and although Vadaine Oliver reached the ball ahead of the Grecians’ ‘keeper, his header lacked any sort of accuracy.
Exeter mustered up their first chance just a few seconds later when Matt Oakley’s low pass from inside the area picked out an unmarked Ryan Harley, but the ex-Swindon Town had his effort blocked by Martin Riley.
On 14 minutes, Ricky Ravenhill became the first player to go into referee Nicholas Kinseley’s notebook for a strong challenge on Tom Nichols on the edge of the visitors’ area, after they partially cleared a cross by Lambe.
Lambe was a shining light in the Stags’ forward play in the early exchanges and he almost provided a goalscoring opportunity for Brown on the quarter-hour mark as he flashed a low ball across the face of goal, but Bennett was there to poke the ball away to safety, with Brown closing in ready to pounce.
Having been on the end of a strong tackle just five minutes earlier, Nichols then committed a foul on Michael Raynes midway inside the Stags’ half on 19 minutes, and rightly got a yellow card as a result.
Over the course of the next few minutes, the Stags had more possession but struggled to break down what was a resolute Exeter defence and nobody could get on the end of a ball through the six-yard box by Brown, after the winger twisted and turned away from his man at a tight angle inside the area.
Exeter’s longest-serving player Liam Sercombe almost put the Grecians ahead on 22 minutes, when he tried his luck from 25 yards, but his powerful shot was straight at Adam Smith, who held onto the ball.
The visitors gradually stepped up the pressure with Sercombe at the heart of their threat and the midfielder was unlucky to only hit the side-netting with another 20-yard effort on 26 minutes.
Exeter’s top scorer, Nichols, also went close with a separate effort within 60 seconds as he latched onto a long ball over the top, caught a glimpse of goal having got around his man, but chipped an effort over.
By and large, Mansfield were the better team inside the first 30 minutes and they were desperately unlucky not to open the scoring on the half-hour mark.
Elder’s ball into the mixer caused panic within the visitors’ defence and Oliver managed to glance a header goalwards, which Hamon somehow managed to palm onto the post, before Kee’s effort from the subsequent rebound was blocked on the line by a defender, which allowed the Grecians to scramble away the danger.
Mansfield then had a second player booked on 32 minutes as the referee judged Oliver’s tackle on David Noble to be worthy of a yellow card.
That seemed to signal a change in the momentum of the game as Exeter began to dictate proceedings and press forward with real menace and intent.
Less than a minute later, a trio of visiting players combined inside the Stags’ half, before the ball reached an unmarked Davies inside the ‘D’ on the edge of the area, whose goalbound effort was blocked by the trailing legs of Smith.
The Stags failed to take heed of the warnings and more sloppy marking less than three minutes later allowed Bennett a free header from point-blank range following a corner by Harley, but incredibly he missed the target.
Nevertheless, just 60 seconds later, the Grecians took the lead.
This time, wide out on the right flank, substituted David Wheeler combined with Davies, whose brilliant cross towards the near-post was flicked on by Nichols, whose header nestled in the back of the net.
Mansfield didn’t look too dis-heartened at having fallen behind and were exceptionally unlucky not to get back on level terms right on the stroke of first half injury-time.
Clements whipped in a dangerous corner towards the back-post and Raynes ghosted in from nowhere to plant a firm header goalwards, which was palmed up by Hamon, before a second header from Kee was miraculously headed off the line by Davies, who had by now proved his usefulness at both ends.
Incredibly, the Stags had yet another effort cleared off the line within two minutes of the re-start.
After a 35-yard strike by Oliver was deflected wide at the expense of a corner, Brown delivered a deep cross beyond the back-post, which was headed right under the woodwork by Riley, but guided off the line by Oakley.
Mansfield continued to press forward in search of an equaliser, but Exeter went close to doubling their lead as Nichols got on the end of a right-wing cross and his glancing header goalwards was saved by Smith.
At the other, Brown played an inviting ball through to Kee, who was stretching and had his body weight totally on the right side of his body as he saw an effort smothered by an on-rushing Hamon.
On 52 minutes, the Stags had another chance as Elder again wreaked havoc with one of his trademark looping long-throws into the area and Lambe eventually smashed a shot over from 18 yards.
The Stags’ pressure intensified with each passing minute, but frustratingly they were yet again denied as Oliver got on the end of a cross by Brown and glanced a looping header goalwards, but his header was cleared off the line.
Amazingly, the Stags went even closer just a couple of minutes later as a low cross to the near-post by Brown picked out Kee, whose first shot from four yards was blocked by Hamon, whilst his second toe-poked effort from even closer range looped up and onto the roof of the net.
Roared on by everyone of an amber and blue persuasion, the Stags then won a couple of quickfire corners – the second of which they made count.
Clements delivered a teasing ball towards the near-post, as opposed to guiding it long, and this time, Kee planted a firm header into the net with the Grecians’ custodian out of position.
Straight from the re-start, whilst most fans were still on their feet celebrating, the Stags pressed forward and very nearly reaped the rewards as Kee’s low cut-back picked out Brown unmarked inside the area, before the winger twisted and turned and saw a thunderous shot heroically blocked by Moore-Taylor.
Exeter’s defence was being completely stretched and it was once again on the hour mark. Brown delivered a long corner into the danger zone, which was headed down by Raynes, before Oliver’s effort was gathered by Hamon.
The Grecians then managed to muster up a rare opening on 62 minutes as Lambe tangled with an opponent around 30 yards out, which allowed Harley to try his luck with a curling free-kick that was well held by Smith.
It was to be Lambe’s last action of the afternoon as he was replaced by Matty Blair, who was making his home debut, before play re-started.
Midway through the second half, the Stags’ hard work, endeavour and threat looked to have paid off as they deservedly took the lead. Clements and Kee linked up=, before the latter knocked the ball off towards an unmarked Oliver, who smashed a powerful effort beyond a hapless Hamon from eight yards.
The Stags looked to protect their lead as Jamie McGuire immediately replaced Ravenhill, but Murray’s men were indebted to their goalkeeper, who pulled off a remarkable top-draw save after Davies broke away and unleashed a shot, following a great quick-ball down the flank by Woodman, which set up a counter-attack.
However, with 14 minutes to go, Exeter got back non level terms. Sercombe, who had just won a corner, played a quick set-piece straight in towards the near-post where Bennett finished with aplomb.
The Stags’ task now was to go and win the game and they had a glorious chance on 80 minutes when Clements played an inviting corner towards the edge of the six-yard box, where Raynes rose highest and headed the ball on, but Hamon was there to make a full-stretch save.
Hamon’s heroic stop was to prove crucial as less than two minutes later, the Grecians took full advantage of a defensive mix-up by the Stags.
Riley’s intended back-pass to Smithy fell short and in his attempts to stop the danger, Smith accidentally clattered into Wheeler, who went to ground and the referee was left with no option but to point to the spot.
Substitute Alex Nicholls showed nerves of steel to dust himself down and smash a low effort past Smith, who, to his credit, dived the right way, and put Exeter into a 3-2 lead.
Mansfield now had to show nerves of steel if they were to take anything from the game and went close to a leveller when Raynes headed goalwards from a long ball forward, but Hamon saved.
With just a couple of minutes to go, an equaliser almost came in the unlikeliest of circumstances as Blair delivered a cross-cum-shot from the right-wing, which forced Hamon into a reaction save at his near-post as the ball was going in.
Exeter then defended two corners in quick succession and retained the ball well in stoppage-time to collect three points.