Rhys Oates’ second-half goal proved only a consolation as Mansfield Town were left to rue missed chances following a 2-1 loss at Walsall on New Year’s Day.
Stags had a hatful of opportunities to add to their tally but their wayward finishing ultimately proved costly.
Mansfield bossed the first half but found themselves a goal down at the interval. And Walsall had their tails up just 90 seconds after the restart with a headed goal from a corner.
Stags bombarded the Saddlers’ goal late on and despite Oates nodding home to reduce the deficit on 82 minutes, life in 2023 started with defeat.
Five changes were made to the side that beat Hartlepool United 2-1 on Thursday evening.
Kellan Gordon, Anthony Hartigan, Hiram Boateng, Stephen Quinn and George Lapslie replaced Elliott Hewitt, George Maris, Ollie Clarke, Kieran Wallace and Lucas Akins in the Stags’ starting lineup.
Stags had the game’s first chance inside the fifth minute.
After Rhys Oates was upended midway inside the Saddlers’ half, Hartigan floated the subsequent free-kick into the box, but Oli Hawkins’ volley was powerless to seriously test home goalkeeper Owen Evans.
Mansfield carved an even better opportunity five minutes later and should have taken the lead.
Stephen Quinn showed great vision to set Oates racing away. And the Stags’ striker found Gordon on the overlap, whose low ball across the goal area was missed by both Lapslie and Will Swan.
Walsall were now under heavy pressure and Mansfield almost hit them on the counter punch.
Swan darted forward on the inside left channel and after his cross wasn’t properly cleared, Lapslie curled narrowly wide from 25 yards.
Boateng and Lapslie both saw shots blocked in quick succession as Stags kept their foot on the gas.
Nigel Clough was forced into making a first change after half-an-hour. Anthony Hartigan was grounded with a presumed shoulder injury and – after a three-minute stoppage for treatment - was replaced by George Maris in a like-for-like swap.
Moments later, Walsall created a half-chance as Jacob Maddox picked out Douglas James-Taylor in the box. But after swivelling inside the box, his shot was blocked, allowing Christy Pym to gather.
Tom Knowles then tried his luck, striking into the body of James Perch, as the ball spun out for Walsall’s first corner
Stags were soon back down the other end and in the 40th minute Evans had to push away a stinging shot by Maris before Lapslie blasted over the follow up from the edge of the box.
But despite Mansfield’s first-half dominance, it was Walsall who made the breakthrough on 43 minutes.
Andy Williams cut infield on the right flank and after playing a hopeful ball forward, Maris inadvertently cleared into the path of Douglas James-Taylor who advanced before slotting coolly into the bottom left on corner, one-on-one with Pym
In first-half stoppage time, Knowles cracked a decent effort off target from 25 yards, before Maris’ venomous hit at the other end yielded the same outcome.
The Saddlers doubled their lead just 90 seconds after the restart following a corner.
A high floated delivery enabled Liam Kinsella to loop his header into the far corner of the goal and send the home fans into raptures.
Stags were left breathing a sigh of relief from another flag-kick in the 50th minute when Douglas James-Taylor missed the target at the back post.
Walsall were enjoying a new-found confidence and looked for a third on 58 when Liam Gordon sent his namesake Kellan one way and then the other before seeing his attempt blocked by Hawkins.
Mansfield, at last, came alive in the second period and Maris lashed low on 62 minutes, only to see his 20 yard shot blocked.
Stephen McLaughlin then made way for John-Joe O’Toole and Stephen Quinn was replaced by Jordan Bowery in a double Stags’ change.
Mansfield were let off the hook on 68 minutes after Gordon again caused problems on the left, but his low cross into the six yard box couldn’t be met by a red shirt.
At the other end, Boateng’s crashing drive missed the target.
Bowery endeavoured to scribe his name onto the scoresheet soon after, but couldn’t keep his 25-yard piledriver down.
Hawkins stabbed one over on 76, after ghosting in to connect with Boateng’s left-sided free-kick.
Jason Law was then introduced for Will Swan with 13 minutes remaining.
Stags spurned a golden chance to pull one back.
Maris drove forward through the Walsall middle, finding Oates who turned to shoot, but his attempt lacked any real power and agonisingly trickled into the gloves of Evans.
Mansfield’s spell of pressure paid off and they found the net on 82 minutes.
Gordon swept in from the right and Oates made no mistake in the air as he nodded home from close range.
Stags bombarded the Walsall goal late on but time ran out.
WALSALL: Evans, Monthe, Daniels, McEntee, Gordon, Maddox (Comley 78), Kinsella, Knowles, Hutchinson, Williams (Wilkinson 72), James-Taylor (Earing 87)
UNUSED SUBS: Barrett, Cashman, Allen, Maher
STAGS: Pym, Gordon, Hawkins, Perch, McLaughlin (O’Toole 62), Hartigan (Maris 33), Boateng, Quinn (Bowery 62), Lapslie, Swan (Law 77), Oates
UNUSED SUBS: Flinders, Collin, Anderson
REFEREE: Charles Brakespear
ATTENDANCE: 6,199 (1,090 Stags’ fans)
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