After five weeks without a competitive fixture, Mansfield Town returned to action with an excellent 3-1 victory over Hartlepool United on Saturday.
Our under 18s would have needed to win by a six-goal margin today to return to the top of the league on goal difference, but Saturday’s result sets up next weekend’s top-of-the-table clash nicely, when John
Dempster's side travel to Oldham for a huge game at the top of the EFL Youth Alliance.
The Latics still occupy top spot in the division thanks to a superior goal difference to the Stags. The Pools arrived at the Worksop Van Hire Stadium full of confidence after they recorded a 1-0 victory over the Stags in the reverse fixture back in October.
Hartlepool's main attacking threat, Liam Travers, who scored in two of his last three games against the Stags, went to ground in the home side's penalty area inside the opening minute, with defender Morgan Ratcliffe tracking his run, but the referee deemed that no contact had been made and waved play on.
Pools defended a couple of corners and it became apparent that goals would be a difficult commodity to come by against such a determined rearguard, but midfielder Ali Smith and forward Devante Reittie were keeping the visitors busy inside the final third.
The Stags’ first real chance was carved out by right-back Teddy Bloor who made himself the space to unleash a shot from 15 yards out, which whistled inches past the right-hand upright.
Defender Kieran Harrison won the ball in midfield and drilled a pass forward to the feet of Reittie, who rode one challenge, but was denied a goal by Jordan Fielding's last-ditch challenge.
The visitors pushed forward through the right channel but left-back Henri Wilder was well placed to intercept the ball from Lewis Orrell and deal with the threat.
Attacking midfielder Surafel Behailu spotted a gap in the Pools’ defence and picked out the on-rushing Keaton Ward, who forced a good reaction save from Scott Moloney at the expense of a corner. Bloor delivered the ball in from the right and Harrison's downward header was cleared off the line.
Moments later Hartlepool conceded another corner, which Wilder took and picked out Reittie who flicked the ball into the path of Cameron Healey, but the big midfield enforcer couldn't keep his first time shot on target.
Faced with a packed defence, Reittie dribbled past two opponents, before laying the ball off to Ali Smith, who took the ball under control but couldn't get his shot away because Maloney had dived bravely at his feet and gathered the ball.
Bloor dropped another dangerous ball into the Pools’ defence, but the visitors got the ball away and moved it quickly from box-to-box, but Ward had read the situation well and put in a blocking tackle on Orrell.
In the 38th minute, Orrell took three paces back from the ball 30 yards from goal and weighed up his options. With a scrum of players jostling for position ahead of him, the Pools’ number four found the top corner of the net with a well-executed free-kick to hand the visitors the lead.
Mansfield were almost on level terms from the restart but Ward, having beaten Maloney, saw his shot from outside the area fly wide of the post.
With half time rapidly approaching, Reittie picked up the ball in a congested goalmouth, battled gamely to keep possession and then rolled it to his left, where Wilder planted it just inside the left-hand post to net the equaliser.
Half-time: Stags 1-1 Hartlepool United
Travers tested goalkeeper Sam Wilson in the opening exchanges of the second half, but the Stags’ ‘keeper dealt with his dipping shot.
Behailu and Wilder made inroads into Hartlepool's half and sent Ward on a run forward, but the home side spotted his run and the move broke down as three players surrounded him.
Joe Jackson moved forward and slid a pass through the Stags’ defence to Travers, and he put the ball over from ten yards out, with Wilson moving forward to put pressure on him.
The Pools’ defence were soaking up a lot of pressure, but the Stags had a let-off when the visitors countered and Travers headed over from Ryan Robinson's right wing cross.
Forwards Nyle Blake and Zayn Hakeem were both introduced from the bench, with Jason Law joining them a few minutes later, in a bid to put Hartlepool on the back foot and make an impact with some fresh legs.
Harrison then picked out Bloor on the right with a long free-kick and he went down in the area under a heavy challenge, but the ref waved for play to go on.
Harrison ventured forward on the left again and seeing that the Pools’ defence had his team-mates surrounded, had a shot himself from 25 yards out which skimmed the outside of the right-hand post.
Once more, Harrison powered forward and crossed to Hakeem, who despite the close attention of Fielding, managed to turn on the spot and get his shot on target, but Maloney held onto the ball determinedly.
Pools’ defender Jack Cooper almost put the Stags ahead in the 80th minute, when he headed the ball back to Maloney with a bit more power than the Pools’ ‘keeper had anticipated, but he just about managed to make the save from his own left-back.
Josh Bayne paused for a moment on the ball, whilst weighing up his options, and Blake was in like a flash to steal possession and feed a pass into the path of Hakeem, who wasted no time in whipping it past Maloney to give the Stags the lead for the first time, in the 82nd minute.
Hakeem almost turned provider for the next attack, but Law turned his sideways pass just over the bar.
In the very last minute, Hartlepool made a mess of clearing their lines from Law’s right wing corner and Hakeem, who had instinctively followed the flight of the ball and gambled on Maloney not reaching it, was on hand to score the Stags’ third, with a simple tap in.
As the game went into injury time, Maloney made two saves to keep out Law and Blake, as the inspired substitutions almost provided even more reward for the Stags.
Full-time: Stags 3-1 Hartlepool United
STAGS’ LINE-UP: Wilson, Bloor, Baldwin, Behailu (Law 69), Ratcliffe (C), Harrison, Wilder, Healey, Reittie (Hakeem 65), A. Smith (Blake 65), Ward
SUBS NOT USED: Sundby, Walker
POOLS’ LINE-UP: Moloney, Holliday, Cooper, Orrell, Owen, Fielding (C), Jackson, Weirs, Simpson (Bayne 69), Travers, Short (Robinson 46)
SUBS NOT USED: Catterick, Pritchard, Boyle