Newport County AFC and Mansfield Town have it all to play for at Field Mill on Sunday evening as the two sides shared a 1-1 draw at Rodney Parade.
Padraig Amond’s rebound from his own penalty seven minutes from time cancelled out CJ Hamilton’s 12th minute opener, leaving everything to 90 minutes in Nottinghamshire in three days’ time.
Mike Flynn decided to name an unchanged side for the fourth match in a row after they valiantly fought back to secure the point required to get into the play-offs last Saturday at Morecambe.
That meant hero of the hour (or 87th minute) up in Lancashire Jamille Matt again partnered Padraig Amond up-front in the familiar 4-4-2 formation.
Mansfield Town manager David Flitcroft made three changes to his side which narrowly missed out on automatic promotion with a narrow defeat away at MK Dons.
Matt Preston was ruled out with concussion and Willem Tomlinson missed out, while Mal Benning dropped to the Stags bench at Rodney Parade.
In came Ben Turner, Gethin Jones and Danny Rose to the 3-5-2 formation.
It’s no secret that Mansfield were the side to start proceedings by far on the front foot as they controlled pretty much everything up to the half-time whistle.
You can see why Flitcroft’s side were a game away from automatic promotion to League One – they played some really neat stuff and Hamilton was causing all manner of problems to the Exiles back line.
Jacob Mellis also looked a threat just behind the strikers Rose and Tyler Walker, but he couldn’t make the most of his two early opportunities after skilling his way through midfield.
The pace of Hamilton was frightening when he was given space on the left, and Mark O’Brien was perhaps lucky not to see red when he tugged him down just outside the penalty area inside two minutes.
The left-wing back – deployed as a runner on counter-attacks – sent a warning shot across the County area as early as the fourth minute before he bagged the opener in the 12th minute.
It was so frustrating from a County perspective as it all started with a throw-in deep inside the Mansfield half. Ryan Sweeney nipped in and intercepted it before launching it towards Mellis then Hamilton, who rifled into the roof of the net.
The Stags deserved that opener for their lively start, and they continued to play some really creative football in and around the midfield positions up until half-time.
They didn’t create too much in the way of chances, but they always looked a threat on the counter and Walker scuffed a shot well wide when in behind.
County had their own moments in the first-half and arguably had the best opportunity from the goal until heading back to the dressing rooms.
How Stags goalkeeper Conrad Logan denied the Exiles on 33 minutes really is anyone’s guess. It was an absolute world-class save to thwart Matt’s close-range header, until his boot to stop the attempt and tipping it over with his trailing hand.
It was really nice play from the Exiles to set it up. Robbie Willmott’s free kick was flicked on by Mickey Demetriou to Matt but the physicists amongst us will have to explain how Logan kept it out.
Both sides came flying out of the traps in the second half and could both have had a goal within five minutes on the restart.
On 49 minutes, Mansfield again carved through the heart of County which sent Walker well clear into the area, but he could only half-hit the shot after going around Joe Day and Demetriou was able to clear off the line.
Just a minute later, Logan again came to his sides rescue. Matt flicked the ball on into Amond, but Logan rushed off his line quickly and spread himself, limiting the angle and getting a good block to the shot.
Despite Mansfield still playing some intricate stuff in the midfield areas, County were getting a greater foothold on proceedings and being to cause problems on a more consistent basis.
They had the ball in the net on 64 minutes but Willmott was adjudged offside in an extremely tight call. It was another good save from Logan to deny Matt in the initial instance, Willmott put it in, but the flag was raised quite early.
Mellis was again standing out in the centre of the pitch when making things happen, however it just wasn’t his night in-front of goal as Day again made a neat save to thwart the central attacking midfielder.
You always felt County were going to get one chance and it came in the 83rd minute when Logan was harshly ruled to have felled Amond in the area and the penalty was awarded.
It was just one of those nights for Logan, he was immense, but fortunately Amond was able to tap in the rebound after a good save to the shot stopper’s bottom left side.
Substitute Joss Labadie saw a shot blocked narrowly wide with the final attack of the contest meaning both sides still have a lot to play for in the second leg on Sunday evening (18:00pm kick-off).
Newport County AFC (4-4-2): Day, Poole, O’Brien (C), Demetriou, Butler, Wilmott, Dolan (Azeez 58’), Sheehan, Bennett (Labadie 72’), Dolan, Amond (Crofts 84’), Matt
Subs not used: Pipe, Marsh-Brown, Bakinson, McKirdy
Mansfield Town (3-5-2): Logan, Pearce (C), Turner, Sweeney, Jones, MacDonald, Mellis, Bishop, Hamilton, Walker, Rose (Benning 76’)
Subs not used: Smith, Khan, Atkinson, Grant, Ajose, Smith
Referee: Charles Breakspear
Attendance: 6,035 (286 AWAY)
Next up for County: Mansfield Town (12th May 2019) AWAY