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United suffered their second defeat in a row as they went down 3-1 to Mansfield tonight. The goals came in a thrilling first half which was as good as any football played in the division this season, but that will be little consolation to Graham Rix as he awaits his first win in charge of the U's
Team wise Rix showed once again that he is not afraid to make changes. Jon Ashton came in for Paul McCarthy at centre back, with the Dubliner troubled by a groin injury, while James Hunt and Mark Rawle came in to a five man midfield at the expense of Richard Walker and Courtney Pitt.
It was Rawle who was fastest out of the blocks, shooting too close to Pilkington after racing past the last defender in the opening minute, and Pilkington then had to fly to his left to tip away a dipping effort from Basham before we'd reached two minutes.
It was a very encouraging start and with Whitehead prodding another effort wide on five minutes and then the home side passing their way through with a series of one twos a minute later the game was as good an advertisement for the Third Division as United have been involved in this season.
It was a far cry from the farcical first meeting at Field Mill three weeks ago, with both sides playing flowing football, but then on 16 minutes the encouraging start was made to count for nothing as United conceded the opener.
A deep free kick was not cleared cleanly and fell to Tom Curtis twenty five yards out. The midfielder struck his shot well and it took a good save from Simon Cox to keep it out. Sadly the ball came back into play and Junior Mendes was on hand to fire home his third goal in three games from eight yards.
That was harsh on the U's after their start, and three minutes later they were somehow two goals down as Mendes made a nuisance of himself and to Jon Ashton's dismay the ball found its way to Colin Larkin. There was still work to do but Larkin kept cool, danced round the despairing Cox and then curled his shot home from a difficult angle into the empty net.
On a perfectly still evening the U's must have been praying for another hurricane before half time, and only a block from the advancing Cox stopped Larkin from making it three on 24 minutes as United were caught in the eye of a different type of storm.
To their credit United stuck to their guns and continued to pass their way back into the game. The one thing they needed was a goal, and on 34 minutes they passed their way from defence to attack and Matt Robinson won his side a corner on the left. As Mansfield lined up Robinson rolled the ball to Dean Whitehead who advanced a few yards and then unleashed a magnificent shot into the top corner from twenty five yards.
It was a wonderful strike and fitting in such a good game, but rather than hold tight and consolidate United once again handed the initiative to the home side when a MacKenzie free kick cannoned away from danger but only as far as Rhys Day who cracked a low shot past Cox and into the bottom left corner to make it 3-1 in a breathless first half.
Incredibly, the pace refused to drop and the slick passing from both sides continued right the way to the half time whistle, when both sets of players, not to mention the supporters, could catch their breath and reflect on 45 minutes of great entertainment.
Inevitably the pace began to drop a little as the second half opened, although the commitment and willingness to play football remained. Cox saved well from Larkin on 55 as both sides trying to unpick the opposition defence with the stilleto rather than the sledgehammer, although United were glad that Mendes dragged his shot wide of the mark on the hour as he again ran at the defence.
It was Cox once more on 65 minutes keeping his side in the game as he saved well from the livewire Mendes yet again, and MacKenzie's twenty yarder drifted too close to comfort as the home side gathered momentum, prompting Rix to bring on Courtney Pitt in place of Paul Wanless to try and find a way back into the match.
It worked to an extent as United started to keep possession of the ball, and Pitt made a couple of decent runs down the left but the game was lost in truth by then and United left Field Mill hoping for a a change of fortune as they enter the Easter period.
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