FIVE STAR STAGS SERVE UP CHRISTMAS CRACKER
Cambridge United 1 - 5 Mansfield Town
Willmott 66. Murray 33, Adam Smith 37, Duffy 73, Coulson OG 90, Mitchley 90+3
Attendance: 2505 (281 from Mansfield)
Martin Shaw at The Abbey Stadium
Magnificent Mansfield Town produced the complete performance to romp to a 5-1 win at Cambridge this afternoon. Mansfield were devastating going forward and after two contenders for goal of the season in the first half with thunderous shots from Adam Murray and Adam Smith, the Stags added three more goals, all from close range, in the second half, after Cambridge had threatened a comeback through a brilliant strike of their own from Robbie Willmott. But the Stags were great at the back as well, with Rhys Day in imperious form as captain at centre half, and Simon Grand impressive alongside him. Murray ran the show in midfield, and Kevin Pilkington made a couple of fine and crucial saves in the first half. A standing ovation for the players and Duncan Russell at full time, fully merited. A great start to Duncan Russell's tenure as permanent manager.
Stagsnet report in the Match Centre.
Footnote: With a considerable amount of begging, I managed to secure a copy of the match DVD, and personal thanks to Martin Ling, who gave me the copy that was intended for one of his backroom staff and he was gracious in defeat when I said it was for the Mansfield official website. Will be editing it as soon as I get home.
UPDATE: Video highlights, now here, here.
Man of the Match: Rob Duffy and Rhys Day - couldn't split them
Evening Post Match report: Cambridge United 1 Mansfield Town 5
by Matt Halfpenny
IF a significant number of Mansfield Town fans have still to be convinced that Duncan Russell was the right appointment as new manager, then this immaculate performance must surely go a long way to winning them over.
There were more than a few mutterings of discontent from some supporters on hearing the news that the former soldier had been given the nod ahead of long-standing favourite Dave Penney.
But while the former Doncaster Rovers boss has been up in Scotland, apparently being interviewed for the vacant Motherwell job, Russell has been quietly plotting the Stags' future course.
He has always maintained confidence in his ability; that he will prove chairman John Radford's decision a wise one and not, as some believe, the cheap option.
And if Mansfield carry on producing this kind of display, there will be few dissenters left in north Nottinghamshire.
The Stags, having not played a league game for more than a month when they drew 1-1 at Wrexham on November 27, were outstanding in almost every aspect.
Firstly, they did the fundamentals well, with captain Rhys Day an inspirational figure in leading a rock-solid defensive display.
But, just as encouragingly, the Stags were a constant menace going forward, as reflected by the number of shots they had on target and goals they scored.
Louis Briscoe and Adam Smith on the wings completely tore the United defence to shreds and Mansfield could have had even more.
But they will settle for five and a fourth game unbeaten under Russell after he initially took over as caretaker manager, while it was a first defeat in seven league matches for Martin Ling's men.
Mansfield made two changes with strikers Rob Duffy and Keigan Parker in for Danny Mitchley and injured top scorer Paul Connor.
Mansfield almost opened the scoring when Briscoe got to Keigan Parker's pass just ahead of keeper Danny Naisbitt on the right-hand side of the box and did well to dig out a cross from the touchline. Rob Duffy got up above Dave Partridge in a bid to steer into an empty goal, only for his header to drop just over.
It was Cambridge's turn to go close when an error from Simon Grand, failing to get his head to a long through ball, allowed Danny Wright a clear run on goal but goalkeeper Kevin Pilkington was quickly off his line to block.
Pilkington was then required to tip over a rising drive from Rory McAuley before Partridge headed wide after the resulting half-cleared corner was whipped back into the box.
But the visitors drew first blood in the 33rd minute after winning their second corner of the game.
Smith took it from the right and a United defender could only head as far away as Adam Murray, who hammered powerfully past Naisbitt.
It was 2-0 to the Stags four minutes later thanks to a brilliant individual strike from Smith.
He cut in from the left after picking the ball up close to the halfway line and teased two men before thumping an angled, unstoppable 20-yard drive into the top right-hand corner.
The Stags were again close to a third just before the hour when Russell headed Grand's header from a Smith left-wing corner off the line.
Cambridge made a double substitution moments later in a last bid to salvage something from the game.
And within minutes Robbie Willmott pulled a goal back for the hosts with another cracking strike, firing a rocket into the top left-hand corner.
Almost immediately, Mansfield should have sealed victory but Parker's close-range finish was blocked and Murray blasted too high from the rebound.
United's hopes were all but extinguished when Briscoe fed substitute Luke Medley on the right and backheeled the return ball into the path of Duffy, who swept home from close range for a Stags third.
In the final moments, Mansfield gave their followers even more festive cheer with two late goals.
Josh Coulson turned into his own goal as substitute Mitchley played in a teasing centre.
And in the third minute of stoppage time, Kevin Sandwith gave Mitchley the simplest of tasks to net at the far post.
For the last two seasons, Mansfield have suffered the heartbreak of last-gasp defeats at the Abbey Stadium.
There were no such late anxieties this time.
Match facts: Cambridge United v Mansfield Town
Cambridge: Naisbitt, Roberts (Patrick 46), Partridge, Coulson, Jennings (Marriott 61), McAuley, Stavrinou (Saah 62), Russell, Gray, Wright Willmott. Subs not used: Brown, Platt.
Mansfield: Pilkington, Cook, Day, Grand, Sandwith, Briscoe, Murray, Istead (Mills 75), Smith, Duffy (Mitchley 79), Parker (Medley 71). Subs not used: Collett, Naylor.
Referee: Lee Collins (Surrey).
Attendance: 2,505 (281 visitors).
Goals: Cambridge: Willmott (66), Mansfield: Murray (33), Smith (37), Duffy (73), Coulson (90 og), Mitchley (90+3).
Shots on target: Cambridge 4 Mansfield 11.
Shots off target: Cambridge 6 Mansfield 5.
Fouls: Cambridge 7 Mansfield 13.
Corners: Cambridge 5 Mansfield 7.
Offsides: Cambridge 1 Mansfield 3.
Bookings: Cambridge 2 (McAuley, 41, four on Parker; Russell, 47, foul on Parker) Mansfield 2 (Briscoe, 13, foul on Willmott; Istead, 45, foul on Roberts).
Sendings off: Cambridge 0 Mansfield 0.
Mansfield's man of the match: Adam Smith. Scored a goal of the season contender to help put Mansfield in command and was a threat every time he got the ball. But it could have been any one of five or six Mansfield players on a day when they excelled.
Reporting by Matt Ramsay
Cambridge vs Mansfield Town 1 - 5
Date: 28/12/2010 Venue: R Costings Abbey Stadium
Attendance: 2,505 Referee: Lee Collins
Cambridge United were on the receiving end of a heavy home defeat on their return to action following a weather-enforced winter break, shipping five goals at home in the league for the first time in three and a half years as they were crushed by Mansfield Town.
Martin Ling made two changes to the starting eleven from the previous outing some two and a half weeks ago. Paul Carden missed out due to a chest infection and Jordan Patrick dropped to the bench, the duo replaced by central pairing Rory McAuley and Alex Stavrinou. Former U Rob Duffy and one-time trialist Rhys Day started for the visitors.
After a period of silence for the late Rushden and England C goalkeeper Dale Roberts, United's fans were finally able to see some action after being starved of football for so long. A cagey opening period followed before being brought to life by a booking to visiting midfielder Louis Briscoe for a late challenge on James Jennings. Rob Duffy was unable to guide a header on target after Briscoe had rounded Danny Naisbitt out wide and on twenty minutes Danny Wright took down a long ball before seeing his effort stopped by the legs of Kevin Pilkington.
Pilkington was called into action again just before the half hour as he tipped over a rasping McAuley drive after the midfielder had cut inside following Simon Russell's pass, while Naisbitt also had to be alert to prevent Duffy finding the bottom corner as he swivelled to shoot just inside the penalty box.
Moments later the game was changed with a devastating double burst for the visitors which put them firmly in control of the fixture. First a corner wasn't cleared well enough and fell perfectly for the onrushing Adam Murray, who laced a bullet past the unsighted Naisbitt from just inside the eighteen yard box.
Then, just five minutes later, the lead was doubled with a quite magnificent individual goal. Adam Smith carried the ball from inside his own half before coming in from the left wing and belting a scorching right footed drive past the helpless Naisbitt and into the top corner of the far post.
The remainder of the half went without note, United failing to create chances after the onus had been placed upon them to do so after The Stags' double burst. Jordan Patrick came on at half time for Kevin Roberts but it was Mansfield who looked likeliest to score after the break. Simon Russell headed off his own goal line to stop Smith nodding his second of the game. Brian Saah then returned to action, joining Adam Marriott in a double switch which saw James Jennings and the ineffective Alex Stavrinou make way.
Despite Mansfield looking dangerous it was United who struck next with the game's third top class goal. Robbie Willmott claimed it, drifting inside off the left flank to run past three players and give himself time to measure a splendid right-footed effort which was still rising as it flashed past Pilkington into the far corner.
But any hopes of a comeback came to an end eight minutes later. With United pushing forward they left gaps at the back, so a third Mansfield goal came on the break to end the match as a contest. Former U Duffy was on the score sheet with a closer range finish as the man over at the far post after being found by a Briscoe backheel.
From then on things couldn't have gone worse for United. Still playing with a 3-4-3 formation as they sought an unlikely result, Josh Coulson netted a horrible own goal when trying to clear substitute Neil Mitchley's cross, before Mitchley himself made it five from close range after running onto Adam Smith's excellently guided left wing cross.
There was barely time for the game to get back underway before referee Collins brought things to a close, ending United's seven game unbeaten run in the league and heightening the build-up to Saturday's derby clash with Histon at The Abbey.
Man of the Match: Robbie Willmott. In what was a dispiriting team display it was the winger who stood out, managing to create more chances than anyone else in the side and capping it with a fine individual goal.
Reporting by Matt Ramsay
FINAL SCORE: Cambridge United 1-5 Mansfield Town
16.54 Mercifully the game is brought to an end. The United fans waste no time in voicing their displeasure after witnessing their heaviest league defeat since a 5-0 loss to York in the 2006-07 season. Martin Ling will need to rally his men in double quick time with the derby clash with Histon to follow on New Year's Day.
GOAL. Cambridge United 1-5 Mansfield Town. 16.53 It's a demolition. Sub Danny Mitchley turns the ball home at the far post after Adam Smith's low cross from the left flank.
16.51 We're into four minutes added time.
GOAL Cambridge United 1-4 Mansfield 16.50. If things weren't bad enough, that just about sums things up. Danny Mitchley gets free on the right and delivers a teasing cross which can only be scuffed goalwards by Josh Coulson as he attempts to sweep the ball clear. The ball trickles horribly over the line and United are being routed.
16.47 The match is in its closing stages with very little to report. United win a corner, Simon Russell blasts well over, any attempted Mansfield break is brought to an end by Josh Coulson. Moments of the ninety remain.
16.39 Mansfield's last change sees goalscorer Rob Duffy make way for Danny Mitchley.
16.38 Mansfield come close to turning this into a rout, Duffy rising to flick a header just wide of the far post. United go up the other end and Wayne Gray fires wide of the near post after good work by Danny Wright.
16.35 Fifteen minutes to play and Gary Mills comes on for Steven Ishead.
GOAL Cambridge United 1-3 Mansfield Town 16.34. That ends it surely. Mansfield break away and Briscoe completely fluffs his effort in front of goal before recovering and teeing up Rob Duffy with a backheel, the striker stroking the ball under the exposed Naisbitt from a matter of yards.
16.32 United are finding more room in the middle and creating chances as a result. Simon Russell feeds Gray but sees his effort cut out. Going for broke means United are leaving plenty of gaps at the other end.
16.31 Mansfield make their first change, bringing Keigan Parker off and replacing him with Luke Medley.
16.27 Mansfield nearly extend their lead back to two goals almost immediately. Partridge slips and allows Keigan Parker a great chance from close range, only for the centre back to recover brilliantly and throw himself into a last ditch block. The ball falls to Murray, who blazes miles over.
GOAL. Cambridge United 1-2 Mansfield Town. 16.26. That's the spark required! Continuing the trend of excellent goals in this match, Robbie Willmott claims one of his own, darting in off the left flank past three players before steadying himself to thump a rising drive into the far corner past Pilkington from outside the box.
16.21 United are clearly setting their stall out to attack, bringing Adam Marriott and Brian Saah on for Jennings and Stavrinou. That's all three changes made for United, apologies for not mentioning Kevin Roberts being replaced by Jordan Patrick at the interval.
16.19 There's only one team in this. Simon Russell heads the ball off the line from Adam Smith's free header following a corner on the left.
16.16 The attendance today is 2505, with only the 281 away fans enjoying themselves.
16.12 Mansfield look the likelier to score in the earlier stages of this half. James Jennings is brushed aside by Briscoe, only for the winger to ignore options in the middle and go for goal himself and seeing his effort charged down by Naisbitt.
16.07 Danny Wright gets free on the left edge of the box but his pullback finds nobody as no support presents itself. A section of the fan base tries to rally The U's as they try and salvage something from the last fixture of 2010.
16.06 The sides are back out and we're underway once again. No changes for either side.
HALF TIME. Cambridge United 0-2 Mansfield Town
15.50 That's half time. Both sides looked to be as poor as each other for the first half hour before that double burst which has put Mansfield in complete control. Something special is needed to prevent a third home defeat of the season.
15.49 Steven Istead goes into the book for a late and needless tackle on Kevin Roberts.
15.48 Wayne Gray gets a sniff of goal from Simon Russell's pass but is quickly dispossessed by a covering defender. As we enter two minutes of added time the ball won't fall for The U's as the corner bobbles around the box before eventually being smashed clear.
15.42 Rory McAuley goes into the book for missing the ball and not missing Keigan Parker. Not that there was much noise around the ground anyway but The Abbey has been stunned into silence. Ian Darler probably wishes he hadn't bothered with all those man-hours getting the pitch into a fit condition.
GOAL. Cambridge United 0-2 Mansfield Town. 15.40 Put simply, you won't see many better goals than that all season. Adam Smith brings the ball over half way, comes inside past Kevin Roberts and unleashes a quite magnificent bullet across Naisbitt and into the top corner of the far post. Two goals in five minutes have given United a mountain to climb.
15.38 United look to respond as Josh Coulson confuses everyone by turning past his man on the left wing, winning a corner from his resultant cross.
GOAL. Cambridge United 0-1 Mansfield Town. 15.36 The game needed something and that should spark United into life. A corner from the right is half cleared from inside the penalty box and runs perfectly to Adam Murray, who thumps an unstoppable effort past the helpless Naisbitt from just inside the penalty area.
15.32 Danny Naisbitt is called into action as he dives low to his right to tip away Rob Duffy's effort from just inside the box. It wasn't travelling fast but it was destined for the bottom corner. The set piece is sent straight out for a goalkick.
15.28 Rory McAuley is set up well by Simon Russell, the central midfielder dropping his shoulder to send his man the wrong way and buying himself some time to set up a piledriver from outside the box which is tipped over by Pilkington. Either side of the keeper and that might have caused him serious problems. Partridge gets his head on the delivery from the corner but can only send it harmlessly wide.
15.26 The sides are taking it in turns to have spells of pressure. James Jennings is called upon to win a freekick as Briscoe attempts to get past him.
15.23 Robbie Willmott twice delivers teasing deliveries from the right flank, both times seeing his crosses cleared by Rhys Day. The second is vital with Wright lurking with intent behind him. Simon Russell joins in on the other side, getting to the byeline and delivering for Gray, who has to reach behind him and is unable to make a clean contact.
15.22 A delay to proceedings as Wayne Gray receives treatment after being felled in the centre circle. We're really in need of something to spark things into life.
15.19 Things open up for United as Simon Grand misses a header, allowing Danny Wright in on goal from an angle. He perhaps takes a touch too many and is well denied by the block of keeper Kevin Pilkington.
15.16 The first real chance of the match goes to the visitors, Briscoe drawing Naisbitt out of his goal before rounding him and crossing into the centre. Former U Rob Duffy is unable to direct a header on target under important pressure from David Partridge, the ball ending on the roof of the net.
15.14 Things spark into life after thirteen minutes as Louis Briscoe clatters into James Jennings after the ball has gone, earning him a booking. The freekick is poor and Adam Smith looks to break, running half the length of the pitch before being well shepherded out of play by Russell and Kevin Roberts.
15.11 Robbie Willmott makes a dart for the byeline but is just unable to keep the ball in play before crossing. Both sides are largely trying to pass the ball in these early stages.
15.08 Not an enormous amount to report so far. The pitch seems in excellent condition given the weather we've been having with only the goalmouths appearing boggy. A flurry of offside decisions for both sides brings any attempted forward play to a premature end.
15.02 An impeccable observed silence later we're ready for kick off, Mansfield getting us underway as they shoot towards the Newmarket Road End. The visitors immediately win a freekick out wide which results in an effort being blasted well over Danny Naisbitt'sgoal.
14.56 Seventeen days on since United last kicked a ball, we're moments away from the action returning. Form may not count for a huge amount after such a gap but The U's won their last league match 4-0, though that meeting with Altrincham was over a month ago. The sides are out.
14.30 The teams are in and the main team news is that captain Paul Carden is out with a chest infection, replaced in the middle by Alex Stavrinou, while Jordan Patrick is replaced by Rory McAuley. Brian Saah returns to the bench but is kept out of the starting eleven by Josh Coulson, who scored in this fixture last season, and David Partridge, who was sent off in that game.
CUFC: Danny Naisbitt; Kevin Roberts (c), James Jennings, Josh Coulson, David Partridge; Rory McAuley, Alex Stavrinou, Simon Russell, Robbie Willmott; Wayne Gray, Danny Wright.
Subs: Simon Brown, Brian Saah, Conal Platt, Adam Marriott, Jordan Patrick.
Mansfield: Kevin Pilkington; Steve Cook, Rhys Day, Simon Grand, Kevin Sandwith; Louis Briscoe, Adam Smith, Steven Istead, Adam Murray; Rob Duffy, Keigan Parker.
Subs: Neil Collett, Gary Mills, Luke Medley, Danny Mitchley, Tom Naylor.
14.20 Recent clashes between these sides have seen penalties and red cards feature prominently with three spot kicks and two dismissals in the previous two meetings. Danny Crow netted a last minute winner on this ground last season before Jon Shaw missed six minutes later to leave the score 3-2 to The U's, while The Stags were 1-0 winners at Field Mill earlier this season after James Jennings was dismissed.
14.15 Good afternoon one and all and welcome to The Abbey after what seems like years without a game. It's over a month since Cambridge United took part in a league game due to the horrendous weather but Ian Darler and his team have worked wonders to get the pitch playable for today's Conference outing with Mansfield Town.
Andrew Bennett's match view
U's 1-5 Mansfield: United hand out the presents three days late
You know from the schedules that it comes at this time every year: the thrills, the spills, the action you just have to watch through your fingers despite yourself, a faint shudder of apprehension coursing through your veins, hanging on to the bitter end in the hope of a happy ending.
But enough about the Doctor Who Christmas Special (I had to take copious notes to make sense of it this year). What about United at Christmas time? Last year we had the horror of three consecutive defeats, twice to Stevenage and once to Mansfield; in 2008 there were winning leads thrown away against Stevenage and Histon; in 2007 a couple of decent results were spoiled by a New Year's Day defeat at Bridge Road; and in 2006 there were three more no-pointers thanks to Rushden, Burton and Kidderminster. 'Tis the season to be pricked by holly. Without a happy ending.
This year is shaping up to be no exception. Boxing Day embarrassment was avoided at Histon thanks to this country's impression of the Arctic tundra, but the Abbey pitch was rendered playable by the tireless efforts of Ian Darler and his team, the only evidence of this bleak midwinter being the vast piles of snow dotted around the touchlines of an otherwise immaculate green sward of a pitch. Perhaps he had enlisted the help of Santa's reindeer team after they had finished their rounds on Christmas Day; was that a reindeer pat in one corner near the control box?
Meetings with Mansfield Town are usually lively affairs. Having replaced manager David Holdsworth with his assistant Duncan Russell and endured all manner of off-field shenanigans, including being locked out of their ground for a while, their most recent match had been a 5-0 win at Worksop in the FA Trophy a fortnight ago.
Lining up in Kettering's old away strip of all white with a red cross which made them look like a medieval Crusaders' XI, they replaced one ex-United centre-forward, Paul Connor, with another, Robert Duffy, with former U's trialist and Gary Brabin target Rhys Day at centre-back.
United line-up: Naisbitt; Roberts, Coulson, Partridge, Jennings; Russell, McAuley, Stavrinou; Gray, Wright, Willmott
United's last league match was way back on 27th November, a 4-0 pasting of Altrincham, while their last game of any sort and only previous engagement this month was the 2-1 FA Trophy defeat of Forest Green seventeen days ago. From the team that started that day, Jordan Patrick was dropped to the bench and Paul Carden was absent due to a chest infection, to which Daryl Clare had also succumbed; the old men of the squad are beginning to look their ages.
Rory McAuley and Alex Stavrinou stepped in as Martin Ling opted to revert back to a 4-3-3 system on a chilly but not freezing day under implacable slate-grey skies. United were, lest we forget, on a run of one defeat in eleven games (to Huddersfield in the FA Cup), and had not lost at home to the Stags since September 2003, in a game memorable less for its 2-1 scoreline than for the dismissals of Dave Kitson, Rhys Day and Iyseden Christie.
A middling crowd of 2,505, including 281 intrepid explorers from Nottinghamshire, observed a minute's silence for former Rushden keeper Dale Roberts before battle commenced, the visitors gaining a free-kick within a minute which Adam Smith hammered over the top.
A cautious encounter ensued with little goalmouth action for the first ten minutes, United's offside trap working as smoothly as a freshly unwrapped present on Christmas Day. As long as you had remembered to buy some batteries.
First yellow card of the afternoon came on 13 for Louis Briscoe after a clumsy late challenge on James Jennings, but from a slipshod free-kick Mansfield regained possession and sent Smith away on a long, mazy heads-down run the length of the pitch reminiscent of Abbey legend Ollie Morah. With careful shepherding by Simon Russell and Kevin Roberts, Smith ended up running it harmlessly out of play for a goal-kick. Just like Ollie Morah.
A minute later came the first dangerous moment of the day as Briscoe dribbled to the byline inside the box and Danny Naisbitt unwisely chose to dash out to meet him; Briscoe turned and crossed into the now keeper-less six-yard box, but Duffy could only head over under pressure from Josh Coulson and Dave Partridge.
First decent chance for the hosts came on 16 as Jennings' diagonal through ball sent Danny Wright clear, but he took one too many touches, taking him too close to keeper Kevin Pilkington who blocked away. A wasted opportunity.
Next up a good run from Russell saw him set up Wayne Gray for a shot, but he slipped at the vital moment and scuffed a feeble shot into Pilkington's arms from eight yards out. The United striker looked out of sorts and he was to endure a torrid afternoon, struggling badly for form.
Gray was clattered by Day on 19 but somehow the Mansfield man evaded a booking as his victim received some TLC from Greg Reid. The U's were starting to get some balls into the box, mostly from Robbie Willmott, but they could not get past the visitors' huge defence and their tough-tackling midfield began to overrun a home trio who were missing the guile, workrate and guidance of Carden, a player you might not always appreciate when he plays but is badly missed when he is not there.
McAuley tested Pilkington's reactions with a powerful drive for the top corner on 25, and Partridge nodded Willmott's ensuing corner wide. Four minutes later it was Naisbitt's turn to show his mettle when he stopped a low drive from Duffy at full stretch. And on 33 a goal which we sensed had been coming…. came. And how.
Smith whipped a corner into the middle from the left, Wright nodded it away from goal, but there was shaven-headed midfield maestro Adam Murray making a perfectly timed run to lash a volley impressively home from eighteen yards. Unstoppable: 1-0.
United responded with a corner won by twinkle-toed work from Coulson, but it came to nothing, and on 36 the visitors' lead had been doubled in even more spectacular fashion. Kevin Sandwith sent that man Smith away on another box-to-box run, he cut inside the ineffectual Roberts and thrashed a stupendous shot into the far top corner from twenty yards which Naisbitt can barely have seen. Unbelievable: 2-0.
By now the U's had withdrawn Willmott deeper into a 4-4-2 to try to combat Mansfield's midfield dominance, but the damage had already been done. On 39 McAuley was booked for a foul on Keigan Parker which was no worse than the one for which Day had been let off twenty minutes earlier as the disgruntled home support began to mull over exactly how loudly they would boo off their errant heroes at half-time.
Last action of a thoroughly unsatisfactory 45 minutes was a yellow card for Steven Istead for a late 'tackle' on Roberts, then it was mercifully over and Ling could start repairing the damage in the dressing room. One hoped he had received a magic wand from Santa Claus on Saturday.
Roberts was first for the chop, withdrawn in favour of Jordan Patrick for the start of part two; McAuley moved to right-back, Russell into centre midfield as a more adventurous two-winger system was deployed.
United at least looked up for the fight, as evidenced by Russell's early and rather harsh booking for a challenge on Parker, then he set up Wright for a tremendous low cross from the byline which somehow evaded every amber shirt.
The hosts' more gung-ho approach also had the effect of leaving more space for Mansfield to exploit on the break, and both Duffy and Briscoe had early shots blocked by Naisbitt. And just before the hour it could have been three-nil when Smith's corner found Simon Grand and his goalbound header was cleared off the line by Russell with Naisbitt beaten.
The U's came back with a Jennings corner headed over by Coulson, then Ling really went for broke on 61, replacing Stavrinou and Jennings with Adam Marriott and Brian Saah, and going to three at the back, four across the middle and Maz in the hole behind the front two.
Within five minutes the change had paid dividends. But United's goal was all down to one man: Robbie Willmott. In a flash of individual brilliance he ran at the Stags defence, cut inside, slalomed past a couple of opponents then slammed a fantastic shot into the top left corner from the D before Pilkington could move. Unputdownable: 2-1.
The visitors almost restored their two-goal advantage within a minute as United's flimsy three-man backline was bisected by a swift break and it seemed Parker could not miss from six yards out, but somehow with all of the goal to aim at, he fired his shot straight at Partridge, next to Naisbitt on the line, and Murray hammered the rebound over the top from a much easier position than that from which he had scored in the first half. Could that be a turning point?
The Stags made their first change on 71, Luke Medley replacing Parker, then Russell found Gray with a perceptive through ball, but the off-form hitman took an unnecessary touch when he could have got a shot away and was crowded out. Another good chance wasted, and on 73 came the killer blow.
United were pushing so many men forward they were almost getting in each other's way at times, and they were undone by yet another swift Mansfield breakaway. Medley crossed to Briscoe, he miskicked spectacularly in front of a wide open goal, but he managed to flick it to Duffy, unmarked against the hosts' depleted back line, to poke home at the far post. Game over: 3-1.
The excitement evaporated from everywhere but the away end like the air from aging party balloons, slowly shrinking and wrinkling as they droop from the mantelpiece. Gary Mills replaced Istead and Duffy nodded a Smith corner wide on 77.
There was one last split second of hope for the U's when Wright bustled through and set up Gray for a one-on-one shot at goal inside the box, but somehow he stabbed it just the wrong side of the post to sum up a wretched afternoon for him and his team.
Danny Mitchley came on for Duffy, Willmott sizzled a low shot just wide on 82, then Coulson nodded a corner to Gray whose flicked header floated gently and apologetically into Pilkington's waiting gloves. Russell blazed over four minutes later as we all waited for the final whistle and a chance to go home and forget this ever happened. But there was much worse still to come as United were caught short-handed at the back time and time again on the break.
In the last minute of normal time Mitchley skipped past the ponderous Partridge on the Mansfield right, arrowed a low cross into the middle, and as Coulson tried to intercept at the far post, it got caught under his feet and trundled apologetically over the line for an unfortunate own goal for United's best defender on the day. 4-1.
Four minutes added time was indicated, and in the third of those came the coup de grace. Another quick break, this time down the left, Smith crossed low into the six-yard box, Naisbitt could not get to it and Mitchley was too fast and alert for the slumbering Partridge to prod home at the far post. 5-1.
The scoreline was a little harsh, but the result had never been in doubt since Mansfield's first goal, despite the wastefulness of United's front men at potentially crucial times. The final whistle came as sweet relief for the disconsolate amber hordes, who let their team know exactly what they thought of them as they trooped off, heads down like students caught abusing a war memorial. It had been a shocking return to duty.
At the end Ling's positive outlook on a dreadful defeat was a credit to either his calm, philosophical nature or the rose-tinted glasses he found in his Christmas stocking. Yes, his side had missed vital chances at vital times, and yes, their gung-ho attitude to chasing their game had resulted in their getting caught out with those two late, late goals. But United had been comprehensively outfought, out-thought and outplayed by what is after all a no more than decent Mansfield outfit which recently got its manager sacked.
The side's reliance on Paul Carden for guidance is a concern with his recent injury record and Adam Miller's long-term absence, and no-one apart perhaps from Simon Russell capable of filling his leader's shoes. The team shows no sign of improvement from a year ago, and Ling's record in the transfer market is at best hit and miss, albeit under constraints not placed upon previous managers.
New Year's Day will tell us whether this was just the proverbial 'bad day at the office' or a symptom of a deeper malaise; after all, this side had lost once in eleven games before today. We expect an answer on the first day of 2011; the rest of the year might depend on it.
Today saw United's heaviest home defeat since they lost 5-0 to Crawley in the FA Trophy on 14th January 2009. Their previous largest home loss in the league was 5-0 to York City on 13th March 2007, a week after going down by the same score at Altrincham.
This year is the sixth in which United's Boxing Day fixture has been postponed. The previous occasions were in 2004 (Mansfield, home), 1996 (Scunthorpe, home), 1992 (Peterborough, home), 1981 (Luton, away) and 1980 (Notts County, away).
Since the Second World War, United have always played at last four times in December… with two exceptions. This year is one, with only today's match and the 2-1 FA Trophy win over Forest Green on 11th played. The other is 1981: their only game was a 3-2 home defeat to Wrexham on 5th, followed by four consecutive postponements (Charlton away, QPR home, Luton away, Orient home).
Josh Coulson is the only member of the current U's squad to have an own goal to his name. United scored three last season, of which Wayne Hatswell contributed two with Danny Crow in the FA Trophy the other, while they scored no own goals at all in the previous two seasons.
Naisbitt 5. Could not really fault him directly for any of the goals, two of which were screamers, while the rest saw the defence in front of him carved apart like a freshly-cooked turkey.
Roberts 4. Back to his old ways in allowing Smith time and space to score the second with his familiar running-backwards-but-not-closing-down-the- distance 'marking' and deservedly withdrawn at half time.
Jennings 5. Below-par day, like most of his team-mates, and sacrificed for the tactical change to three at the back.
Coulson 6. Best of a bad bunch in defence, and even he succumbed to an own goal at the end.
Partridge 4. His lack of pace will always leave United vulnerable and he was caught napping for the fourth and fifth goals. Distribution remains mediocre.
Stavrinou 4. The very definition of lightweight, without Carden to protect him he looks utterly ineffectual.
McAuley 5. Rory is a fine defender, but without experienced colleagues to help him along he cannot run a midfield at this level. Overrun.
Russell 6. Some good work as always, but could not win the midfield battle on his own.
Willmott 6. United's only real danger man, and scored a superb goal completely out of keeping with his team's display.
Gray 3. The usually consistent Wayne had an utter nightmare from start to finish, slow to react, useless in the air, unable to control a ball or even keep on his feet, and he wasted several really good chances to keep United in the game. Any more displays like this and he can forget a new contract; let us hope it was a blip. Dodgy Xmas pud?
Wright 5. Put the work in, but nothing happened for him today.
Patrick 5. A few nice touches, but did not make the impact he might have hoped to achieve.
Marriott 5. Same as Patrick.
Saah 5. First game since the end of October and putting him in the middle of an experimental back three was not Ling's greatest idea.
Dismal United were picked off ruthlessly by an efficient Mansfield side and in the end the result was little short of a humiliation thanks to two late goals. More steel, more nous and quite simply more quality will be needed if they want to avoid another relegation scrap.
Man of the Match
Ian Darler. Darlo and his team produced heroics to make the pitch playable. They must have wondered why they had bothered at a quarter to five.
Collins 6. Some inconsistency in his choosing whom to book for similar fouls, otherwise reasonable.
Soundtrack of the Day
Hurts "All I Want For Christmas (Is New Year's Day)"
Latest | December 2010