It’s funny, whenever there’s a record that is about to be broken it always seems like it’s United who roll over and let it happen. A team who hasn’t won away for eighteen months? Welcome to the Abbey, here’s three points. A striker chasing consecutive goals record? Nailed on he’ll put one past us. You get the picture.
Mansfield was always one of those places where we never seem to win. Despite last years 4-0 thrashing, it’s always a ground the U’s approach with some kind of trepidation. The Stags were on a good winning run under new manager Nigel Clough too, so we all know what was going to happen don’t we?
Well, that was the United of the past – this is Mark Bonner’s United, and now we’re a well-drilled, tough to break down outfit who can beat anyone on their day. And that includes Mansfield at the One Call Stadium.
Rested after a lack of a midweek game, Bonner kept the same side more or less that’s served him well, the only exception being the return of Harrison Dunk after his concussion-enforced break and the welcome return of Liam O’Neil to the starting eleven, Declan Drysdale making way.
As is United’s way this season, the first half saw the U’s slowly apply pressure to Mansfield, and get a foothold on the game. We didn’t have a huge number of chances, but were always in control, and stopped them being able to create too much. Our best opportunity of the first half fell to Wes Hoolahan who fired at the keeper from a tight angle. One moment of comedy came when Joe Ironside challenged -and flattened- three Mansfield defenders in a row, leaving the Stags players prone on the floor as Big Joe received a ticking off from the ref.
It was a different story in the second half, Luke Hannant, having a great game it must be said, playing in Harrison Dunk with a lovely pass, who crossed it with near-pinpoint accuracy for Paul Mullin to knock it in just before the hour mark. Seven minutes later the U’s doubled their lead, when O’Neiliesta looped a ball over the defence to Paul Mullin on the far edge of the six yard box. From a seemingly impossible angle the Scouse hitman put it through the legs of the keeper and into the net for his twenty-second league goal of the season, David Crown’s long-standing record of 24 looking like it will fall before February is over.
From then on there was only going to be one winner, and when Wes Hoolahan danced in to the box in the last minute, played a neat 1-2 with Joe Ironside then rolled it off for Harvey Knibbs to bag his second of the season the points were assured.
We’re not going to get carried away, as there’s a massive game with Cheltenham up next, but this was a fantastic win. An assured, comfortable win against a form side away from home really sends a message to the rest of the division. United aren’t top because they’ve played more games than anyone else, we’re top on merit. We know that in all honesty we’re not going to stay there all season, but we’ve shown we can beat anyone on our day, and we absolutely deserve to be in the conversation.
From Okedina and Taylor at the back (Burton didn’t really have a huge amount to do), to O’Neil & May in the middle and Mullin and Ironside up top, everyone put in a shift and played really well. We’re so lucky to have the likes of Hoolahan still pulling strings at age 38, but the other players are all performing to a high level too, and Bonner is getting the best out of them.
If we can get a result against Cheltenham tomorrow night that puts us in a really good position to push on into the final third of the season, and assert ourselves as promotion contenders. If we don’t get the result, then that’s not the end of the world either – we’ve shown already this season we can bounce back from defeats without too much negative effect.
Man of the Match: Really hard one this. O’Neil had a great game and capped it with an assist, Taylor & Okedina were both rock solid, Dunk and Knoyle two of the best wide defenders in the league. Then there’s Mullin, an absolute goal machine. But we’re giving the award to Joe Ironside, who hassled and bullied and eventually broke down the Mansfield defence. He didn’t get a goal, but his contribution to the team was immense.
Soundtrack of the Match: This one’s for Nigel, JJ Barrie feat. Brian Clough – You Can’t Win Them All.
United: Burton, Knoyle, Okedina, Taylor, Dunk, Hannant (Knibbs), May, O’Neil (Drysdale), Hoolahan, Mullin, Ironside