Exiles pay price for disappointing opening half
4:11pm Sunday 9th March 2014 in Newport County
IT'S funny what League Two can do to you.
Because if you want to watch a cracking contest between Mansfield Town and Newport County, may I refer you to a glorious summer afternoon in August 2013 when the two sides played out an absolute cracker at Field Mill.
It's not sour grapes speaking, because this is the Newport paper and the County lost, merely a reflection of what 18-months and the pressure and strain of the Football League can do to two football clubs who last season were able to at times play almost unstoppably good football.
In every regard, that game last season was far better than this one. On Saturday, I'd guarantee you at least a dozen games in the non-league were better than the first half of Mansfield v Newport.
We saw a lot of long ball football, an admittedly unhelpful wind and in an at times spiky contest an unlikable tone was set early on. Adam Murray caught Mansfield old boy Adam Chapman late and Chris Zebroski was also guilty of a nasty challenge from behind.
It was a lifeless contest with both sides petrified to make a mistake and indeed, the hosts led only because of such an error when the referee mercifully gave us all a 15 minute respite following a really poor half.
Newport have been brave and uncompromising as a collective under boss Justin Edinburgh, but the circumstances that saw all their momentum drain in January have resulted in the current predicament, which is that County aren't playing very well.
It's not lack of effort, it's a crisis of confidence and it can't be denied. The Exiles showed real spirit after the break, forcing another mistake to gain parity and then for a spell threatening to push on and gain a vital victory.
But when the goal didn't come, they retreated, again looking like a side more scared of losing than desperate to win and at the death, they wilted and conceded. Scorer Anthony Howell couldn't have been more than a yard out when he nodded home and considering he'd missed from all of two yards moments earlier, it's not like County hadn't been warned.
The sad truth is that no team in League Two has fewer points in 2014 than Newport County. It's a test for the players and for their manager to respond, because so far they've only known good times at Rodney Parade.
The Exiles need a respite, a win by any means, and if they get it at Morecambe on Tuesday or against Exeter on Sunday, it could revive them.
There is no denying that barely a cigarette paper separated the sides on Saturday, best demonstrated by the like-for-like nature of the opening goals.
Mansfield's came from their first attack of any note, save for optimistic shots from range that didn't test Elliot Parish and a comical dive from Sam Clucas and it proved to be a horror moment for County's emergency loan signing.
County dealt with a freekick but had no answer when the ball was returned into the box, Ryan Tafazolli able to head directly at Parish, who could only glance the ball off his hands into the net.
Justin Edinburgh sent his side back out early for the second period and the message had obviously been received, they started with more tempo in their play and Tom Naylor's freekick was spilled by Alan Marriott, Rene Howe alert to flick the ball home cutely.
Once they had parity, Newport looked, briefly, like a side that had until the past few weeks, been almost ever present in the top eight of League Two, upping their tempo and showing more desire to control possession.
Suddenly Ryan Burge and Adam Chapman were swarming Mansfield's midfield and in the best move of the match - by a distance - County turned the Stags beautifully, exchanging quick passes to release Ryan Jackson.
The right wing back galloped forward fully 70-yards but was indecisive as to whether to shoot or cross, he blazed wide and high and that was indicative of Newport's day, effort more than adequate, quality in short supply.
Chapman went close with a rasping effort from the edge of the box but the ball spun away from goal and as the minutes passed, so did Newport's moment.
They began to go long again and the game appeared to be heading to stalemate, but Mansfield's aerial threat paid dividends and Howell stole home at the back post after Matt Rhead headed Clucas' cross into the six yard box.
It was cruel on County for their second half display and their noisy travelling fans will crave a greater sense of urgency from the get go tomorrow night at Morecambe.
Mansfield (3-4-3): Marriott, Sutton (Meikle 86), Dempster, Tafazolli, Westlake, Murray, Howell, Daniel, Clucas, Hutchinson (Palmer 66) Rhead
Subs not used: Briscoe, Stevenson, Beevers, McGuire, Cain
Booked: Howell, Murray, Clucas
Newport (3-5-2): Parish, Jackson, Willmott, Hughes, Anthony, Naylor, Burge, Minshull, Chapman (Flynn 85), Howe (Jolley 90), Zebroski (Jeffers 90)
Subs not used: Pipe, Crow, Worley, Holloway
Booked: Howe, Zebroski, Anthony, Hughes
Referee: Andy Davies
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