NEWPORT County AFC kept their Wembley play-off final hopes alive thanks to a late leveller from top scorer Padraig Amond at a raucous Rodney Parade.

CJ Hamilton’s superb early strike had put a determined Mansfield Town in the driving seat on a night when County failed to fire consistently.

But Michael Flynn’s men never know when they are beaten and, just like at Morecambe on Saturday, they dug deep to claim a share of the spoils.

Substitute Joss Labadie almost won it at the death, but this was a decent result for the home side and it's still all to play for in Sunday's second leg.

Stags' boss David Flitcroft made three changes to the side that let automatic promotion slip through their fingers at MK Dons last week.

And any hopes that the visitors would be psychologically damaged by that defeat went out of the window straightaway.

Flitcroft’s men raced out of the blocks at 100mph and County struggled to keep hold of their coattails.

The Exiles were lucky not to be down to 10 men as early as the fifth minute when Tyler Walker sprinted through the middle of the defence and was taken out by Mark O’Brien.

The skipper must have feared the worst, as did the home fans, but referee Charles Breakspear reached for yellow rather than red.

Jacob Mellis then blasted the free-kick into the wall and the hosts breathed a sigh of relief.

That feeling didn’t last long, however, as Mansfield deservedly broke the deadlock in the 12th minute.

Robbie Willmott lost possession from a Mickey Demetriou throw-in and Alex MacDonald launched a lightning quick counter-attack before Mellis released left wing-back Hamilton to smash an unstoppable shot past Joe Day from an improbable angle.

Mellis could have added a second when he stumbled through a weak tackle from Regan Poole but his shot lacked the precision of Hamilton’s effort.

County struggled to get going at all in the early stages and didn’t muster a shot on target until midway through the first half when Scot Bennett’s tentative stab towards goal failed to trouble Conrad Logan.

The Mansfield keeper was certainly tested 10 minutes later, however, when he pulled off a stunning save from point-blank range to keep out Jamille Matt’s header after Demetriou had flicked on Matty Dolan’s free-kick.

South Wales Argus:

Flynn’s men had the better of the last 15 minutes of the first period and, despite their excellent start, it was the visitors who were grateful to hear the half-time whistle.

But, just like in the first half, Mansfield started the second half on the front foot.

Four minutes after the restart, Walker got away from Demetriou and rounded Day but Demetriou made amends by clearing off the line.

County responded almost immediately and Padraig Amond was denied by another fine Logan save at the other end.

Willmott then thought he’d got his side level when he slotted in from the rebound after Matt’s low drive was pushed out by Logan, but the offside flag curtailed the wild celebrations.

Flynn threw on Ade Azeez and Labadie for midfield duo Bennett and Dolan as the Exiles stepped up their pursuit of an equaliser.

Labadie almost made an instant impact as he volleyed just off target.

But there were chances at both ends and Day did well to tip over a dipping, deflected effort from Mellis.

Just when it looked like Mansfield would take a slender lead back to Field Mill, County got the break they needed.

Azeez chased a lost cause and went down under Logan’s challenge on the byline.

It didn’t look like a penalty, but Breakspear pointed to the spot.

Amond’s spot-kick was well saved by the Mansfield stopper, who was excellent throughout, but the Irishman kept his head to rifle in the rebound and claim his 23rd goal of the season.

It may still be advantage Mansfield, but that strike gives County hope as they head to Nottinghamshire.

County: Day; Poole, O’Brien, Demetriou; Willmott, Bennett (Labadie, 72), Sheehan, Butler; Dolan (Azeez, 58); Amond (Crofts, 83), Matt

Subs not used: Pipe, Bakinson, Marsh-Brown, McKirdy

Booked: O’Brien

Referee: Charles Breakspear

Attendance: 6,035 (286 Mansfield)

Argus star man: Day