Forget the play-offs, Mansfield Town can go all the way to the top
HEADING down the M1 to Luton, the travelling army of Mansfield Town fans would have been met by a familiar scene.
There were cars and buses, all full of Bradford City fans, making their way to London with scarves, flags and foam hands hanging from the windows.
Some had their rear windscreens covered with a flag, others with the stickers of their heroes plastered against side windows.
The service stations were no different, with families decked out in the strip of the Bantams, finding it hard not to smile as they headed for their Wembley dream.
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For them, it was yesterday's Capital One Cup final, a fairytale as a League Two side took on Premier League Swansea in the final.
They were so excited on the eve of the game, so much so they were heading for the Promised Land 24 hours early to make it a weekend of it.
For the Stags fans travelling to Luton for this Blue Square Bet Premier match, witnessing such scenes would have got the old juices flowing.
Yes, Mansfield had their FA Trophy final trip under the famous arch in 2011, losing to Darlington. But a play-off final, a route back into the Football League, had a ring to it.
However, by the time they were heading up the M1 to north Nottinghamshire on Saturday evening, surely thoughts of a day out at Wembley were a bit premature.
Put the flags, scarves, foam hands and stickers away for a moment. Forget Wembley.
And that is not a negative. For it is now clear, first and foremost, Mansfield are in a real battle for top spot, for automatic promotion.
They are not in pole position, but they are nicely placed. Now is the time, as manager Paul Cox often says, to aim for the stars.
Lindon Meikle's dramatic late winner to defeat Luton Town 3-2 chalked up a seventh win from their last eight league games. Also, in terms of away games, it was a sixth win out of their last seven on the road. Their form, their solidity, cannot be faulted.
They still remain sixth, just outside the play-offs, but only by a single goal. They also possess two games in hand on fifth-placed Forest Green, who are on the same points.
But beyond that, top side Wrexham are just five points ahead of Cox's men and the Stags have a game in hand and are still to meet them twice. Anybody not eyeing top spot is taking their eye off the prize.
The weekend also demonstrated another big point Cox had been making.
He had named the same starting 11 for the fifth game running, the same with the bench. But Anthony Howell pulled up with a knee injury in the warm-up.
At the last minute, Chris Clements came in and Ben Hutchinson was promoted to the bench.
By the end of the game, it was substitute Meikle who scored the winner, while fellow sub Hutchinson played a part. And Clements was the man denied before the rebound was put in.
Like Cox has said, everybody has a part to play and the weekend was the perfect example.
The game, in truth, failed to come to life for the opening half-hour.
That was until Colin Daniel looked to have been chopped down by Wayne Thomas but the referee waved play on. However, on 31 minutes Steve McNulty – a Stags January target – was found guilty of a similar challenge.
The huge central defender was just about to clear when Daniel darted in and took ball off him just as he went to launch down field and he brought him down. Matt Green tucked the penalty away into the goalkeeper's bottom right corner.
Then came Lee Beevers' moment of pain, as his shoulder popped out but, epitomising the Stags' resilience of late, he allowed the club physio to pop it back in and play on.
But the four-minute break for treatment took its toll as on the restart, the Stags were rocked as Jonathan Smith's shot from the edge of the box struck Andre Gray, spilled kindly to the right of the area where Scott Rendell was free and smashed home from close range.
Yet on 44 minutes, Louis Briscoe got the better of Lathaniel Turner-Rowe, pulled it inside to Lee Stevenson who picked out Daniel running down the left of the box and the winger kept his composure to drill beyond Mark Tyler to put the Stags ahead once more.
A sting in the tail was there as two minutes into the second period, Luton were level. Green felt he was fouled by McNulty but nothing was given, before Rendell slipped a great ball through and Gray got the better of the Stags rearguard before finishing across Alan Marriott.
It was a lapse by the Stags defence but they recovered to stand tall to Luton pressure before Clements fired just wide for the Stags.
However, Luke Jones had to clear off the line for Mansfield before, in the final minute, the breakthrough came.
Clements, down the left of the box, forced a solid save from Tyler but as the ball spilled a few yards out, quick-footed Meikle was there to pounce and prod home for the winner.
The three points were in the bag, in dramatic fashion, the Stags heading home smiling.
Yes, Bradford had their historic afternoon out yesterday.
But, with 15 games remaining, surely Wembley must now be the fall-back option for Mansfield Town, rather than the goal?