Mansfield Town: Anthony Howell puts the champagne on ice – until the job is done
CLUTCHING his man-of-the-match champagne, Anthony Howell couldn't rid himself of his trademark smile.
Would he be popping it open following the 3-1 win against Cambridge?
No. Not a chance. Howell is in a mood to celebrate, but not until the job is done at the end of the season – promotion achieved.
In fact, as he revealed, his other award from a couple of weeks ago is still sat on the mantelpiece back at home. The midfielder's plan, he revealed, is to bring them in at the end of the season to share with his team-mates when they party after reaching the Football League.
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And in those words, it epitomised Howell's role at Mansfield Town. Even when it comes to his hard-earned bubbly, he is still thinking of the team, to share his success.
For Howell, is not about any razzmatazz, it is simply about winning. And his role might be unglamorous, but he is proving how vital an ingredient he is in the middle of the park.
And the fact it is being recognised by the supporters, who voted for him as the man-of-the-match and gave him a rapturous round of applause, was fitting.
When it was announced, he clapped them back before getting straight into another robust tackle, to break up play, ready for the Stags to drive forward on another attack.
Lately, he has even been rewarded with a couple of goals but his energy, tackling and simple use of the ball were all on show to help Mansfield bounce back from a midweek defeat at Newport to record a fifth victory in six games.
And performances and players like Howell are the backbone to such wins – and could be the difference between winning promotion and not, as Stags sit three points off fifth with games in hand but, also, just eight points off leaders Grimsby with a game in hand on the Mariners.
The first chance fell to Howell, who thundered a rising shot that was acrobatically turned over by Jonathan Hedge.
Then Stags Alan Marriott produced a stunning save two minutes later as Liam Hughes rose to plant Tom Shaw's corner just under the bar – but the keeper rose and somehow clawed it over the top with a superb one-handed save.
However, it was another man of the moment, Lee Stevenson, who fired in his sixth goal in as many games to put a completely unchanged Mansfield ahead after just ten minutes.
James Jennings' ball in caused problems and Luke Jones and Colin Daniel both tried to force it home but both times it was blocked before Stevenson pounced to turn it in from six yards out.
Louis Briscoe, who looked dangerous all afternoon, fired just over from 20 yards after John Dempster had seen his original shot blocked before Cambridge's Michael Gash found space down the left, took his time and picked a great pass to find Shaw, who was darting in between two defenders. But Marriott came to the rescue again to turn his excellent effort over the bar.
However, from the corner, Cambridge were level as Hughes rose to meet the flag kick from the right and planted his header, from eight yards out, firmly in the back of the net.
There was a nervy spell for the home crowd afterwards but six minutes before the break, Stags got the lead again as Jones rose at the back post to meet Jennings' corner from the right and the hosts claimed the downward header had crossed the line. But, to make sure, the defender drilled the ball into the roof of the net for good measure.
Briscoe went close twice in the closing minutes as he continued to torment left-back Kevin Roberts and six minutes into the second half, Daniel got the better of Charlie Wassmer down the left of the box and his shot beat Hedge, only to strike the foot of the post and fly away across the face of goal.
However, on 71 minutes, the points were sealed as Stevenson slipped Jennings in down the left of the box and he cut the ball back from the byline for Daniel 12 yards out to crash the ball first time into the far corner.
Briscoe then brushed off his man, into the box, squared for Matt Green to put into the open net but the winger's ball had too much power and ran away from Green, who was diving in.
Green's work-rate deserved a goal, while Briscoe's performance also merited him getting on the scoresheet.
But the fact Howell's industrious performance, another to add to his recent solid displays, stood out so much to the crowd told you everything about his importance to the team's form at present.
Everybody has a role to play if Mansfield are to be a success. And with 17 matches left in less than nine weeks, such gritty, determined characters as 26-year-old Howell will be crucial.
The former Alfreton man has come into his own, grown into the role throughout the season and with confidence oozing out of him, it is no wonder he is proving such an integral figure.
Understated? Yes. Underrated? Not anymore.
You get the impression plenty more bottles of champagne will be stored in his home before the end of the campaign.
And the hope is there will be plenty to celebrate for Mansfield in a few months' time.