Darren Bent returned from exile to play a pivotal role in Aston Villa’s second half comeback against League Two side Mansfield Town.
The last occasion that the two teams had met was over forty years ago when a 1-1 draw was played out. A similar outcome looked increasingly likely as time ticked away last night, before late strikes from Gary Gardner (85) and Bent (90) sealed a 3-1 win for the West Midlands outfit.
Thursday evening marked the second pre-season fitness test for the Stags who fielded several unnamed trialists, keen to impress and earn contract offers before the beginning of the new season. With the Premier League campaign always kicking-off after the football league season starts, it was Villa’s first run-out. Still, the visitors brought a full-strength side and ensured that all of their star performers got 45 minutes action under their belts.
It was the Villans who had the first meaningful chance of the game after 9 minutes. Leandro Bacuna was thwarted when he tried to round the goalkeeper, but the ball broke kindly to Joe Bennett whose weak shot was convincingly cleared off the line by Martin Riley.
Mansfield were not content to sit back and endure Villa pressure though. Ollie Palmer was in the thick of it for the Stags and showed great upper body strength to hold off Ciaran Clark and produce a goalbound effort from a tight angle.
If Palmer’s effort didn’t send Shay Given scrambling in the visitors goal, a finely struck Sam Clucas free-kick in the 34th minute certainly did. The left-footed midfielder curled the set-piece from distance, and the veteran Irishman just about pushed the ball to safety.
Bacuna continued to enjoy plenty of success down Villa’s right hand flank and after a neat one-two with Gabby Agbonlahor, fired straight at the miserly Mansfield keeper.
Despite Villa’s increased attacking threat, Jores Okore, returning from a serious knee injury, and Clark were unable to effectively deal with the physicality of Mansfield’s forward line. The breakthrough came in the 41st minute when John Dempster met Liam Marsden’s long throw, and Alex Fisher’s glancing header found the bottom left hand corner of the net. A pleasant round of applause met the goal. Rest assured, had this been a competitive game, there would have been frenzied scenes from the North Notts faithful.
Paul Lambert, now with Roy Keane his right man in command, completely changed his starting eleven at the break. He handed appearances to players that infamously made up last year’s “bomb squad”; that is footballers who allegedly fell out of favour owing to personal differences with the manager.
Among those were Charles N’Zogbia, Alan Hutton and Darren Bent, all of whom combined to level proceedings just after the hour mark. A simple pass from N’Zogbia picked out Hutton who seared past his opposite full-back to put the ball on a plate for Bent. The former England forward gratefully accepted the invitation to tap home from all of 0.5 yards and cue chants of “Na na na na na na na na na, Darren, Darren Bent, Darren Bent, Darren, Darren Bent” for the first time in months.
Just prior to the Villa equaliser, the Stags had an opportunity to extend their lead, but Jed Steer was out quickly to instinctively palm the ball away from Sam Clucas. Sadly the collision saw Clucas depart in some discomfort, and he was later seen leaving the ground on crutches.
The visitors clearly weren’t in a sympathetic mood as their performance improved tremendously during the second period. Andreas Weimann caught the eye with intelligent movement off the ball, and when he cut a ball back to Bent in the 78th minute, the striker was denied by an incredible diving stop from the Mansfield trialist.
There was little he could do about Gary Gardner’s finish with the outside of his right foot in the final five minutes though. A fluent passing move involving Gardner, Bent and Weimann came full circle as the injury-hit central midfielder found the bottom corner.
Villa weren’t finished there either. With practically the final kick of the game, the visitors’ Austrian wing-forward, Weimann, impressively got to the byline, and his dinked cross picked out Bent to perfection who duly headed home.
All rights for the above video go to Mansfield Town FC.
NOTE FROM THE WRITER
It was the stuff that dreams are made of, watching my local boyhood town stride out alongside my dearly beloved Premiership outfit on a beautiful July evening. Nearly 3500 pottered down to Field Mill/The One Call Stadium to relish the event. There was even a Birmingham contingent in excess of 1000 as yellow and royal blue kits brushed shoulders with supporters attired in claret and sky blue shirts. The blend of these colours in the supreme sunset was a joy to behold, and even the stewards in their fluorescent jackets added to what would have made a vibrant watercolour painting. The turnstiles were alive, and the executive suites did thrive with guests who gorged themselves on gourmet dishes.
Okay, okay. Maybe I have embellished the scene a little. There was less fine wining and dining than I have alluded to. There was an inevitably the odd unpleasant exchange between supporters too, but this game, a pre-season friendly notwithstanding, was a match that I had eagerly awaited during my 21 years on planet earth. With that in mind, dear reader, you can perhaps forgive me for forming an idealistic picture, one that is comparable to sipping cooling cocktails on Brazilian beaches; after all, we have all just enjoyed stunning World Cup coverage!
The game itself didn’t have any great Samba flair to it, despite the best efforts of Karim El Ahmadi’s backheel in the build-up to Villa’s third killer goal. Although it lacked this lively rhythmical dance, the match still proved a decent spectacle for spectators who could savour the net bulging on four separate occasions. Dressed in my faded out yellow Slazenger t-shirt in support of the Stags, I’d have appreciated a draw, but after a sluggish sixty minutes, Villa’s superiority slowly manifested itself. Still, I can’t have too many complaints having witnessed this personally sentimental fixture.