The message to Mansfield's players and supporters was spelt out in capital letters in Saturday's match programme. The club's assistant manager, Paul "Dutch" Holland, wrote: "ENJOY SATURDAY, BUT MORE IMPORTANT THINGS ARE TO COME!"
Romantics may have regarded a televised FA Cup tie at home to Premier League opposition as the highlight of the season, but hard-nosed professionals consider a trip to Lincoln City tomorrow night as far more serious. As Holland put it: "I don't like all the hype about the Cup when we are in such a precarious League position. I would swap a victory against Middlesbrough for three points."
Encouraging signs were displayed by the club placed 91st in English football, signs that must now take into tomorrow's game. Mansfield's best Cup run since 1988 has left them with matches in hand and Lincoln, six points ahead, are the sort of team they must catch to avoid dropping out of the Football League after 77 years. "I don't even think about it," said their veteran manager, Billy Dearden, of that possibility. "I'm trying to keep the pressure off the lads. I keep saying I think we'll be OK, but we're down there for a reason."
Lack of concentration in defence and bad luck in attack suggested themselves as the culprits against Middlesbrough, who scored fortunate goals at either end of the tie and were grateful to their goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer for two excellent saves from Town's leading goalscorer Michael Boulding in the space of a minute. Mansfield had the better of the second half and Dearden was annoyed that their momentum was interrupted at one point by a bizarre intervention from fans outside the ground, who kicked a bagful of footballs on to the pitch to protest about the club's owner Keith Haslam refusing to relinquish control.
Middlesbrough had only one shot on target all game – Lee Dong Gook's after 16 minutes – but two goals, the second one coming as Mansfield's captain Jake Buxton headed George Boateng's cross into his own net. It is not surprising that Boro's manager, Gareth Southgate, is desperate to bring in the Brazilian forward Afonso Alves, who last season scored seven goals in one game for Heerenveen. "It's an unsettling period for so many players," Southgate said. "I'm looking forward to 1 February."
Jonathan Woodgate, he added, "has a decision to make", which now seems likely to result in a move to Tottenham, but Stewart Downing "is not for sale". As for the prospect of a sustained Cup run in a year when so many Premier League sides are falling by the wayside: "If you get through the next round, you start to dream. Outside the top four our [Cup] record is as good as anyone's."
Goals: Lee (16) 0-1; Buxton og (87) 0-2.
Mansfield Town (4-4-2): Muggleton; Mullins, Buxton, Jelleyman, Martin; Hamshaw, Bell (Arnold, 73) Dawson, D'Laryea; Boulding, Brown (McAliskey, 73). Substitutes not used: White, Holmes, Wood.
Middlesbrough (4-3-3): Schwarzer; Young, Huth, Wheater, Pogatetz; Cattermole, Rochemback, Arca; Aliadière, Lee (Mido, 70), Johnson (Downing, 65). Substitutes Not Used: Turnbull, Riggott.
Referee: S Tanner (Somerset).
Booked: Mansfield Martin; Middlesbrough Huth, Cattermole.
Man of the match:: Huth.