FOR sceptics who believe the FA Cup has lost its romance, there was very little to love about Saturday’s fourth round qualifying tie at KitKat Crescent.

Even the return of former manager Billy McEwan seemingly failed to captivate home supporters with a crowd of 1,976 comfortably the lowest of York City’s season.

Admittedly, the novelty of seeing McEwan in the opposition dugout might be waning now with tomorrow night’s replay the second in a ten-day trilogy against his Mansfield Town team, following on from last month’s Blue Square Premier meeting between the two sides and ending with a Setanta Shield clash.

While September’s 1-1 league encounter was an entertaining affair, Saturday’s match was also cautiously cagey and looked destined for goal-less stalemate long before the final whistle.

Just as Rushden manager Garry Hill had done seven days earlier, McEwan employed a 4-3-3 formation against City, aimed at exploiting any gaps between the home side’s wing-backs and centre-halves.

Nathan Arnold’s pace did cause early problems down the left flank, leading to Darren Kelly swapping positions with Danny Parslow in the middle of the back three and City switching from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 after half and hour.

Irishman Kelly was instead assigned to nullify the aerial threat of veteran 37-year-old striker Jason Lee and the Minstermen went on to enjoy a third consecutive clean sheet for the first time under Colin Walker.

But attacking invention was sacrificed for defensive solidity even when Simon Russell was introduced for makeshift left-winger Mark Robinson early in the second half.

Mansfield had earlier started the game in positive fashion with a series of slick passing moves and, on seven minutes, Lee’s far-post effort was cleared off the line by Ben Purkiss.

Shortly afterwards, Arnold dispossessed Parslow in the penalty box but flashed his shot wide from ten yards with only Michael Ingham to beat.

A disjointed City eventually found some rhythm and, on 16 minutes, Craig Farrell’s volley dipped narrowly over Paddy Gamble’s crossbar after the ball had bounced up invitingly 20 yards from goal.

Shortly afterwards, Farrell had to exit the action with a groin problem though and, with Richard Brodie loaned out to Barrow last week, Walker chose to send on Onome Sodje – back on the bench after almost a month sidelined with a hamstring injury – rather than 17-year-old rookie Adam Boyes.

Sodje immediately dragged a shot across the face of goal, while Ben Wilkinson also sidefooted inches wide from the edge of the box after a Daniel McBreen lay-off.

McBreen then had former City loan ’keeper Gamble at full stretch on the stroke of half-time.

The Australian striker’s looping header from Purkiss’ right-wing cross looked destined for the bottom left-hand corner of the 20-year-old Nottingham Forest stopper’s net but Gamble managed to claw the ball to safety.

The game deteriorated as a spectacle in the second half although Sodje’s shooting angle would have been more promising on 58 minutes if Wilkinson had not delayed his pass in a two-on-one situation against Stags skipper Adie Moses.

In the end, the former Charlton trainee’s firm drive was beaten out by Gamble at his near post.

Arnold fired straight at Ingham from 25 yards during a rare second-half foray forward by the visitors, but the Minstermen could have still settled the tie at the death only for Alan O’Hare to intercept a powder-puff Russell cross with fellow replacement Boyes unmarked in the penalty box.

City continue to be a difficult side to overcome, as three defeats and seven clean sheets in 17 matches testifies, but creative inspiration was a problem on Saturday, as has often been the case this season.

Should Walker’s men add to this season’s nine draws tomorrow night, the lack of spot-kick specialists in Saturday’s line-up might also prove troublesome.

Match facts

York City 0, Mansfield 0

City: Michael Ingham 7, Ben Purkiss 8, Darren Kelly 7, Danny Parslow 7, David McGurk 8, Mark Robinson 7, Simon Rusk 6, Mark Greaves 6, Ben Wilkinson 6, Craig Farrell 6, Daniel McBreen 6.

Substitutions: Onome Sodje (for Farrell, 24, 6) Simon Russell (for Robinson, 53, 6) Adam Boyes (for McBreen, 77)

Subs not used: Mimms, Shepherd, McWilliams, Rothery.

Key: 10 – Faultless; 9 – Outstanding; 8 – Excellent; 7 – Good; 6 – Average; 5 – Below par; 4 – Poor; 3 – Dud; 2 – Hopeless; 1 – Retire.

City’s star man: McGurk – unflappable and made the tricky switch to left-back look comfortable.

Mansfield: Paddy Gamble, Gary Silk, Adie Moses, Alan O’Hare, Alex Jeannin, Emile Sinclair (Aaron O’Connor, 51), Jonathan D’Laryea, Matt Somner, Michael Blackwood (Gavin Hurren, 45), Nathan Arnold, Jason Lee.

Subs: Mark Stallard, Chris Wood, Maxine Chanot, David Knight, Anthony Robinson.

Yellow cards: Rusk 86.

Shots on target: York 3, Mansfield 3

Shots off target: York 6, Mansfield 5

Corners: York 3, Mansfield 5

Fouls conceded: York 5 Mansfield 15

Offsides: York 1 Mansfield 1

Referee: Paul Tierney (Wigan).

Rating: made very few errors on a relatively trouble-free afternoon.

Attendance: 1,976 (255 from Mansfield).

Clearance of the match: Purkiss’ quick reaction to Lee’s seventh-minute shot.

Shot of the match: Farrell’s dipping volley was just a matter of inches away from being a fantastic goal.

Save of the match: Gamble’s athletic stop to keep out McBreen’s header.

City player watch: Simon Rusk

Goal attempts on target: 0

Goal attempts off target: 0

Blocked goal attempts: 0

Passes to own player: 22

Passes to opposition: 9

Crosses to own player: 1

Crosses to opposition: 4

Dribbles ball retained: 2

Dribbles ball lost: 2

Dribble completion rate: 50 per cent

Headers: 6

Tackles: 5

Clearances, blocks and interceptions: 7

Fouls won: 1

Fouls conceded: 2

Offsides: 0

Yellow cards: 1

Final summary: Like most of the midfield players on show, Simon Rusk struggled to impose himself on the match. He played in the middle of the park then on the right but failed to have a single shot on goal. Rusk’s passing was not always accurate either and a late booking for dissent could have been avoided.