Notts County were defeated by Hartlepool United at Victoria Park this afternoon, ending a four-match unbeaten run.
Notts had dominated the return fixture at Meadow Lane earlier in the season but on this day it was United that dictated the vast majority of the play. The reward for their dominance was three goals without reply.
The first half contained very few openings but the hosts began to find their way into the game in the latter stages. This led their opener, via the head of Antony Sweeney.
Sweeney added his second in the 53rd minute, as he placed neatly into the corner from Neil Austin's low centre. Andy Monkhouse's hit from the corner of the 18-yard-box confirmed the points for the Pools on a disappointing day for the Magpies.
Notts had the chance to move within five points of the Play-Off places, with sixth placed Stevenage facing a break from league action due to their FA Cup fixture with Tottenham Hotspur. County headed into the match with back-to-back wins and had the chance to move even closer to the squad's initial target of 50 points.
Martin Allen had spoken of keeping the squad fresh during a busy run of fixtures and opted to make one alteration to the side that defeated Exeter City in midweek. This was a straight swap at left-back that saw Alan Sheehan take the place of Jon Harley.
In a quiet first half, the hosts were the first to threaten, when Evan Horwood's centre from the left forced Gavin Mahon to head behind for a corner. Shortly after, Paul Murray's hit from range was deflected away from Stuart Nelson, who had dived to his left, but the ball rolled inches wide of the opposite corner.
Jeff Hughes provided Notts' first attempt on 10 minutes with an ambitious volley that bounced past the bottom-left corner. Kieron Freeman later forced home stopper Scott Flinders into his first save of the afternoon, when, after bursting between two defenders down the right, his low cross swerved goalwards.
The first real opening of the game came in the 25th minute, following a knockdown in the area by home skipper Sam Collins. Tricky youngster Luke James looked certain to prod home but was unable to keep his effort on target, under pressure from Nelson and Liam Chilvers.
James Brown was presented with the next opening, courtesy of Austin's cross from the right. Eight yards out, the attacker rose high but couldn't keep his header down.
Sweeney did not have that problem on 38. Connecting authoritatively with Horwood's well-placed delivery, he headed powerfully into the bottom corner to make it 1-0.
The Pools could have doubled their lead from Austin's in-swinging free-kick, which evaded everyone, only for Nelson to smother on his line with a low save. Lee Hughes also came close, as he attempted to latch onto a long ball into the area, but Flinders bravely punched clear at full reach.
Hartlepool certainly ended the half the stronger of the sides and James nearly found the top corner with a curled attempt from 20 yards. Sweeney then looked certain to find the net at close range but Stewart made his presence known to force the midfielder into striking over.
The Pools came out after the break looking to add to their lead and almost did straight away when Collins' downward header from James' corner had to be gathered by Nelson. James then capitalised on a mishit clearance by Stewart but his grounded cross was cut out by Sheehan.
At the other end, Alan Judge's drilled delivery towards goal only just evaded Lee Hughes and Neal Bishop. Bishop had also fired wide moments prior.
On 53, Sweeney made another chance count to make it 2-0 to the hosts. Austin had cut the ball into his path with a centre from the right and the midfielder swept confidently into the bottom-right corner.
The goal prompted a triple change for the Magpies and a switch to 4-3-3, with Lee Hughes, Ben Burgess and Alan Judge replaced by Sam Sodje, Jonathan Forte and Cristian Montano. There were then concerns that Nelson would have to be withdrawn when he had to receive treatment after an object, one of many thrown from the crowd, hit him in the head.
Things went from bad to worse for Notts 12 minutes from time, when a lack of concentration at the back led to United's third of the afternoon. Monkhouse, from the left wing, cut inside and was able to strike into the bottom-right corner.
James almost added a fourth in added time, when his 20-yard attempt skidded inches past the upright. Notts will hope to get back to winning ways on Wednesday night, when Stevenage visit Meadow Lane.
Attendance: 4,718 (296 away supporters)
Man of the Match: Kieron Freeman