South Shields kept their promotion hopes alive on a dramatic night at Mariners Park as they came from behind with an inspired second half performance to beat Buxton on Tuesday.
The Mariners went in at half-time a goal down after an impressive first half performance by the Bucks, but responded instantly to turn the tie on its head.
Jon Shaw and Carl Finnigan netted within a minute of each other to put Shields in front, before defender Tom Dean was sent off for the visitors after two quickfire yellow cards.
Buxton did get back on level terms but Finnigan restored Shields’ advantage and Josh Gillies made the game safe late on as the hosts marched on in front of a jubilant crowd.
They will host Warrington Town in the Evo-Stik Premier Division play-off final on Saturday, and the winners will progress to the super play-off final where they will battle for a promotion place.
Shields made two changes to the team which beat Gainsborough Trinity in the final league game of the season three days earlier, with Nathan Lowe and Finnigan introduced to the starting line-up in place of Phil Turnbull and Gavin Cogdon.
But they almost endured a nightmare start when a first minute corner by Buxton hit the head of Shaw before bouncing against the crossbar.
Buxton were one of the sides to avoid defeat against the Mariners in the league campaign, and they threatened again when Callum Chippendale flicked the ball onto Diego De Girolamo and he drilled an effort wide.
Shields had a number of half-chances but it was the visitors who struck first just before the half-hour mark.
Chippendale’s shot from 20 yards was parried by Liam Connell and pounced on by De Girolamo as he smashed the ball home from close range.
The Mariners built up some momentum in the closing stages of the first half, but the closest they came was a sweet strike from distance by Craig Baxter which went wide.
Shields started the second half like a team possessed, and Buxton goalkeeper Theo Roberts was tested almost immediately by a 25 yard effort from Nathan Lowe.
From the resulting corner, the hosts pulled level as Gillies’ cross was headed against the bar by Dillon Morse before Shaw forced home the rebound.
Less than a minute later, there was pandemonium at Mariners Park as Shields won the ball back and advanced down the left, with Blair Adams delivering an inch-perfect cross which Finnigan turned in from close range.
The Mariners continued to sense blood and almost scored again when Gillies played in Finnigan, who was denied by Roberts.
Buxton had a decent chance to equalise soon after, but Jude Oyibo could only head over after an impressive counter-attack.
Finnigan hit a further shot inches wide at the other end before Buxton were reduced to 10 men after two cynical fouls by Dean within a minute of each other each resulted in yellow cards.
Against the odds, the Bucks levelled things up in the 65th minute as a free-kick from a tight angle on the right of the box by substitute John Pritchard nestled in the net.
Their reprieve was short-lived, though, with Shields soon restoring their advantage when Lee Mason advanced down the right before sending in a dangerous low cross which Finnigan converted at the near post.
The Mariners effectively saw out the rest of the match, with Mason and Gillies going close before the game-clinching goal arrived a minute before the end.
Substitute Gavin Cogdon got in on the left of the box and although his effort was parried by Roberts, it fell to the feet of Gillies, who made no mistake in stroking the ball home from close range.
Shields must now win two further games at Mariners Park to clinch promotion.
Before that, they face Shildon in the Durham Challenge Cup final at the Stadium of Light on Friday.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Baxter, Adams (Lough 55), Shaw (c), Morse, Briggs, Daly, Lowe (Turnbull 66), Finnigan (Cogdon 79), Mason, Gillies. Subs not used: Mouanda, Foley.
Goals: Shaw (47), Finnigan (47, 71), Gillies (89).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Kev Wilson.
South Shields take on Buxton on Tuesday as the Evo-Stik Premier Division play-offs get underway.
The two clubs met twice in the league this season, with Buxton winning at their Silverlands home in October before a 1-1 draw at Mariners Park in March.
Founded in the autumn of 1877, Buxton FC – otherwise known as The Bucks – are based in Derbyshire.
The club plays at the Silverlands, which has a capacity of 4,000 – including 490 seated.
Current manager Paul Phillips took over the club alongside Steve Halford last year, although Halford left his role earlier this year, leaving Phillips to take sole responsibility for the team.
Buxton enjoyed a strong ending to the season with Phillips at the helm, finishing fifth in the table on 66 points.
They secured a play-off place by ending the season with a tremendous 6-0 win at Matlock Town and a home draw with third-placed Warrington Town.
The Bucks enjoyed an improvement this season, having finished ninth on 64 points last time out.
They are now three wins away from securing promotion, although all connected to South Shields will be hoping that dream ends tonight.
If Tuesday’s game ends level, the two teams will face the nerve-shredding drama of extra-time and, potentially, a penalty shootout.
Shields know they are in for a difficult task against a side they are yet to beat this season.
The teams faced each other at Buxton’s Silverlands ground in October, with the Bucks winning 2-0 thanks to goals from Liam Hardy and Greg Young.
It was a disappointing result for Shields, who were enduring a tough spell. That was one of six defeats in seven games in all competitions.
The sides did not meet again until March, by which time Shields had enjoyed a tremendous run and Buxton were pushing for a play-off place.
Lee Mason handed the Mariners an early lead which was cancelled out by a Nico De Girolamo header.
Shields dominated much of the rest of the game but were unable to find a way past inspired Buxton goalkeeper Theo Roberts.
He made a string of excellent saves to thwart the Mariners and ultimately earn his side a point which helped them qualify for the play-offs.
At the time Phillips was made sole manager they were nine points adrift of the play-off places with 14 games left, but he led the team to a superb end to the campaign as they pipped the likes of Gainsborough Trinity, Basford United and Scarborough Athletic to the final play-off place.
South Shields host Buxton in a crunch play-off semi-final on Tuesday as the race for promotion hots up.
One team’s promotion dream will come to an end at Mariners Park, but both teams know they are just three wins away from earning a place in National League North.
For Shields, the equation is relatively simple.
To go up, they must beat Buxton and then the winner of the tie between Warrington Town and Nantwich Town on Saturday, before overcoming the winners of the Evo-Stik South Premier Division Central play-offs at Mariners Park a week later.
Captain Jon Shaw has called on Shields’ fans to raise the roof on Tuesday.
He knows the difference the fans could make.
He said: “The support we have been shown throughout this season has been out of this world, and now we need our brilliant supporters again for these play-off games.
“We hope there are three games left and that in a couple of weeks we are celebrating together again.
“First things first, we hope the fans raise the noise levels on Tuesday and repeat the atmospheres of the great cup games we have had at Mariners Park over the last few years and together we will get over the line.”
Shields finished second in the table, missing out on the title by three points.
They were beaten just once at Mariners Park in the league all season, so will go into the play-offs with confidence.
Buxton are one of the few sides they failed to beat in the league, though, losing 2-0 in Derbyshire in October before a 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture in March.
Shaw, though, is confident Shields can get the right result.
He added: “Buxton are one of the few sides to have had the better of us this season, beating us at their place and getting a draw here in the league.
“However, this is a one-off cup game and we have to go out and play like we did in the 1-1 draw but take our chances.
“That day in the league we were excellent.
“We didn’t only knock, but banged on the door all day only to be turned away by a fantastic goalkeeper and defensive display.
“The two results show how dangerous this fixture is but our home form over the last three years is second to none and the confidence and form we take into this game must show from the first whistle.”
Shields have no major injury concerns heading into Tuesday’s 7.45pm kick-off at Mariners Park.
Season tickets are not valid for this match and admission prices – which can be paid at the turnstiles – are £10 for adults, £8 for students and over-65s, and £3 for under-16s.
Tickets are available to buy from the club’s website until midnight on Monday.