A record crowd of over 1,800 packed into Mariners Park as South Shields defeated neighbours Hebburn Town to move a win away from the Ebac Northern League Division Two title.
The previous highest attendance of 1,500 was smashed as Shields won 2-0 with goals from Martyn Coleman and Ben Riding.
The victory moved the Mariners onto 98 points, and three more will be enough for the championship after Ryhope CW kept up the pace with a hard-fought 3-2 win over Brandon United.
Shields, too, were made to work for their victory, but came on strong after scoring the opening goal and merited their three points in a game which had been originally scheduled for Boxing Day.
Because of that, many supporters attended the match wearing Christmas jumpers or Santa suits, and there was a celebratory atmosphere, with the Mariners having won promotion two weeks ago with a win at Easington Colliery.
Hebburn gave as good as they got in the early stages, though, and Shields goalkeeper Josh Richardson had to be alert to palm over a right-wing cross from Ross Toward which was looping into the net.
From the resulting corner, Richardson also kept out a header from Christopher Smith as the hosts remained on level terms.
Shields’ first real sight of goal came when Riding’s long throw from the right was not cleared, and when he broke into the box after taking the throw, he hit a shot over.
Julio Arca was in impressive form in midfield after recovering from the hamstring injury which had kept him out of the previous two matches, and he delivered a superb ball from the right which Michael Turner headed just over via a deflection.
Robert Briggs went even closer when his superb curled free-kick from 25 yards came back off the crossbar, and Hebburn were able to clear their lines effectively.
By this stage, the Mariners were in control, but Hebburn went agonisingly close to taking the lead in the 33rd minute.
First, Richardson dropped a cross from the right and a chance was presented to Marc Costello, who was unable to force the ball through a sea of bodies. However, it broke to Callum Smith outside the box, and he curled an effort which was destined for the bottom corner before Richardson excellently tipped it wide.
Riding should have put Shields ahead when he got on the end of a Briggs free-kick, but he spurned the chance, sending it well wide of the target as he was off balance from close range.
The Mariners did not have to wait too much longer for the breakthrough, though, and it was provided six minutes before half-time as Arca lifted a delicious pass over the top. Racing onto it was Coleman, and he reached the ball before onrushing goalkeeper Steven Hubery before lobbing him from outside the box and finding the target brilliantly as it bounced in.
That handed Shields a vital half-time lead, and they never looked likely to relinquish that in the second half.
Hebburn battled well, with their best chance falling to Callum Smith, but it was the hosts who were in control, with visiting goalkeeper Hubery – formerly of the Mariners – doing well on a number of occasions to clear the danger with his sharpness off his line.
Briggs and substitute David Foley went relatively close to extending the home side’s advantage, while a huge cheer was reserved from the supporters for Warren Byrne when he was introduced from the bench for the final 19 minutes.
The goal to clinch the points came 15 minutes before the end when another impressive Briggs free-kick was curled into the box from the left, and Riding got on the end of it to head it past Hubery at the back post. It was centre-back Riding’s ninth goal of a productive season.
Hebburn did well to restrict the Mariners’ opportunities in the closing stages, but were unable to make a real impact at the other end as the hosts saw out their victory.
They go into Saturday’s game at Crook Town knowing a win would secure the title, but with Ryhope again facing Brandon United before then, there remains a chance the championship could be wrapped up before then.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Richardson, Smith, Turner, Hall (Hassan 76), Carson, Riding, Briggs, Scroggins (c), Ramsey (Foley 51) Coleman (Byrne 71), Arca. Subs not used: Pocklington, Teasdale.
Goals: Coleman (39), Riding (75).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Peter Talbot.