South Shields put in a superb performance as they hit Crook Town for five to move to within five wins of securing promotion to Ebac Northern League Division One.
The Mariners were the dominant team throughout much of the game, but had to wait until six minutes before half-time to take the lead, courtesy of a stunning overhead kick from top scorer Warren Byrne.
When substitute Michael Turner added the second midway through the second half, the floodgates began to open, and late goals from Leepaul Scroggins, Stephen Ramsey and John Grey gave Shields the emphatic victory they deserved.
It marked an eighth consecutive league win for the Mariners, who are now eight points clear of second-placed Billingham Synthonia, with two games in hand, and 13 clear of Ryhope CW, in third, who have one match in hand.
But for a terrific goalkeeping performance by Crook’s Ryan Graham, Jon King’s side would have won even more comfortably in front of a crowd of 532 at Mariners Park.
Within 30 seconds at the start of the game, he was called into action as he made a superb stop from Byrne, who looked set to score from Martyn Coleman’s cutback.
Shields were bright and incisive in the opening exchanges, and Ibby Hassan went close to converting a Robert Briggs free-kick, while Coleman hit a shot which deflected into Graham’s hands after the hosts won the ball in midfield.
Despite the dominance, an early goal did not arrive for the Mariners, who had to stay patient in their pursuit of the breakthrough.
On 20 minutes, the deadlock was almost broken when Barrie Smith’s chip into the box from the right was headed back to Coleman by Byrne, and the striker volleyed not far wide.
That sparked another period of severe pressure, with Byrne having a shot excellently blocked, while Coleman screwed an effort just past the post and David Foley curled one over.
Again, the home side could not convert their possession and chances into goals, and Byrne rifled a low shot narrowly wide before being denied at point-blank range by Graham.
Shields had to remain alert at the other end, with Daniel Smith proving to be a tricky customer, while frustration was growing at the inability of the hosts to force an opener.
However, any tension that was building was quickly lifted in the 39th minute.
A corner by Grey was headed as far as Briggs 25 yards out, and although he could not get clean contact on the ball, his strike fell invitingly for Byrne with his back to goal. Ten yards out, the prolific marksman trapped the ball with his left foot, in doing so sending it into the air, before stunningly flicking it over his head with his right as he scored a true goal of the season contender. Graham was left with no chance as the ball flew past him into the net.
Although the Mariners were unable to add to the goal before half-time, the atmosphere had changed, and they finally had something to show for their play.
Crook started the second half with added purpose, and Smith in particular posed a threat to the home defence.
He fired two efforts over within the first two minutes of the half, with the second of them looping not far over the crossbar.
However, it did not take Shields long to get back in their stride, and Lewis Teasdale set Coleman free of the defence on the right, but he sliced a shot wide.
A number of half-chances came and went, while Briggs’ curler of a free-kick just cleared the crossbar and then Byrne was denied by an incredible save from Graham. After Foley had got in behind on the inside-left of the box, he fired the ball across goal to Byrne, who looked sure to find the net with his high effort. However, Graham stuck out a hand and somehow diverted it over the bar from point-blank range.
The Mariners’ creativity continued to impress, and some excellent play by Briggs in the middle led to another opportunity for Coleman, whose low effort was well kept out by Graham.
Another impressive save was made by Graham from Briggs, but from the resulting corner, a second goal was added when Grey’s ball in fell invitingly into the centre of the box for substitute Turner, who made it his and nodded low into the net.
Crook did have some decent opportunities to get back into it, with Shields goalkeeper Josh Richardson doing well to deny Callum Johnston, but in the final 10 minutes, the floodgates opened.
After Ramsey had an effort cleared off the line, the hosts kept the ball alive, and a superb cross from Byrne was sent arrowing into the net by Scroggins as he met it with a superb header to make it 3-0.
By this stage, the Mariners’ superior fitness was starting to shine through, and Foley wriggled his way through a number of challenges on the right before finding Ramsey, who again had an effort kept out on the line.
Byrne and Briggs were also denied, but there was no stopping Ramsey in the 88th minute as he got on the end of a low right-wing cross by Foley and rifled the ball home.
As the game ticked into stoppage time, Graham tremendously kept out shots from Byrne and Foley, but Shields were not denied for long, with the ball played back calmly to Grey, who slotted it into the bottom corner for his fourth goal for the club.
The Mariners know that five more wins will guarantee promotion, and they will look to tick one of those off the list when Birtley Town visit Mariners Park on Saturday.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Richardson, Smith, Grey, Carson, Hassan (Riding 69), Briggs, Teasdale (Turner 57), Scroggins (c), Byrne, Coleman (Ramsey 73), Foley. Subs not used: Connor, Hall.
Goals: Byrne (39), Turner (68), Scroggins (81), Ramsey (88), Grey (90+1).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Peter Talbot.