South Shields produced a hugely impressive display as they brushed aside promotion rivals Hyde United with a 3-0 win at a raucous Mariners Park.
Goals from Jamie Holmes, Graeme Armstrong and Dillon Morse secured a vital victory for the Mariners against a Hyde side which started the day just three points behind them.
The game was marred by a head injury suffered by Shields striker Carl Finnigan in the early stages, but his team-mates went on to do him proud with a fine performance in front of a crowd of 1,751.
Shields made three changes from the team which drew 0-0 against Tadcaster Albion four days earlier, with Craig Baxter, Robert Briggs and Holmes brought in.
It was a pressure game for the home side, who knew that a defeat would see Hyde leapfrog them in the table.
However, they showed no sign of nerves as they got on top from the early stages.
That was despite two early sighters of goal for Hyde, with Big Khamsuk sending an effort over from distance before a Jon Shaw clearance cannoned against the leg of Matthew Beadle and into the arms of a grateful Liam Connell.
At the other end, Finnigan was looking dangerous as Shields attempted to play him in. A Briggs through ball had just too much on it as goalkeeper Peter Crook came out well to gather.
Finnigan again raced onto a ball over the top soon after – this time from Julio Arca – but when he was beaten to it by Crook, the players collided and the Shields man came off worst, taking an accidental knee to the head.
After receiving eight minutes of treatment, he was stretchered off, leaving Shields without their two top goalscorers this season, with Gavin Cogdon also unavailable with a hamstring injury.
If anything, the sickening injury suffered by Finnigan appeared to inspire his team-mates left on the field.
Everything they did was with real purpose, and they got on top of their in-form opponents with a gutsy and determined display.
They threatened a breakthrough when Baxter delivered a decent ball on the right and Sunderland loanee Dan Wright chested it down before firing over.
The Mariners didn’t have to wait too much longer, though. Briggs played a short corner to Wright and received it back before swinging in a perfect delivery from the left which Holmes acrobatically and impressively headed in.
Shields were playing some terrific football despite kicking into a strong wind, and almost received a second reward when Baxter played the ball back to Briggs, whose effort was well blocked.
Hyde did have some opportunities in the remainder of the first half, with Tyrone Gay heading wide from a Janni Lipka free-kick, Connell punching over a Ross Daly cross-shot and Baxter doing well to block from Lipka.
In the second half, Shields took full advantage of having the wind behind their backs.
The visitors could have equalised when Matthew Beadle headed an inviting opportunity over the bar after a superb cross from Kyle Harrison.
That, though, was a rare chance for Hyde, and Shields went on to dominate.
Their advantage was doubled in the 62nd minute when Jon Shaw sent the ball downfield and Armstrong raced onto it before flicking the ball over Crook from 20 yards with a terrific finish.
It was Armstrong’s first goal at Mariners Park since arriving from Spennymoor Town, and his emotional celebration showed how much it meant to him.
Briggs went close to making it three, but Crook clawed his powerful free-kick away from the top corner.
The ground was now rocking as the crowd of over 1,750 got behind their team, and they were rewarded when the game was effectively put to bed in the 68th minute.
Louis Storey’s hook into the box came back off the crossbar but was retrieved by Holmes, who sent the ball back across the area and into the path of Morse, who hooked it over the line.
Shields’ victory was all but secured, and they were able to enjoy the closing stages.
Connell even almost got on the scoresheet when, invited to shoot by the crowd, he hit a free-kick from halfway inside his own half and it caught the wind before being pushed away by a frantic Crook.
Julio Arca was in typically fine form as he pulled the strings in midfield, and some great skill by the Shields captain helped to set up another chance for Armstrong.
Ultimately, it was Wright’s through ball which put the striker in on goal, but this time Crook was not to be beaten.
There were a number of chances for the Mariners to make it 4-0, and Armstrong could have netted from his own half with Crook well off his line, but the ball went wide.
It was a vital win for the Mariners as they stayed one point clear at the top.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Baxter, Lough, Shaw, Morse, Arca (c), Storey, Briggs, Finnigan (Armstrong 15), Wright (Richardson 84), Holmes (Juul 86). Subs not used: Woolston, Scott.
Goals: Holmes (23), Armstrong (58), Morse (68).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Peter Talbot.