South Shields secured a vital 2-0 win over title rivals Shildon at Mariners Park – setting a club record of 21 consecutive victories in the process.
In a hard-fought encounter, Shields battled their way to three important points as they completed a league double over the reigning champions.
Gavin Cogdon fired them into the lead on the half-hour mark before substitute Carl Finnigan wrapped up the win with a cool finish in second half stoppage time.
The Mariners are now 12 points ahead of third-placed Shildon in second, having played one game more.
As had been expected, though, they were pushed all the way by the Railwaymen.
If it wasn’t for an excellent save from Liam Connell, Shields would have found themselves behind on seven minutes.
A ball from the right was only half-cleared by the Mariners to Lewis Wing, whose powerful effort was heading for the bottom corner before Connell beat it away one-handed.
Former Shields striker Adam Burnicle also had a half-chance for the visitors, but his header was deflected onto the roof of the net.
The Mariners were controlling most of the possession, and started to convert that into chances the longer the first half went on.
A David Foley strike took two deflections before being gathered by Shildon goalkeeper Nick Liversedge, while Wayne Phillips fired over from distance.
The breakthrough arrived in the 30th minute. Robert Briggs’ free-kick from deep on the right went beyond the back-line and found Jon Shaw, who had peeled off. He played the ball perfectly into the feet of Cogdon, who produced a superb finish into the top corner from 10 yards.
Shields motored on after that, and almost had a second when Michael Richardson cut in from the left before seeing a goal-bound effort blocked.
Richardson also went close a minute before half-time when he got a touch on another Briggs free-kick, but it didn’t have much on it and Liversedge was able to claw it away.
After the break, the Mariners came out of the blocks superbly and Foley got in down the right, but his menacing delivery just had too much on it for the onrushing Richardson.
At the other end, Shildon’s Daniel Moore saw a speculative strike from distance held by Connell.
The game could have gone either way the longer it progressed, but a golden opportunity arrived in the 57th minute for the hosts.
Cogdon got on the end of a ball between the defence and goalkeeper and tricked his way into a shooting position before sending it narrowly wide.
Wing, who always appeared Shildon’s biggest threat, went agonisingly close to drawing the visitors level when he curled a free-kick off the post from 25 yards.
Another two chances came and went for the Railwaymen when Connell kept out a header from Billy Greulich-Smith, and a shot from Wing was deflected not far past the post.
Andrew Stephenson made an excellent impact from the bench for Shields, and his fine through ball looked set to wrap up the points when it played Cogdon in on goal. However, he could only chip wide and the points remained there to be claimed.
Stephenson himself had a shot blocked soon after, while Foley fired past the upright after getting in on the inside-left of the box.
Shildon put some pressure on in the closing stages without creating any clear-cut opportunities, and the closest they came was when Connell bravely punched the ball clear and it dropped to Burnicle on the edge of the area, who could only hook it wide.
As the game progressed into stoppage time, Shildon committed men forward in a bid to find an equaliser, and Shields capitalised on the space that created.
Stephenson chipped a great ball down the left to Foley, who gathered it and beat a defender before sliding it across the box to Finnigan. He tucked it into the bottom corner with a calm finish to wrap up the victory and spark home celebrations.
It had been a tough afternoon for the Mariners, but a solid defensive display – particularly by the excellent Shaw – saw them across the line to break the club record.
Shields are next in action on Tuesday when they travel to Consett in the semi-final of the Durham Challenge Cup.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Baxter, Callaghan, Shaw, Lough, Arca (c), Briggs, Phillips (Nicholson 75), Cogdon (Finnigan 84), Richardson (Stephenson 56), Foley. Subs not used: Holden, Storey.
Goals: Cogdon (30), Finnigan (90+2).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Peter Talbot.