Substitute Jamie Holmes struck twice late on as South Shields battled to a 2-0 win at Witton Albion to continue their Emirates FA Cup journey.
The Mariners were pushed all the way by their higher-ranked opponents, but Holmes’ well-taken double in the closing stages meant they qualified for the second qualifying round of the competition for the first time since 1997.
On a baking hot Cheshire day, both teams struggled to get going in a first half which was lacking in quality.
Two moments of composure from Holmes ultimately won the tie, though, as Shields’ 100% start to the season was extended.
Lee Picton and Graham Fenton made just one change from the team which defeated Scarborough Athletic 3-1 five days earlier, with the back from suspension Carl Finnigan replacing Barrie Smith, who is on holiday.
They were below-par in the opening 45 minutes against EVO-STIK Premier Division outfit Witton, who themselves failed to get into their stride as possession was traded.
Both teams had half-chances, with James Foley dragging an effort wide from the edge of the box for the hosts, while Finnigan fired over after good work from Luke Sullivan at the other end.
Witton were well-organised defensively and difficult to break through, but Shields almost did that with 11 minutes remaining in the first half when a Dillon Morse ball over the top found Gavin Cogdon. However, goalkeeper Colin Hare kept out his shot.
In the closing stages of the half, the home side looked the more likely to break the deadlock.
Will Jones diverted an effort over after a loose ball fell to him in the area, while Julio Arca almost gifted Witton a big opportunity to take the lead when he misplaced a pass, only to sprint back and atone for his error with a superb tackle.
That briefly seemed to galvanise Shields, and Arca was at the centre of their best chance of the half when his brilliant pass beat the home defence and found Finnigan, who had more time than he initially realised and did not connect cleanly with the ball.
The home side would have taken a lead into the interval if it was not for a terrific save by Liam Connell. Prince Haywood had broken through the middle and looked odds-on to find the net, but his powerful low effort was palmed away by the Shields goalkeeper.
The second half immediately appeared more lively, with Paul Williams sending a decent opportunity over the bar for Witton, while Matty Pattison had a drive beaten away by Hare at the other end.
Just six minutes into the half, Holmes was introduced in place of Luke Sullivan, and the switch certainly paid dividends.
Shields started to turn the screw as they penned their opponents back, creating a number of good chances.
One of them saw Robert Briggs smash an effort just over the bar from the edge of the area, and another led to a shot by Cogdon which flew not far past the post.
The Mariners’ momentum appeared to slow after Cogdon saw another attempt saved by Hare, but they came on strongly again when Alex Nicholson was brought on in the 71st minute. The two substitutes would prove central to Shields’ late success in the game.
The breakthrough arrived with 11 minutes left. Nicholson controlled the ball 10 yards outside the penalty area, showed patience and found Arca, who immediately gave it back to him as he advanced towards the box. He in turn played it through to Cogdon, and when he was successfully tackled, the ball broke the way of Holmes, who swept it low and beyond the reach of Hare to delight the big travelling support.
The tie was far from over, but Witton had barely troubled the Mariners in the second half and there was to be no late onslaught, despite a sweet strike from Haywood which cleared the crossbar.
The game became stretched in the closing stages as Witton committed more men forward in search of an equaliser, and the extra space was fully exploited by Holmes in particular.
He could have helped himself to several more goals, with one goalbound effort excellently blocked and another well saved by Hare.
Holmes did grab his second three minutes into stoppage time as Shields cleared a Witton free-kick and broke with Nicholson, who drove into the opposition half before playing it through to Holmes on the left. He sprinted past the defence, brought the ball onto his left foot and slid it into the near post to wrap up the victory.
It extended the Mariners’ unbeaten run to 44 games, which 43 of those having ended in victory, and means they will look ahead to Monday’s second qualifying round draw with great interest.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Baxter, Lough (Callaghan 80), Shaw, Morse, Arca (c), Briggs, Pattison (Nicholson 71), Cogdon, Finnigan, Sullivan (Holmes 51). Subs not used: Norton, Storey, Scott, Richardson.
Goals: Holmes (79, 90+3).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Peter Talbot.