South Shields hit five past Brighouse Town for the second time this season as they went six points clear at the top of the Evo-Stik North Division on Saturday.
The Mariners went in at half-time with a 2-0 lead after goals from Carl Finnigan and Louis Storey, but Brighouse battled well in the second half, and pulled one back with a strike from Gabriel Johnson.
The hosts’ good spell ended when defender Adam Field was shown a red card for a foul in the penalty area, with Barrie Smith dispatching the resulting spot-kick to restore Shields’ two-goal advantage.
Graeme Armstrong netted his first goal for the club and Alex Nicholson scored late on to seal an ultimately comfortable win for the Mariners against a team they beat 5-0 in August.
Shields started the game strongly, and could have opened the scoring within four minutes when Craig Baxter’s effort from 20 yards was parried to Finnigan, who struck the post with the rebound. The offside flag had already been raised, though.
Finnigan had another chance 10 minutes later as Louis Storey played a superb through ball, but skewed his shot comfortably wide of the target.
He made no such mistake soon after, though. After Jamie Holmes was fouled on the left, Robert Briggs floated in a terrific free-kick which was glanced into the bottom corner by the head of Finnigan, Shields’ top scorer this season.
Brighouse almost levelled things up within a minute when Johnson got in behind, but Liam Connell beat away his effort with his legs.
That was a rare first half opportunity for the hosts, who went a further goal behind a minute into stoppage time, moments after Briggs had seen a shot from distance deflected wide.
The resulting corner saw Briggs curl in another impressive delivery which was this time headed beyond the defenders on the line by Storey as he netted for the second game in a row.
Brighouse had added attacking purpose at the start of the second half, and Rhys Jenkinson’s effort from the edge of the box stung the fingertips of Connell.
Shields looked like they could add a third goal at any moment, though, and almost did that after a sweeping counter-attack which saw Michael Richardson get in behind, and his chip just cleared the crossbar. He was also denied by a fine block less than a minute later.
Brighouse pulled a goal back in the 66th minute when Johnson controlled a cross from the left before firing low past Connell.
The home side enjoyed their best spell of the game as they put the Mariners under pressure in search of an equaliser.
The closest they came to levelling was after an impressive move on the right, with Connell doing well to parry an effort from Aaron Martin.
Their challenge was dealt a major blow with 16 minutes left, though, when defender Field was given a straight red card after a scramble in the area, with the officials ruling that he had denied an obvious goalscoring opportunity.
Smith’s central penalty found the net to restore Shields’ two-goal advantage and put them back into a commanding position.
Ten-man Brighouse could have pulled themselves back into it again soon after, but Smith proved to be their nemesis as he cleared a header from Callum Hall off the line.
The Mariners were well on top in the closing stages, with substitute Matty Pattison pulling the strings.
He played a major part in the final two goals. The first saw him clip a glorious pass beyond the defence for fellow substitute Nicholson, whose ball across the box was slid in by Armstrong as he netted his first goal for the club.
A flick from Pattison also got Smith in behind on the right soon after, and when he pulled it back to his team-mate, Pattison’s effort was destined to find the top corner. On its way in, it struck Nicholson and flew into the opposite corner as the points were wrapped up.
Shields are next in action on Tuesday, when they host Sunderland RCA in the second round of the Durham Challenge Cup, with a 7.30pm kick-off.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Baxter (c), Lough, Storey, Morse, Briggs, Richardson (Pattison 76), Smith, Armstrong, Finnigan (Nicholson 63), Holmes. Subs not used: Norton, Callaghan, Stephenson.
Goals: Finnigan (23), Storey (45+2), Smith (pen 75), Armstrong (82), Nicholson (86).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Peter Talbot.
South Shields are hoping to cement their place at the top of the Evo-Stik North Division on Saturday when they travel to Brighouse Town (3pm kick-off).
The Mariners have won 13 of their 15 league matches so far this season to open up a gap of four points at the top.
They also have five games in hand on second-placed Prescot Cables, and one in hand on third-placed Hyde United, who trail Shields by five points.
Brighouse, meanwhile, head into Saturday’s game sitting third-bottom in the table.
They have won five of their 20 matches on their way to a total of 17 points, with one of their defeats coming at Mariners Park in August, when Shields won 5-0.
Mariners joint manager Lee Picton, though, is not expecting an easy ride at the Dual Seal Stadium.
That follows a difficult encounter with Ramsbottom United a fortnight ago, when Shields had to battle to a 3-2 victory against a team just three points better off than Brighouse.
Picton said: “Despite their position in the table, we think it’s going to be a tough game.
“We’re going to their home patch and don’t know what sort of conditions to expect.
“They’re only six points behind Ramsbottom and they gave us a real challenge, so there’s no reason to expect anything different from Brighouse.
“We beat them 5-0 earlier in the season, and at that stage our pitch was in pristine condition.
“I remember that we had lots of possession, but I don’t think we were actually brilliant that night, despite the scoreline. Saturday will be a different challenge altogether at their place.”
Picton also insists that the message from he and fellow joint manager Graham Fenton is that nothing has been achieved yet by the Mariners this season.
He added: “I’m a firm believer that the biggest challenge comes from within.
“That’s what we’re constantly trying to promote to ensure that the lads are in the best shape mentally going into each game.
“If the players don’t keep their standards and performances at the right level, there will either be someone else in the squad that will do that job for us, or if it becomes a persistent problem, Graham and I would look to strengthen the squad.
“As good as the results have been in the first half of the season, we are certainly not sitting back on our laurels.
“We’re definitely not going to allow the team to drift through the rest of the season and just hope everything falls into place.”
The Mariners have not been in action since the Ramsbottom game two weeks ago, with last Saturday’s home game against Tadcaster Albion having been postponed because of a frozen pitch.
Picton and Fenton opted not to call the players in for training last Saturday, which Fenton is convinced was the right call.
He said: “We’ve got a really professional bunch of lads who are very focused on the job we have to do.
“They know what we’re trying to achieve and are determined not to let anything stop us doing that.
“It’s not ideal when games are called off, but you’ve got to keep your focus and prepare for every game as if it’s going to be on.
“We know it could create a fixture backlog down the line – a little like we had last season – but I’m sure it will be the same for most clubs.
“Last week was our first free Saturday in a long time and we’ve got a big period coming up, so we decided to give the players the day off.
“Sometimes it’s important to give players a bit of a physical rest, but also a mental break as well.
“We had two good training sessions this week where the players were able to refocus. The lads appreciated the day off last Saturday and will be ready to go again this weekend.”
The Mariners have been nursing a number of injury concerns over recent weeks, but the treatment room is starting to clear a little.
There are major doubts over Julio Arca and Jon Shaw heading into Saturday’s fixture, but Shields hope to welcome back the likes of Anthony Callaghan, Darren Lough, Alex Nicholson, Michael Richardson, Barrie Smith and Gavin Cogdon.
Kick-off at the Dual Seal Stadium – which has a post code of HD6 2PN – is at 3pm.
Should the game be in any doubt, please check the club’s official Twitter and Facebook pages for updates.