Whitby Town came from behind to inflict a 3-2 defeat on South Shields in the Mariners’ final home match of the regular league season.
The result – coupled with Buxton’s 1-0 victory over Matlock Town – means Shields are set to compete in the play-offs, the semi-final of which will be held next Tuesday.
They had looked set to keep pace with the Bucks heading into the last set of fixtures when goals from Darius Osei and JJ Hooper earned them a 2-1 lead at half-time.
The Mariners were unable to capitalise on opportunities to extend that advantage, though, and Whitby struck twice late on through Marcus Giles and Jacob Hazel to take all three points.
Shields were impressive in the early stages and went close twice within the first 10 minutes, with Blair Adams and Osei both denied by Seasiders goalkeeper Shane Bland.
Hooper also had a good chance when he got on the end of a Dillon Morse flick-on, but his hooked effort cleared the crossbar.
The deserved breakthrough arrived on 16 minutes as Robert Briggs hit the ball downfield and Osei pounced on a loose clearance before swivelling in the area and firing into the bottom corner.
Shields were well on top and almost doubled their lead when Hooper played in Adams down the left of the box and he squared it to Osei, who was thwarted by Bland from close range.
Whitby equalised just after the midway point in the first half thanks to a fine pass by Harry Green and an excellent run and finish from Hazel, with a deflection leaving Myles Boney with no chance to react to the low strike.
The Mariners’ response was emphatic and they were back in front before the half-hour after Jordan Hunter picked out Hooper with an excellent cross and his header found the top corner.
The away side were now an established threat in the contest, though, and Green combined with Hazel again to unlock another golden chance, only for the league’s top goalscorer to turn his shot wide.
After the break, the opportunities continued to come. The first of them was a header by Whitby captain Daniel Rowe which Briggs headed to safety, although the ball appeared to be drifting just wide.
Hooper was unfortunate not to double his tally when Will McGowan played him in down the right of the box and he rifled a shot narrowly wide of the opposite post, and Shields went close again as Osei was played in but fired at Bland and a further strike by Hunter found the side netting.
The Mariners were made to pay for those missed chances when substitute Giles nipped in behind and angled a low effort which kissed the post on its way into the Shields net with 13 minutes remaining.
There was enough time left for Shields to respond and they did just that.
Substitute Cedric Main dug out a cross which Hooper headed onto the roof of the net and a Hunter cross was headed wide by Main as the hosts generated some momentum.
Ultimately it was the visitors who clinched the decisive fifth goal, though, as Hazel worked the ball onto his left foot and hit a low shot which was taken past Boney by a deflection.
Main and Hooper were both denied by blocks in the final whistle of stoppage time but Whitby saw things out to take the points.
Shields’ final league fixture is at Grantham Town on Saturday and, barring an extremely unlikely set of results, they are now set to compete in the play-offs.
South Shields: Boney, Hunter, Adams (c) (Kempster 82), Shaw, Morse, Bodenham, Rose, Briggs, Hooper, McGowan (Main 75), Osei (Tee 75). Subs not used: Wilding, Hodgson.
Goals: Osei (16), Hooper (29).
Image: Kev Wilson.
JJ Hooper struck a dramatic late winner as South Shields edged past an impressive FC United of Manchester side to keep their title hopes alive at Broadhurst Park.
Hooper fired home the only goal on 89 minutes after the Mariners displayed tremendous resilience and character to keep their hosts at bay.
The result moved Shields level on points with Pitching In Northern Premier League leaders Buxton heading into the final two games of the season, with just goal difference keeping them from top spot.
They came through an all-action encounter in the Manchester sunshine, with many of the key moments centred around the Mariners’ penalty area.
Both sets of supporters contributed to a tremendous atmosphere but it was the hosts who had more to shout about in the early stages, with Regan Linney having a 20 yard shot deflected wide and Jack Bodenham putting his body on the line to make a superb block from Harry McGee.
There were further openings for United, with Josh Askew particularly prominent on the right flank in the first half.
He sent a half volley over after some hesitation in the area and he later nipped in behind the defence before forcing Myles Boney into a close-range save. A further attempt from the FC number seven required a block from Blair Adams to keep Shields on level terms.
The Mariners improved as the game neared half-time but there were more opportunities for the hosts, who almost took the lead when Linney came inside from the left and hit a low effort which was deflected not far past the post.
Shields were now offering more going forward themselves, and Adams proved to be their biggest threat in the closing minutes of the half as he drove his team on.
A fierce, dipping strike from range by the left-back arrowed narrowly over the bar and Adams was then desperately unfortunate not to open the scoring with a header which was destined for the top corner before FC goalkeeper Dan Lavercombe clawed it away.
The home side had a similar hard luck story six minutes into the second half when a powerful McGee header struck the crossbar and bounced onto the line before Shields scrambled the ball to safety.
The Mariners breathed a sigh of relief but there was plenty more defending required to preserve their clean sheet in the final half-hour.
Linney played in McGee down the left of the area and his shot trickled narrowly wide, and a terrific block by Bodenham denied Linney as Shields continued to demonstrate their resilience.
Paul Ennis was the next to eye a goal, but his sweetly-hit volley from the right of the area went past the post.
Darius Osei’s final action came 10 minutes from the end when his half-volley was deflected wide, with Cedric Main introduced in his place before the resulting corner could be taken.
The set-piece ultimately came to nothing but Main went on to have a significant say in proceedings as all three of Shields’ substitutes – Main, Hooper and Mitch Rose – made an impact.
Adams had another chance when he met a Jordan Hunter cross with a header, but Lavercombe was equal to the effort.
With a minute remaining, though, there was nothing the goalkeeper could do.
Main pressured home defender Aaron Morris into surrendering possession on the left flank and advanced into the box, with Hooper making a parallel run with his strike partner.
Main’s shot was blocked by Adam Dodd but the ball broke to Hooper, who swept it home first-time with his left foot to spark jubilant scenes among the vociferous away support behind the goal.
The job was not yet done for Shields, who needed a fine block from Jon Shaw three minutes into stoppage time to seal the three points.
The final whistle was met with joy but the Mariners know there is much work to do if they are to overhaul Buxton’s lead in the final two matches.
They are back in action on Monday when they take on Whitby Town at 1st Cloud Arena.
South Shields: Boney, Hunter, Adams (c), Shaw, Morse, Bodenham, Wilding, Briggs, Hodgson (Hooper 62), McGowan (Rose 67), Osei (Main 80). Subs not used: Kempster, Tee.
Goal: Hooper (89).
Image: Kev Wilson.
South Shields made it eight home wins in a row as they produced a solid display to beat Stafford Rangers 2-0 in front of the highest crowd of the season at 1st Cloud Arena.
Goals in either half from JJ Hooper and Cedric Main ensured Shields took maximum points on Non-League Day to maintain the pressure on leaders Buxton at the top of the Pitching In Northern Premier League.
The game was watched by a tremendous gate of 2,676 after the club had earlier hosted iconic BBC show Football Focus as the Mariners were broadcast to the nation on a memorable day.
Stafford came into the game boasting the league’s best away record and chasing a play-off spot after a run of just one defeat in their previous 15 matches.
They created the first opportunity of the afternoon, but Jake Charles’ overhead kick was speculative and comfortably cleared the crossbar.
Jordan Hunter was prominent throughout the game on Shields’ right and he produced a fine cross on six minutes which was turned over by Hooper, a late addition to the starting line-up after Sam Hodgson was forced to withdraw through injury in the warm-up.
A better chance fell the way of Will McGowan when Stafford goalkeeper Mateusz Hewelt dropped a cross from Blair Adams, but he was unable to find the target from 10 yards as the visitors breathed a huge sight of relief.
Rangers grew from there and had their best spell of the match.
Set-piece specialist Tom Tonks warmed the palms of Myles Boney with a free-kick from the left of the box, with the Mariners goalkeeper doing well to push the ball over the bar.
Tonks went even closer within two minutes of that when he was found by a Kaiman Anderson cutback and struck the base of the post before the ball cannoned against Hunter and behind for a corner.
A long throw by Tonks was then hooked over by James O’Neill as Stafford continued to pressure, but Shields stemmed the flow of Stafford attacks and added some impetus of their own.
A dangerous Hooper cross was awkwardly cleared by Andrew Burns and although there were strong home appeals for a penalty, the referee waved play on.
Ten minutes before half-time, the breakthrough arrived for the Mariners.
Darius Osei played the ball into McGowan and he showed nifty footwork to beat Joe Dunne and slip in Hooper, who took a touch and produced a clinical finish to put his side in front.
There were further chances at both ends in the remainder of the first half, but neither goalkeeper was tested before the sides returned to the dressing rooms as Tonks was off target at one end and Adams was likewise at the other.
Stafford went close to equalising less than eight minutes after the restart when Alex Fletcher’s free-kick from the left found Tre Pemberton, but Boney ensured the ball did not squeeze past him with a smart stop at his near post.
Shields continued to regularly find Hunter on the right and he threatened his first goal of the season after Robert Briggs picked him out with a fine ball. After cutting inside, though, he could only fire over.
Stafford had two attempts to level things up as the second half reached its midpoint, with a powerful drive by Charles held by Boney and Anderson shooting over after a twist and turn outside the area.
The decisive moment arrived in the 74th minute, though, as the Mariners doubled their lead to effectively make the points safe.
Osei got the ball under control 10 yards inside the Stafford half before looping it over the top for Main to run onto, and the substitute raced through before dinking the ball into the bottom corner with a fine piece of composure.
Stafford are a spirited side and searched for a route back into the game, albeit to no avail.
Anderson had a header saved by Boney while at the other end, Main had a shot blocked and Osei dragged an effort past the post.
The Mariners were determined to keep a clean sheet but did not have things all their own way as they were made to sweat for it in the final minutes.
Boney did well to beat away a cross from substitute Theo Bailey-Jones and Shields had to scramble a cross to safety in the immediate aftermath.
Bailey-Jones also had an attempt deflected over from a Fletcher corner while in the second minute of stoppage time, Boney produced a tremendous fingertip save to deny Fletcher as his shot arrowed towards the top corner.
Shields saw it out to claim an important three points and ensure the gap to leaders Buxton stayed at two points after the Bucks were 3-0 victors at Witton Albion.
The Mariners are back in action next Saturday when they travel to Gainsborough Trinity.
Kevin Phillips’ side have five league matches remaining as they chase the one available automatic promotion spot.
They are now seven points clear of Matlock Town and Scarborough Athletic in third and fourth respectively after those sides played out a 0-0 draw
South Shields: Boney, Hunter, Adams (Kempster 79), Shaw, Morse, Bodenham, Rose (Wilding 64), Briggs, Hooper (Main 64), McGowan, Osei. Subs not used: Jenkins, Tee.
Goals: Hooper (35), Main (74).
Image: Kev Wilson.