South Shields suffered a frustrating afternoon as they were held to a 0-0 draw by 10-man Radcliffe FC on Saturday.
The Mariners dominated much of the play but were unable to make the breakthrough, with Carl Finnigan seeing a second half penalty saved.
The visitors were reduced to 10 men when defender Callum Grogan was given a straight red card for his protestations at the penalty decision, but Shields were unable to make the one-man advantage count in the closing stages.
The result left them one point clear of Hyde United at the top of the table, and two ahead of Scarborough Athletic.
Joint managers Lee Picton and Graham Fenton made two changes from the side which drew 1-1 at Hyde four days earlier, with Alex Nicholson and Lee Mason replacing Louis Storey and Graeme Armstrong.
The Mariners could not have started much more brightly, and could have been in front within 15 seconds.
Aksel Juul was played through and rounded goalkeeper Connor Keane before his effort came back off the post. The ball eventually fell the way of Mason, whose shot was well blocked.
It was an extremely positive opening for the Mariners against a Radcliffe team which went on to sit back in an attempt to soak up the pressure.
They did that well, and it took until the 17th minute for Shields to create their next opportunity, when Finnigan chested down a cross from Robert Briggs before having an effort saved.
Finnigan was again frustrated midway through the half when Juul stole possession in the Radcliffe penalty area and found him, only for the striker’s shot to be blocked by a defender.
Baxter was the next to go close as he lashed an attempt wide from the edge of the box, and it appeared the Mariners were beginning to gain some momentum in their bid to open the scoring.
Chances for Radcliffe were rare, but they went close in the 27th minute when Kingsley Williams flashed a shot over from 20 yards.
Shields kept probing, but were unable to find a way past Keane.
A good move led to a tame effort by Baxter which did not have enough on it, and they went closer when Finnigan curled one from 20 yards which struck the crossbar.
The second half was a similar story as Shields attempted to build pressure on their visitors.
Julio Arca was played in on the inside-left of the box eight minutes into the half, but a deflection carried his effort not far wide.
A bigger opportunity fell the way of substitute Jamie Holmes when a ball in from the right dropped to him in the box, but his shot did not have enough on it to beat Keane.
The key moment in the game appeared to have arrived in the 69th minute when Finnigan was adjudged to have been fouled in the penalty area and Shields were awarded a penalty.
Grogan was given a straight red card for his protestations, and Finnigan had the chance to break the deadlock from the spot.
However, Keane guessed correctly and dived low to his left to keep out the striker’s spot-kick.
Shields tried to recover from that blow and almost did so when Briggs headed just over the top from a Baxter cross.
Several half-chances came and went as Radcliffe players put their bodies on the line, and the Mariners were unable to find the breakthrough.
Graeme Armstrong and Holmes both hit efforts wide, but Shields had to be alert, and almost lost the game in stoppage time when Liam Connell twice had to thwart James Hooper.
As the game ticked into the fifth minute of added time, it appeared the Mariners’ chance had gone.
However, Arca unleashed a piledriver from distance which Keane did brilliantly to claw away from his goal, and the ball later dropped to Baxter in an inviting position, but he fired narrowly over with his left foot.
It proved to be one of those days for Shields as they saw their lead at the top reduced.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Baxter, Lough, Shaw, Morse, Arca (c), Nicholson (Storey 54), Briggs, Finnigan, Mason (Armstrong 81), Juul (Holmes 54). Subs not used: Smith, Richardson.
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Peter Talbot.
South Shields return to action on Saturday when they host Radcliffe FC in the Evo-Stik North Division.
The Mariners are two points clear at the top of the table following Tuesday’s 1-1 draw at title rivals Hyde United.
They will hope to at least maintain the current gap to Scarborough Athletic and Hyde by picking up maximum points against 16th-placed Radcliffe, who they have yet to face this season.
Kick-off is at 3pm, with the turnstiles to open at 12pm.
Supporters will be able to take advantage of two Happy Hours during the course of the day at Mariners Park.
The first will be between 12.30pm and 1.30pm in the clubhouse and marquee, with the Premier League match between Leicester City and Stoke City to be shown on the TVs.
During those times, pints of Birra Moretti will be £2.50, with Foster’s and John Smith’s both costing £2.
Those drinks will also be the same price in the clubhouse between 5.30pm and 6.30pm.
Ahead of the game, joint manager Lee Picton has heaped praise on vice-chairman and groundsman Gary Crutwell for the work he has carried out on the Mariners Park pitch.
He said: “It’s good to be back at home.
“Graham and I spend virtually every day of our lives at Mariners Park and we’re always casting our eyes over the pitch.
“Gary Crutwell has done an absolutely amazing job with the pitch and it has held up really, really well, thanks in large to the job he has done.
“We’ll have another good surface to play on on Saturday, and we’re thoroughly looking forward to it.”
With the top sides in the division having shown great consistency so far this season, each team is under relentless pressure to pick up maximum points.
For Picton, though, the message is simple.
He added: “We’ve just got to keep focussing on ourselves.
“If we can match the quality of play we showed in the second half on Tuesday from here on in, I’ll be really surprised if we drop too many points between now and the end of the season.”
Shields will again be without left-back Anthony Callaghan, who is set to miss the rest of the season with a back injury.
Gavin Cogdon is closing in on a return from a hamstring injury, while the Mariners are also hopeful of welcoming back Jamie Holmes and Matty Pattison.
Kick-off is at 3pm and admission prices – to be paid at the turnstiles – are £8 for adults, £6 for students and over-65s, and £2 for under-16s.