The champagne is on ice for South Shields – but a third consecutive title could be theirs on Tuesday.
The Mariners – who were promoted from the Evo-Stik North Division in midweek – battled to a 1-0 win at Skelmersdale United on Saturday.
But they missed out on the chance to celebrate the championship after title rivals Scarborough Athletic won 3-1 at Colne to seal promotion themselves.
Shields travel to Radcliffe on Tuesday, when they will wrap up the title with two games to spare should they claim another victory.
Lee Picton and Graham Fenton’s side had to show patience to get the better of second-bottom Skelmersdale, with substitute Graeme Armstrong netting the winner 14 minutes from the end.
It was a reward for the perseverance shown by the Mariners on a difficult surface at Prescot Cables’ Volair Park.
Shields quickly got on the front foot, with Gavin Cogdon and Carl Finnigan both going close with efforts in the early stages.
They were desperately unlucky not to open the scoring in the 16th minute when, after a superb move, a Matty Pattison shot which was destined for the bottom corner was somehow cleared off the line.
Home attacks were rare, although Josh Wardle did have a decent opportunity when he fired wide from just inside the area after a corner was half-cleared.
Shields added good pressure in the final stages of the first half, and almost took the lead when a cross from Craig Baxter met the head of Finnigan, who was denied by an excellent low save from Lee Callum Roberts in the Skelmersdale goal.
The Mariners were bright at the start of the second period, too, and the closest they came was when a Cogdon effort from distance took a big deflection before being clawed over the bar by Roberts.
An even better opportunity fell the way of Pattison when he was found eight yards out by a Michael Richardson cutback, but his effort flew over.
Shields suffered a blow when captain Julio Arca was forced off with a hamstring injury on the hour mark, but replacement Armstrong was to have a defining role in the victory.
It appeared that the Mariners were set for a frustrating afternoon until the 76th minute.
Baxter and Pattison produced some fine interplay on the right before the latter motored on and fizzed in a low cross which Armstrong flicked home to finally break the deadlock.
Both teams had chances in the remainder of the game, with Skelmersdale’s best opportunity falling the way of substitute Tunde Owolabi, who headed over from a corner.
Pattison and Aksel Juul could have wrapped it up for Shields, but just could not find a way past Roberts.
The Mariners had moved one step closer to the title. One more win will do it.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Baxter, Lough, Storey, Morse, Arca (c) (Armstrong 61), Pattison, Briggs, Cogdon (Juul 78), Finnigan, Richardson (Holmes 75). Subs not used: Shaw, Sullivan.
Goal: Armstrong (76).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Peter Talbot.
Robert Briggs scored a hat-trick as South Shields moved three points clear at the top of the Evo-Stik North Division on Saturday.
Shields beat Skelmersdale United 3-1 at Mariners Park as they won for the third league game in succession.
Briggs’ early deflected effort was cancelled out by a penalty from Mike Roddy in a first half which proved to be difficult for the Mariners.
The hosts improved after the break, and a superb dinked effort by Briggs put them back in front before the midfielder also netted from the penalty spot to seal the points.
The Mariners had to do without a number of key players, with Carl Finnigan, Gavin Cogdon, Barrie Smith, Darren Lough, Anthony Callaghan and Dan Wright all ruled out due to injury.
They struggled to get going in the early exchanges, and were fortunate not to concede within the first 90 seconds as Jordan Darr got into a decent shooting position for the visitors before his deflected effort was saved by Liam Connell.
Shields mustered their first meaningful attack in the sixth minute, and made it count.
Louis Storey’s strike was deflected as far as Briggs 20 yards out, and his shot took a big deflection before looping over goalkeeper Lee Callum Roberts and in to break the deadlock.
Despite the early goal, the Mariners were unable to build any sort of momentum in the rest of the first half.
Connell did well to hold an effort from distance by Tom Molyneux soon after, and a similar shot from the Skelmersdale midfielder was also kept out.
At the other end, Jamie Holmes had opportunities to extend Shields’ lead, but was unable to find a way past Roberts.
First he was found 12 yards out, but saw his low shot saved, and then he sprinted in behind on the right before Roberts beat his effort behind for a corner, from which Storey headed over.
Skelmersdale posed a threat, and made it count in the 24th minute when a Julio Arca foul on Darr resulted in a penalty.
A cool spot-kick by Mike Roddy levelled the scores as he sent Connell the wrong way.
Shields’ advantage was almost restored within three minutes when Craig Baxter swung in a cross from the right which Holmes got on the end of, but after he had created some space for himself in the area, Roberts closed down the angle and made a good save.
The closest the Mariners came in the remainder of the half was when a Briggs free-kick curled just past the upright, while the last play of the half saw Skelmersdale’s James Galloway fire wide from distance.
Shields joint managers Lee Picton and Graham Fenton will have been looking for a stronger performance after the break, and their troops showed their intentions from the first whistle of the second half, when they attacked with purpose and put their visitors under pressure.
That was rewarded less than two minutes into the second period when Briggs saw an initial shot saved before the ball bounced back to him and he sent a glorious, dinked effort over Roberts and under the crossbar.
The Mariners were enjoying their best spell of the game, and more good interplay almost led to a third goal when Storey played the ball inside for Alex Nicholson, who fired over.
Storey was again at the heart of things as Shields won a penalty just before the hour mark as he went on a fine run before playing in Matty Pattison, who the officials adjudged was fouled in the box.
Briggs took the responsibility from the spot and made no mistake as he found the bottom corner to complete his hat-trick.
The midfielder was full of confidence at this stage, and almost scored a memorable fourth when his volley from the edge of the box bounced just past the post.
Substitute Jack Devlin looked lively after his introduction at half-time, and had a number of efforts saved or blocked as he was kept off the scoresheet.
Skem had some half-chances of their own, but first George Withe and then Tom Hulme saw shots saved by Connell.
The Mariners saw the game out as they claimed an important three points and kept on track in their bid for promotion.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Baxter, Nicholson, Shaw, Morse, Arca (c) (Richardson 82), Storey, Briggs, Armstrong (Juul 65), Pattison, Holmes (Devlin 46). Subs not used: Woolston, Scott.
Goals: Briggs (6, 47, pen 60).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Peter Talbot.
South Shields are looking forward to home comforts when they take on Skelmersdale United on Saturday.
The Evo-Stik North Division leaders have won their last two games in the league to maintain a one-point advantage at the top.
However, with Scarborough Athletic and Hyde United breathing down their necks, they know it is imperative they continue to win consistently.
Their last outing saw them battle to a 2-1 victory at Droylsden last Saturday on a surface many have described as the most difficult they have experienced this season.
Tuesday’s match at home to Ossett Town was postponed, so Saturday’s game will be Shields’ first at Mariners Park in a fortnight.
Joint manager Graham Fenton says being back on home soil will provide the Mariners with a real boost.
He said: “The lads will be delighted to get back home.
“It’s certainly not going to be an easy game and we’re not taking it for granted, but the lads like to play on good surfaces, which ours certainly is.
“Skelmersdale may be towards the bottom of the table, but we can’t read too much into that.
“Almost every team we have faced this season have given us a real test, and I’m sure they’ll be no different.
“We have to be ready for whatever they throw at us and produce close to our best.”
Shields will again be without top scorer Carl Finnigan, who has been unavailable since suffering concussion against Hyde a fortnight ago.
The striker is expected to return to full training this week ahead of a hoped return away to Clitheroe next Saturday.
Fellow forward Gavin Cogdon, meanwhile, is set to miss at least another fortnight with a hamstring injury, with Anthony Callaghan also still out with a back complaint.
Other players who will miss out through injury include Barrie Smith, Darren Lough and Dan Wright.
Skelmersdale go into the match sitting 18th in the table, and are yet to meet Shields this season.
They have had problems off the pitch, and in November moved to Prescot Cables’ Volair Park after being forced to leave their own home.
Things have started to improve for Skem on the pitch, though.
Their last outing saw them beaten 2-1 by in-form Colne, but prior to that, they claimed a 0-0 draw away to title-challenging Bamber Bridge, who are just three points behind Shields.
Skelmersdale are three points clear of second-bottom Ossett Albion, and so will be hoping to pull away from relegation danger in the weeks ahead.
Shields, meanwhile, have their sights firmly trained on promotion, with a top-two place set to be enough to secure a place in next season’s Evo-Stik Premier Division.
Kick-off in tomorrow’s game is at 3pm, with admission – to be paid at the turnstiles – costing £8 for adults, £6 for students and over-65s, and £2 for under-16s.