South Shields earned a battling 2-1 win at Stafford Rangers as they maintained their one-point lead at the top of the BetVictor Northern Premier Division on Saturday.
The Mariners looked on course for a comfortable victory when strikes from Craig Baxter and Jason Gilchrist handed them a two-goal advantage at half-time.
The hosts pulled one back on the hour, though, and Shields had to stay solid defensively for the remainder of the second half to seal maximum points.
Lee Picton and Graham Fenton made two changes to the Shields team which defeated AFC Rushden and Diamonds 4-0 in the Buildbase FA Trophy a week earlier, with Baxter and Lee Mason replacing Robert Briggs and Sanmi Odelusi.
Neither side was able to find rhythm in the early stages on a difficult surface, although the hosts had the first attempt of the game as Bradley Grayson pounced on a loose ball outside the area before skewing a shot wide.
Shields began to take control the longer the first half went on and fired a warning as to their capabilities as Nathan Lowe slotted a superb ball through the middle which almost put Gilchrist in on goal, only for a fine tackle to deny him and then Mason.
The Mariners went close to making the breakthrough in the 14th minute when a free-kick from deep on the right by Lowe bounced in the area and was narrowly missed by Dillon Morse before being prodded wide by Gary Brown at the back post.
Stafford had two opportunities to take the lead soon after, but Robert Thompson-Brown’s free-kick from 20 yards dipped just over the crossbar and Paul Bignot’s header from another set piece drifted wide of Myles Boney’s right-hand post.
Shields stepped things up after those warnings and began a period of pressure which would eventually result in the opening goal.
Lowe struck a sweet free-kick narrowly over and Gilchrist looked set to give them the advantage when Mason sent him through on goal, but he hooked his effort over the bar.
On the half hour, though, the Mariners did find a way through.
A clever flick from Gilchrist 10 yards outside the Stafford half played Mason into some space and he used it well by helping it onto Baxter on the inside-left of the box.
His first touch took him slightly wider than he would have liked but he did brilliantly to find the target with a low left footed shot which found the net despite the best efforts of two home defenders on the line.
Brown went close to making it two when a Lowe corner dropped to him just inside the area, but his shot was cleared off the line.
Mason also threatened the Stafford goal when he wriggled into some space just outside the box but his effort lacked the power needed to beat goalkeeper Lewis King.
Shields deservedly doubled their lead on the stroke of half-time as Lowe received the ball on the left and sent in an excellent low cross which evaded the defence before being powered in by Gilchrist at the back post.
The Mariners largely controlled the first 15 minutes of the second half and almost made it 3-0 when Lowe’s corner narrowly missed Morse, who was in front of goal and would have been certain to score if he connected with it.
The home side survived that scare and then halved the deficit on the hour mark at the other end as Jack Sherratt picked out the top corner with an effort from the left of the area.
Stafford had Shields on the back foot for much of the remainder of the game, although they struggled to create clear-cut opportunities and the closest they came was from a corner which Jordan Hunter was forced to hack clear.
The Mariners required a defensive reshuffle when Brown was forced off with an illness, with Kieran Charlton and Baxter added to a makeshift back five.
They saw out the victory, though, and could have made it a more comfortable ending when Briggs met a Lowe free-kick with his head, but King kept out his effort.
Shields now face a wait before they return to league action, with their next game expected to be in the Buildbase FA Trophy a week on Tuesday.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Boney, Hunter, Adams (c), Turnbull, Morse, Brown (Charlton 72), Thurston, Baxter, Gilchrist (Odelusi 88), Lowe, Mason (Briggs 81). Subs not used: Coombe, Wade.
Goals: Baxter (30), Gilchrist (45+1).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Kev Wilson.
South Shields are bidding to maintain their place at the top of the BetVictor Northern Premier Division table when they travel to Stafford Rangers on Saturday.
Table-topping Shields are facing a Stafford side which sits bottom of the league on nine points.
Rangers have lost just once on home soil so far, though, so the Mariners are guarding against complacency.
Shields go into the match on a three-match winless run in the league and are determined to bounce back with a victory which would at least maintain their one-point lead at the top.
Joint manager Graham Fenton is expecting a stern test of their credentials, though.
He said: “Our pitch is particularly boggy and soft at the moment, and I’m sure it will be exactly the same down there.
“Our pitch last Saturday might have been a bit of a dress rehearsal for what we can expect at Stafford considering the rainfall we’ve had across the country.
“They always provide a tough test.
“They’re usually physically strong and determined so it will be a good test, but it’s one we’re looking forward to.”
Shields do not have great memories of their last two trips to Stafford, having been knocked out of the FA Trophy at Marston Road two seasons ago before requiring a stoppage time penalty to rescue a point from the same venue last term.
They do carry some confidence into the trip, though, following last Saturday’s 4-0 victory over AFC Rushden and Diamonds in the FA Trophy.
That booked a third qualifying round visit to Stourbridge or Lancaster City, but they will have to wait to discover their opponents after the original tie between the sides resulted in a 2-2 draw.
The replay is set to take place next Saturday, with the third qualifying round match pencilled in for Tuesday, November 26.
Mariners captain Jon Shaw and defender Robinson Wokoma are doubts for Saturday’s game with calf and ankle injuries respectively, with Luke Daly (knee) and Josh Gillies (groin) continuing their rehabilitation from injury.
Robert Briggs equalised from the spot in stoppage time for the second game in a row as South Shields remained in the Evo-Stik Premier Division title hunt on Saturday.
Briggs converted a penalty in the 92nd minute at Stafford Rangers, cancelling out a goal scored by the hosts midway through the first half.
The result kept Shields three points behind leaders Farsley Celtic, although Warrington Town have now leapfrogged them into second after they won at Stalybridge Celtic.
The Mariners host Scarborough Athletic on Monday in a game they are likely to need to win to stay in title contention.
On arguably the most testing playing surface they have encountered all season, Shields were forced to adapt their tactics at Marston Road.
Their start was effective enough, with Nathan Lowe sending a free-kick over from distance and Luke Daly shooting wide after a ball in from the left by David Foley.
But it was Stafford who took the lead in the 25th minute.
A long throw from the left by Tom Thorley was nodded down to the feet of Theo Bailey-Jones, and he tucked the ball into the bottom corner from 12 yards.
A win for the hosts would have seen them all but ensure survival in the league for another season, but they were almost pegged back immediately when a strike from outside the box by Robert Briggs took a deflection which carried it just wide.
Stafford almost doubled their advantage 11 minutes before half-time when Bailey-Jones let fly from distance, but Liam Connell made a tremendous one-handed save to tip the ball over the bar.
Another opportunity came and went for the home side as Ben Mills forced his way through on the right of the area before drilling a low ball which Connell did well to kick away.
Shields’ best chance to draw level came eight minutes into the second half when a flick-on by Connor Bell was latched onto by Foley, but Stafford goalkeeper Adam Siviter narrowed the angle and kept out his effort.
The Mariners were mainly reduced to half-chances, and another of them went begging as a ball over the top from Jon Shaw found Daly, but he fired past the post.
Bell also saw a shot blocked from a good position as Shields continued to be frustrated.
Stafford almost sealed the points as the game ticked into stoppage time as Jake Charles hit an effort just wide, but there was to be one last twist.
A ball over the top found substitute Josh Gillies, who touched it around Siviter before being bundled to the ground by a defender just inside the box.
Briggs stepped up and picked out the bottom corner with a nerveless penalty to salvage another point for Shields.
They now know they must, surely, beat Scarborough to stay in contention for the title heading into their final game, away to Gainsborough Trinity next Saturday.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Baxter (Adams 68), Lough, Shaw (c), Morse, Lowe, Foley (Gillies 63), Briggs, Harmison, Daly, Bell (Mason 81). Subs not used: Mouanda, Turnbull.
Goal: Briggs (pen 90+2).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Peter Talbot.