Darius Osei and Blair Adams both notched doubles as South Shields ran out comfortable 4-0 winners over Stalybridge Celtic in the Pitching In Northern Premier League.
Osei’s first half brace was followed by two goals from Adams after the break, with the Mariners producing one of their most convincing displays of the campaign.
The result kept them two points behind leaders Buxton heading into the final three league fixtures.
Kevin Phillips named an unchanged team for this vital clash, with Sam Wilding retaining his place in midfield as he made his first start at 1st Cloud Arena.
Adams and Jordan Hunter were vital to the victory and they linked up as early as the second minute when Hunter’s deep cross from the right was headed wide by his fellow wing-back at the back post.
There was another good chance for the hosts before Stalybridge had time to catch their breath, with Jack Bodenham slipping in Sam Hodgson, whose drive was saved by the legs of visiting goalkeeper Grant Shenton.
Hodgson also headed over from a pinpoint Adams cross as Shields kept up the pressure, and the sense a goal was on its way became stronger when Osei strode into the box and rattled the outside of the post.
The deserved breakthrough arrived on 18 minutes with a fine piece of play as Robert Briggs released Hunter down the right and he raced to the byline before pulling the ball across the face of goal, where Osei was on hand to tuck it into an empty net.
Shields were unfortunate not to double their lead when Briggs presented Hodgson with an open goal and the striker converted, only to see the assistant referee’s flag deny him after a marginal offside.
They did not have to wait much longer for goal number two, with Briggs again proving to be the provider as he threaded a through ball to Osei and he rolled it under Shenton to double his tally for the afternoon.
Hodgson did not get on the scoresheet but he was a lively presence throughout his time on the pitch. His latest chance saw him hook a shot over after a flick-on from strike partner Osei.
The Mariners will have felt unfortunate not to go in at half-time with a more comfortable advantage. They had further opportunities in the closing stages of the first half and the closest they came was a curler from Briggs which dipped just past the post.
There were also some sights of goal at the other end, with Conor Falls firing wide from 20 yards, Charley Doyle heading not far wide from a Douglas Nyaupembe cross and Stephen Brogan having an effort saved by Myles Boney.
Shields controlled possession well after the break and had a golden opportunity to make it three in the 49th minute.
Hunter again found space on the right and another superb cross from the right-sider picked out Osei, who was unable to clinch his hat-trick as he headed wide.
A second assist of the afternoon was provided by Hunter soon after, with Adams the beneficiary.
Shields worked the ball from left to right and Hunter beat his defender before delivering another tremendous cross which Adams headed past Shenton to effectively seal the points.
There could have been a third assist for Hunter when he found Hodgson in the next Mariners attack, but he was denied by Shenton.
Osei and Hodgson were then withdrawn as the fresh legs of Cedric Main and JJ Hooper were introduced to the fray.
Main proved to have an instant impact. He broke away down the right, twisted and turned his way past Sam Wedgbury and squared the ball to Adams, who rifled it into the top corner to match Osei’s tally for the afternoon and cap an impressive afternoon for the Mariners.
With just three matches remaining, every moment is now crucial in this exciting title race and an Easter weekend double-header could go a long way towards deciding the destination of the championship.
Shields kick-off a brace of fixtures in three days with a trip to FC United of Manchester next Saturday before hosting Whitby Town in their final home league match of the campaign.
South Shields: Boney, Hunter (Tee 75), Adams (c), Shaw, Morse, Bodenham, Wilding, Briggs, Hodgson (Hooper 72), McGowan, Osei (Main 72). Subs not used: Rose, Jenkins.
Goals: Osei (18, 28), Adams (61, 73).
Image: Kev Wilson.
South Shields play the penultimate home game of their league campaign on Saturday when they welcome Stalybridge Celtic to 1st Cloud Arena (3pm kick-off).
This is one of just four remaining fixtures for Kevin Phillips’ side in the Pitching In Northern Premier League as they battle for promotion to National League North.
Trailing leaders Buxton by two points, second-placed Shields know the importance of maximum points against a Stalybridge side which has won two of its last three games to pull away from relegation danger.
The reverse fixture resulted in a 3-1 win for the Mariners in August, when Darius Osei, Blair Adams and Ntumba Massanka were on the scoresheet.
Osei will be among those hoping to impress once more against the club he joined Shields from in February 2020.
Shields manager Phillips believes it is imperative his side collect all three points to strengthen their hopes of overhauling Buxton at the top.
He said: “We all know it’s pretty clear we can’t afford any more slip-ups if we want to win automatic promotion.
“Our target is of course to win all four of our remaining fixtures but we can’t disrespect any of our opponents, because they’ll all be fully motivated to stop us and will want to have a big say.
“We have to just take each hurdle as it comes, starting against Stalybridge Celtic.
“It’s vital we pick up a positive result heading into what will be a difficult Easter weekend double-header for everyone in the league, with two games in three days.”
Stalybridge securing their status in the division over recent weeks makes them an even trickier team to face, according to Phillips.
He added: “Stalybridge will be tough opponents, especially after a couple of good results recently which secured their safety.
“They’ve got no worries of going down now so they’re a dangerous animal with no pressure on them.
“We’re expecting them to raise their game, as many teams do at our place, and we have to be ready for that.
“Stalybridge are quite a direct team and are not afraid to pull the trigger around the penalty area, so we need to be careful of that and defend well if we are to pick up three points.
“As the home team, we want to take the game to them in a controlled and organised way, as we have done in all of our recent matches at our place.”
Shields remain without injured midfielder Callum Ross but are hoping to have an otherwise full-strength squad to choose from at 1st Cloud Arena.
Admission – which can be paid at the turnstiles – is £10 for adults, £8 for students and over-65s, and £3 for under-16s. Supporters can purchase tickets in advance until 12pm on matchday by clicking here, which will also help to minimise queuing and ease entry through the turnstiles, which open at 12.30pm.
Fans are encouraged to stay behind after the match to enjoy karaoke in the marquee, or watch the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur in the clubhouse bars.
Happy Hour pricing will be in place across all bars between 1pm and 2pm, and from 5.30pm to 6.30pm.
If you are unable to attend the game, follow live updates on the club’s Twitter channel, www.twitter.com/southshieldsfc.
Ntumba Massanka has joined Boston United on loan for the rest of the season.
The striker was recalled from his loan at Stalybridge Celtic before linking up with the National League North side.
We would like to wish Ntumba all the very best for his spell with Boston.