Lee Mason’s eighth goal in five games sealed another vital three points for South Shields as they deservedly won 1-0 at Witton Albion on Saturday.
Mason continued his fine run of form by netting just after the half-hour mark as Shields took advantage of their first half dominance.
They were made to work for their victory after half-time as Witton generated some pressure, but held out to close the gap at the top of the Evo-Stik Premier Division to three points.
Shields’ first half performance was one of their best of the season to date as they outplayed their hosts with some outstanding football.
Initially, though, they struggled to seriously test home goalkeeper Greg Hall, who comfortably made saves from Josh Gillies and Lee Mason in the early stages.
Liam Connell was forced to make the most impressive stop of the early period when he tipped a free-kick from Will Booth over the bar, although it would have been a surprise to see the goalkeeper beaten by the central effort.
Nathan Lowe was at the heart of much of the Mariners’ brightest play as he proved a huge influence in the middle of the park.
He provided an opportunity for Mason in the 17th minute when he brilliantly played the ball through to the frontman, but after he took it inside and onto his right foot, his low drive was kept out by Hall.
Shields felt aggrieved by a host of refereeing decisions throughout the afternoon, with the most controversial coming in the 19th minute.
After a corner was cleared back to him on the left, Gillies curled in a delightful delivery which appeared to have been headed over the line by Gary Brown despite the efforts of Hall and Witton defenders on the goal-line.
The officials, though, ruled that the ball had not crossed the line and the deadlock continued.
Finnigan had a great chance to break it soon after when he was found by a Gillies free-kick, but his header was straight at Hall.
Shields deservedly went in front on 32 minutes and the scorer of the goal was no surprise.
Mason played in Lowe down the left of the box before continuing his run, and the striker was on hand to bury a low effort after Lowe played the ball into a dangerous area.
Craig Baxter and Blair Adams forced Hall into further saves before half-time while Lowe was not far away from a deserved goal when his sweet strike from 20 yards was deflected past the post.
It was a superb first half display which perhaps warranted more than a one-goal lead for the Mariners, who were dealt a blow early in the second half when Finnigan was forced off with an ankle injury.
They were unable to play with the same swagger after the break, but the grit they showed to secure a clean sheet and a vital three points will have pleased joint managers Lee Picton and Graham Fenton just as much.
Witton possessed a threat going forward, particularly from long throws, but were unable to seriously test Connell.
Shields were mainly limited to efforts from distance in the second half, with Lowe having a number of sighters of goal without troubling Hall.
The hosts’ best opportunity fell to Tom Owens, who turned inside the area before firing over with 15 minutes remaining.
Another decent chance came and went when captain Rob Hopley headed over from a corner, and the same player volleyed over later in the half.
Shields were determined not to be breached, though, and saw out the victory to claim a crucial three points on a day all those above them in the table dropped points.
The Mariners are back in action on Saturday when they travel to Basford United.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Brown, Adams, Shaw (c), Morse, Turnbull, Baxter, Lowe, Finnigan (Harmison 50), Gillies, Mason (Foley 85). Subs not used: Lough, Mouanda, Guy.
Goal: Mason (32).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Peter Talbot.
Lee Picton is relishing a selection headache as South Shields look to maintain their promotion push on Saturday.
The Mariners have won eight of their last 10 league games and drawn the other two to put themselves into a strong position in the Evo-Stik Premier Division.
They head into Saturday’s match at Witton Albion sitting fourth in the table, five points behind leaders Nantwich Town with three games in hand.
Shields beat North Ferriby United 6-2 on New Year’s Day in a game which saw the likes of Gary Brown and Josh Gillies drafted into the starting line-up by joint managers Picton and Graham Fenton.
They have some tough choices to make on Saturday.
Picton said: “We shuffled the pack a little bit on Tuesday and brought Gary Brown in because Craig Baxter wasn’t feeling 100%, and I thought Gary was brilliant.
“We brought Josh Gillies in with Carl Finnigan dropping down to the bench, and Josh did some fantastic things as well.
“We always want players to be pushing each other on and creating really strong competition across all areas of the squad.
“There are going to be some really tough decisions for myself and Graham to make ahead of the game at Witton.”
Witton are 14th in the table but have numerous games in hand on all those teams around them.
They won 1-0 at leaders Nantwich last time out and also enjoyed an impressive run in the FA Cup, beating National League North high-flyers Spennymoor Town on the way.
Picton knows his side are in for a tough test.
He added: “Not only have they beaten Nantwich recently, but they knocked Spennymoor out of the FA Cup this season.
“We know that on their day they are a side which will be capable of producing a result in any game.
“We’ve got to take the real positives that we can draw from the Christmas and New Year period, apply the same levels and take the confidence we’ve accrued from that period into the Witton match.
“If we can do that, we’ve got a great chance of hopefully picking up three points.”
Shields go into the match without long-term injured duo Anthony Callaghan and Barrie Smith.
Kick-off at Wincham Park – which has a post code of CW9 6DA – is at 3pm. Admission prices are £10 for adults, £7 for over-65s and disabled supporters, £5 for those aged 16 to 21 and £2 for under-16s.
It could prove to be an important day for the Mariners, with second-placed Farsley Celtic coming up against third-placed Warrington Town and Nantwich facing a tough trip to Gainsborough Trinity.
South Shields started life in the Evo-Stik Premier Division with a hard-fought win as a Carl Finnigan double saw off the challenge of Witton Albion.
A crowd of almost 1,700 cheered Shields on at Mariners Park and watched an at times nervy encounter between two teams searching for form.
Finnigan opened the scoring on the strike of half-time with a sweet first-time finish, but the hosts were pegged back less than three minutes into the second half when James Foley converted a controversially awarded penalty.
Shields plugged away in the remainder of the game and eventually got their reward with eight minutes remaining when Finnigan nodded in an impressive cross from Josh Gillies.
It was a welcome opening day victory for the Mariners, who fielded a team featuring four debutants, as well as Dan Wright, another summer arrival who had a short loan spell at the club last season.
They did not immediately click into gear, and it was Witton who had the first attempt on goal, with Billy Smart hitting an effort wide from long range.
Although not at their best, Shields controlled most of the first half and enjoyed good spells of possession.
They also made their intentions clear early as they pressed their opponents, a plan emphasised when Gillies pounced on a loose pass by River Humphrey before trying to catch goalkeeper Greg Hall out with a shot from 30 yards which went wide.
Gillies threatened again soon after when an off-target Blair Adams effort struck him before bouncing past the post.
Adams was at the heart of many of Shields’ most promising moves in the first half and got forward well again in the 13th minute. His drilled attempt was going wide before it hit Finnigan and Hall was called on to make a tremendous point-blank save before he bravely clawed the loose ball to safety.
Gavin Cogdon curled over from the edge of the box as the Mariners kept up the pressure, but Witton almost stunned the hosts when a low drive from 25 yards by Foley whistled just past the post.
Shields responded well in the remainder of the half and Finnigan went close again when his effort from a tight angle was well saved by Hall, who grasped the ball at the second attempt under pressure from Dillon Morse.
Adams prodded a shot over from just outside the area before the Mariners found the breakthrough on the 45-minute mark.
Gary Brown sent a lofted ball forward and Robert Briggs did brilliantly to keep it alive before pulling it back across the area, where Finnigan was on hand to send it arrowing into the bottom corner.
Witton were bright at the start of the second half, though, and got their reward just two minutes into it as Liam Connell was controversially adjudged to have tripped Foley in the area.
Connell was agonisingly close to saving Foley’s spot-kick as he got a hand on the low effort, but was unable to stop the ball bouncing past him.
Albion had a glorious chance to make it a quickfire double when a cross from deep on the right by James Yates found Tom Owens at the back post, but his half volley did not trouble Connell as he failed to get clean contact on it.
Witton did well to restrict Shields’ goalscoring opportunities in the second half, and the home side had to be patient in their search for a winner.
The introduction of debutant Ursene Mouanda with just over 20 minutes left added some impetus to the Mariners’ play, and a fine ball forward from him led to a chance for Briggs which the midfielder curled wide.
Shields persisted and got their reward with eight minutes left.
Gillies beat his man on the left and then kept the ball in play on the by-line before his cross was headed under Hall in the Witton goal by Finnigan.
The three points were far from secured for Shields, though, and they breathed a sigh of relief when a tremendous block by Adams stopped a Delial Brewster effort which appeared certain to find the net.
In stoppage time, a long-running battle between Finnigan and Smart reached its conclusion when the Witton man was shown a straight red card for an off-the-ball incident.
The Mariners duly saw the game out to claim an important opening day triumph.
They will hope to build on the victory when they travel to Farsley Celtic on Tuesday.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Baxter, Adams, Turnbull (Mouanda 69), Morse, Brown, Wright, Briggs (c), Cogdon (Cowburn 83), Finnigan, Gillies. Subs not used: Pearson, Hunter, Scott.
Goals: Finnigan (45, 82).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Peter Talbot.