South Shields pegged back as they remain one win away from title

Andrew Stephenson leads a South Shields attack against Morpeth Town on Saturday. Image by Peter Talbot.
Andrew Stephenson leads a South Shields attack against Morpeth Town on Saturday. Image by Peter Talbot.

So near, yet so far.

South Shields will have to wait to become Northern League champions for the first time.

Morpeth gave the Mariners a guard of honour before Saturday's game. Image by Peter Talbot.

Morpeth gave the Mariners a guard of honour before Saturday's game. Image by Peter Talbot.

Over 2,000 buoyant fans were ready to celebrate as the Mariners entered second half stoppage time with a 1-0 advantage against Morpeth Town on Saturday.

But Shields were unable to see it out, with Highwaymen substitute Mark Davison rising highest to nod in a 91st minute corner.

In the aftermath of the game, it felt like a defeat for Shields.

After all, it had been over five months since they had last tasted anything other than a victory, with the Mariners having gone on a record-breaking 32-game winning run.

However, when they take stock and reflect on Saturday’s game, perhaps it will be viewed as a decent point.

The name of the game for Lee Picton and Graham Fenton’s men was to avoid defeat, and stay within a win of promotion going into the final week of the season.

That they did, and they now have two more chances to seal the title when they travel to Ashington tomorrow, and Guisborough Town on Saturday.

Shields were denied the chance to lift the trophy in front of their own supporters, though, despite holding the lead for almost the entire game.

After being given a guard of honour by their visitors beforehand – despite the much talked-about history between the clubs this season – the Mariners had started in blistering style.

It took them just three minutes to take the lead, with Jon Shaw nodding a Wayne Phillips free-kick across the box to Carl Finnigan, who composed himself before hammering the ball into the bottom corner.

It was a dream start for Shields against a Morpeth team chasing an 11th consecutive victory.

In truth, though, despite being lit up so early with a goal, the game never really got going.

The wind undoubtedly played a part in that, and made it difficult for both teams to find any sort of flow.

Despite never really hitting top form, though, Shields will feel they should have wrapped things up long before Davison’s equaliser.

They had almost all of the chances in the first half, and the closest they came was when Gavin Cogdon latched onto a ball over the top, flicked it over onrushing goalkeeper Karl Dryden and then saw his effort headed away by Chris Reid.

Wayne Phillips was another to threaten as he fired an effort into the side netting, while a fizzed ball from David Foley across the box just avoided a touch from Cogdon.

The second half followed a similar pattern.

Shields looked to assert their control early, and almost caught Morpeth out just 15 seconds after the restart when Cogdon broke free, but he sent his effort narrowly past the post.

The Mariners were forced into a reshuffle just after the hour mark when Craig Baxter went off with a fractured wrist.

Louis Storey replaced him and moved into the centre of defence alongside Jon Shaw, with Darren Lough switched to left-back and Anthony Callaghan swapping flanks to the right.

That alteration initially seemed to test the hosts as Morpeth enjoyed their best spell.

Captain Keith Graydon curled a free-kick wide, while Liam Connell made a tremendous fingertip save to keep out a header from Liam Henderson.

Morpeth were visibly growing in confidence, and knew a goal at that stage was crucial if they were going to turn the game around and boost their title hopes.

The goal just did not arrive, though, with Joe Walton firing their next chance over from 20 yards.

Shields recovered from that tricky spell and could have wrapped up the points.

A terrific through ball by Julio Arca was raced onto by Finnigan, and he looked odds-on to score, only to be denied by the foot of Dryden.

Morpeth began to get frustrated as their chances of the title slipped away, and the home crowd was enraged by a number of incidents, some of which led to bookings for visiting players.

If any team looked more likely to score in that period, it was Shields, and they almost got the crucial second when Dryden punched a cross to Cogdon, who skewed a great chance wide from 10 yards.

Substitutes Michael Richardson and Robert Briggs were also off target with efforts as the Mariners just could not seal the victory.

It was hard to imagine Morpeth scoring, with the Highwaymen limited to few opportunities throughout the match.

However, after Ben Sayer was controversially awarded a free-kick midway inside the Shields half as the game ticked into stoppage time, the chance was there for Morpeth to put on same late pressure.

Connell punched the delivery out for a corner, and that would prove pivotal.

Sean Taylor drilled in the set-piece and it beat everyone, except for Davison as he headed low into the net at the back post.

Shields’ players began to trudge off the field at the end before being uplifted by the reaction of the supporters. They responded and, although clearly downbeat, they knew it was not the worst result in the world.

That elusive title is still very much in their own hands.