Substitute Warren Byrne came to the rescue for South Shields on Saturday as his two-goal salvo sealed a 4-2 victory over Esh Winning.
A four-figure crowd at Mariner Park was stunned when, after being dominated for the first hour of the game and falling 2-0 behind, relegation-threatened Esh struck twice to draw level.
However, Byrne – who had recently recovered from a hamstring injury – scored two extremely well-taken goals as Shields maintained their lead at the top of Northern League Division Two.
It was certainly a scare for Jon King’s side, though, and they must have feared they would be made to rue some of their missed opportunities in the first hour.
Michael Turner, Robert Briggs and David Foley all hit efforts narrowly off-target early on, while an even better chance arrived when Stephen Ramsey’s shot was deflected into the path of Adam Sakr, but he sent the ball straight into the hands of goalkeeper Daniel Burdess.
Burdess also did well to prevent an own goal when a Ramsey shot cannoned off a defender, but it appeared that it was merely delaying the inevitable as the hosts piled the pressure on the visitors.
Martyn Coleman looked set to put the Mariners ahead when a ball over the top played him in, but Burdess parried his effort to Briggs, who lifted it inches wide via a deflection.
Shields continued to knock on the door, but had to be alert at the other end, and only a terrific tackle by Ibby Hassan prevented the dangerous Daniel Maddison from running clean through on goal.
Another counter-attack from Esh Winning almost led to them opening the scoring when the ball was brilliantly played across to Maddison on the inside-left of the box, but he fired past the opposite post.
That was the wake-up call the Mariners needed, and they finally went ahead when Julio Arca lifted a ball over the defence for Coleman to run onto, and he showed great strength to hold off his man and run into the box before rifling into the roof of the net.
Moments later, the same player hit a shot over after being played in by Foley, but he was soon fouled in the box, with Arca making no mistake from the spot as he claimed his 11th goal of the season.
Despite numerous opportunities, Shields were unable to add to the scoring before half-time, with Ramsey blazing a glorious chance over from close range and Hassan having a header saved.
At the start of the second half, the one-way traffic continued in front of a crowd of 1,015.
Byrne – introduced as a half-time substitute – had a shot saved within moments of being brought on, while Coleman hit the post, Briggs headed narrowly wide and the goalkeeper denied the same player.
However, Esh slowly started to gain a foothold, and after a quick break, home goalkeeper Josh Richardson – signed on the day of the game from Penrith – rushed out of his area and brought down his man.
From the resulting free-kick, the ball was played back to Daniel Mann, and his low shot arrowed into the bottom corner.
Suddenly, Esh were in the ascendancy, and the scare for Shields threatened to turn into a nightmare when Mann’s speculative effort from distance took a bobble before bouncing up and past Richardson to level the scores.
With Mariners Park stunned, the hosts needed to respond quickly, and it took just 15 seconds after the restart for Byrne to answer the call.
Arca rolled the ball into him just outside the box, and the striker turned his man before sending a first-time shot into the bottom corner for his 25th goal of the season.
Foley was denied by the foot of the goalkeeper as he looked to make the three points safe, while Esh midfielder Nathan Graham saw red for an extremely poor challenge on Arca in the closing stages.
There was still time for Shields to grab a clincher, though, and it almost arrived when Byrne headed goalwards, but the goalkeeper clawed it away.
Byrne did score the goal of the game with two minutes left, with the striker swivelling in the air to meet Briggs’ corner with a stunning volley, leaving the goalkeeper with no chance.
The points were therefore sealed for the Mariners after something of a scare, and they will be looking for an improved performance on Tuesday for the visit of North Shields in the League Cup, when another big crowd is expected.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Richardson, Carson, Grey, Hassan (Hall 46), Turner, Arca (c), Sakr (Smith 61), Briggs, Coleman, Ramsey (Byrne 46), Foley. Subs not used: Young, Scroggins.
Goals: Coleman (28), Arca (pen 33), Byrne (70, 88).