Table-topping South Shields earn hard-fought victory against Stafford Rangers
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).