Early goals from Ian Dunn and Rob Nolan kept West Allotment Celtic in the box seat for promotion as they Brandon United 2-1 at Whitley Park.
Allotment headed into the game knowing that only a win would do if they were to strengthen their league position, with a series of tough tests on the horizon in the closing stages of the season.
They started with real intent, both Dunn and Sean Reid seeing goalbound shots from in and around the penalty area deflected away by the Brandon rearguard.
The captain saw his route to goal blocked once more moments before Nolan tested Chris Sawyer for the first time, a well-struck shot from an acute angle requiring a fingertip save from the United keeper.
The early pressure soon paid off as from the ensuing corner Celtic took the lead.
A curling delivery from Marc Dummett was met towards the near post by Dunn, who was not to be denied a third time, getting between two defenders to nod home from close range.
Having started as they meant to go on, Paul Stoneman’s men kept pushing – and the player-manager was, for a brief spell, the creative fulcrum of his side.
First, the veteran centre-half lifted an astute ball over the top into the path of Nolan, whose early attempt when through on goal bobbled well wide of the target.
Stoneman himself displayed a touch of class soon after, controlling Dummett’s delivery with his head to the right of the box before firing a half-volley a yard wide of Sawyer’s near post.
The home side had been steadily applying pressure upon the County Durham outfit, but it could not account for the second goal of the game – a gift from Brandon’s James Paylor.
The full back’s poor pass towards his own goal was intercepted with ease by Nolan, who slide the ball beneath Sawyer to double the comfortable lead.
It looked likely that Allotment would race into an even greater lead before half-time.
The Brandon defence caused further problems for themselves, heading a long Reid throw-in back across their own box, but Dunn could not quite meet the looping ball, Nolan eventually slamming it into the side netting from a nigh impossible angle.
Stephen Little was next to threaten from a set-piece, another Dummett corner dropping into his path, but his rifled volley flew inches over the crossbar.
Allotment had looked comfortable with and without the ball, whilst their opponents, one wayward free kick aside, had not threatened Chris Bannon’s goal.
James Davidson soon went close, the centre half going close with a fine header.
Vince Kirkup’s side continued to look dangerous at set-pieces, and another corner dropped to free-scoring midfielder Kevin Hamilton outside the area. His low drive took a wicked deflection off the outstretched leg of Reid, and looked to be heading into the far corner, only for Bannon to pull off a spectacular stop, diving backwards and to his left to hold the shot.
But there was little he could do to prevent Brandon halving the deficit two minutes later.
Once again, Allotment failed to deal with the second ball from a corner as Hamilton fed No. 9 Andrew Blackburn into the area. The 24-year-old slammed low past Bannon, a fine strike into the bottom corner that gave the keeper no chance.
Any pre-interval nerves on Celtic’s part could have been allayed as half-time drew nearer.
Chris Douglas’ in-swinging corner was headed off the line by a blue shirt, prior to Liam Hudson’s rasping effort flying marginally over by way of a deflection with the last kick of the half.
As they so often do, Allotment reasserted their dominance when the game restarted.
A bouncing attempt from Hudson needed just a touch within a crowded box to be diverted into the net, but it escaped the reach of the hooped shirts, bobbling into the waiting hands of Sawyer.
The keeper had to be at his best to deny Nolan soon after; played through on goal after a mazy run from David Henderson, the prolific forward saw his shot beaten away at the near post.
Down the field, Bannon had not had much to do for the duration of the game, but was in fine form when called upon.
Twenty yards from goal, Brandon’s Adam Cocks drilled a free kick past the wall, a telling deflection altering the trajectory of the ball, but the former Washington stopper reacted quickly once more, saving and holding in expert fashion.
Thereafter it was largely one-way traffic – though the perilously close scoreline remained a concern for the home fans.
In space on the left, Nolan swung a low cross into the path of Hudson, who could only stab the ball straight at Sawyer.
The hulking Brandon reminded Allotment of their proficiency at set plays, a succession of headers almost finding the back of the net, with Blackburn again involved at the sharp end.
It would be the last time that Brandon would attack the Allotment goal as the promotion-chasing hosts created a slew of chances at the other end to seal a vital victory.
Reid lashed one attempt clear of the bar and would later see another from within the box pushed away by the keeper.
Dean Lee almost stole in at the back post to meet a tantalising delivery from the right, only for full back David Harrison to hack clear yards from the line, whilst Dummett’s sweetly struck 25-yard strike rose over the angle of the crossbar.
All three points should have been wrapped up from the spot with less than five minutes left on the clock.
Henderson had once again weaved his way towards the byline, but his cross was blocked by the outstretched arm of a Brandon defender. Despite the obvious contact and the home side’s protestations, the referee signalled for a corner rather than a penalty kick.
The decision ultimately had no bearing on the result as Allotment somewhat comfortably saw out the game, with the likes of Dunn, Little and Dummett in impervious form further back.
With promotion rivals Jarrow Roofing and Seaham Red Star both dropping points, it represented a good afternoon’s work at Whitley Park, putting the club six points clear of third place with a game in hand.
Having won six games on the bounce, Allotment will hope to make it seven when they face the Roofers in a potentially season-defining clash next Saturday.