North Shields salvaged a dramatic point to move a step further forward in their promotion ambitions in an enthralling encounter in North Yorkshire.
The Robins, decimated by injuries and only three days on following a gruelling 120 minutes against Jarrow Roofing, oozed character.
Two-nil down largely against the run of play at the interval, Graham Fenton’s lads clawed their way back to half the deficit only to concede a clumsy penalty to go into the final four minutes still trailing 3-1.
Surely an upset was on the cards, but the division’s top marksman Gareth Bainbridge had other ideas and notched a brace including a last gasp spot kick to take his tally for the campaign to a sparkling 49.
After a bruising Ernest Armstrong Cup semi-final, Shields were nursing a bucket-load of knocks with three key defenders, skipper Kevin Hughes, centre half John Park and left back John Grey all sidelined.
Joe Elliott returned to the fray to captain the side and partner Brian Smith at the back whilst the Shieldsmen were boosted as front runners Bainbridge and Dean Holmes were able to start.
Michael McKeown, reverting to more defensive duties down the left flank, was still prominent in sorties upfield as the Tynesiders searched for an early goal to settle the nerves.
Good work from Dan Smart saw Holmes deliver a teasing cross that Bainbridge nodded just wide of the target, then home custodian Dan Lymas thwarted the Shields hot shot with his legs.
With their first real threat Stokesley stunned the visitors on 33 minutes with a quite spectacular arrowed 25-yarder into the top corner by Andrew Lambert.
Worse was to follow as, although Michael Robinson brilliantly made an initial parry, Matthew Robinson was first to react and tuck in the loose ball.
Smart rifled only an inch wide after some determined play down the right by Stuart Donnison, but on the half-time whistle the Shields number two had to be carried from the field following a heavy tackle that saw home skipper Stuart Browne, already yellow-carded, escape without further punishment.
Adam Scope was Donnison’s replacement as Shields responded on the turnaround and their efforts were rewarded after 55 minutes with Bainbridge releasing Smart to drill home.
It was all but 2-2 only seconds later as the Robins gained momentum and Scope’s pile-driver would have been a contender for goal of the season had Lymas not somehow got a finger-tip to touch behind.
Then disaster struck as a mistimed pass and tackle saw the man in the middle award a penalty that Kristian Kamara put away.
Shields were deflated, their passing becoming ragged on the bobbly surface, but the introduction of substitutes Phil Robinson and Adam Forster rejuvenated the side.
The hard-working Ben Richardson curled an effort just wide but, with time running out, McKeown’s rasping free kick rebounded off the keeper for Bainbridge to clinically despatch over the line.
Then in the 89th minute live wire Forster was fouled in the area and up stepped Bainbridge to put away the spot kick to send the Shieldsmen into raptures.
Stoppage time and Smart then Bainbridge were so close to netting again, but Shields trooped off a happy and relieved bunch.
North Shields: M Robinson, Donnison (Scope 46), McKeown, Richardson, Smith, Elliott, Carr (Forster 68), Tait, Bainbridge, Smart, Holmes (P Robinson 56). Subs not used: Walker, Courtney.
Michael Tait’s 42nd minute strike after John Parker’s drive came back off the post gave the Robins a half-time advantage over Jarrow Roofing in their midweek Ernest Armstrong Cup semi-final, but it was the South Tyneside outfit who eventually booked a final place with a 2-1 verdict after extra-time.
Playing midweek at Alnwick, Shields host Chester-le-Street at the Daren Persson Stadium on Saturday (3pm), then head to Heaton Stannington’s Grounsell Park on Tuesday, April 1 (7.30pm).
Shields’ remaining fixtures are: Saturday, April 5, Whickham, home, 3pm; Saturday, April 12, South Shields, away, 3pm; Good Friday, April 18, West Allotment, home, 11am; Saturday, April 26, Darlington RA, away, 3pm.