Sunderland RCA left Whitley Park with three priceless points on Saturday afternoon, defeating a sub-par West Allotment Celtic by three goals to one.
With both sides in and around the relegation zone heading into the festive period, the game carried greater significance with the victor likely to improve their chances of survival.
Liam Hudson fired a warning shot across RCA’s bow in the opening throes, stinging the palms of Jonathan Carmichael from range.
However, the visitors soon settled into their rhythm and were rewarded for their confident start with the game’s opening goal.
Full back John Jury had already blasted a good chance wide, but defensive compatriot Andrew Brown made no mistake on 12 minutes, though his shot from 20 yards did take a telling deflection on its way past Beal.
Allotment remained second-best and were fortunate not to go further behind just three minutes later. Beal flapped at a Brown corner and the following delivery back into the box, his blushes spared by John Pendlebury on the line.
Makeshift forward Ross Preston forced a more convincing save from the stopper, whilst at the other end, Celtic tentatively looked to threaten a little more in the wide areas, Kallum McGlen’s pacy delivery nodded wide by Sean Reid.
The winger was the provider once again as the game passed the half hour mark, feeding Mark Fenwick through on goal. The deputising forward has not enjoyed the best of luck in front of goal in recent games but kept his effort firm and true only to see Carmichael pull off a superb reflex save to deny Celtic the leveller.
Fenwick was kept at bay once more by a defensive block as the interval fast approached, but a set piece would unlock the RCA defence before the half-time whistle.
McGlen’s corner was powered towards goal by the head of Reid, and though Carmichael pushed it away, Paul Stoneman reacted quickest to crash the ball into the net.
Allotment grew into their previous game at West Auckland, unfortunate to lose 2-1 to the table toppers on Tuesday evening, but they started slowly after the restart and were reliant on a double stop by Beal to push away Stephen Callen’s initial header and the follow-up.
He was reduced to the role of spectator when RCA regained the lead, that man Callen making his mark. The substitute, introduced due to an early injury to Michael Charlton, collected the ball from Lewis Wood and stroked it into the bottom corner from 20 yards.
Unlike the hosts, Sunderland RCA were enjoying plenty of success in the wide areas, Callen and Clayton Davis seeing plenty of the ball on their respective flanks.
The latter managed to get away from Marc Dummett and square a low ball across the box, where James Armstrong looked to convert from close range, instead sending the ball wide under pressure.
Celtic were found wanting when venturing into RCA’s half on many occasions, the away side always looking dangerous and they deservedly put breathing space between themselves and their relegation rivals after 65 minutes.
Joseph Hughes drove inside Dummett from the right flank, beating another defender as he embarked upon a direct run along the edge of the area before shooting across himself and into Beal’s bottom corner.
Going two down was the wake-up call Allotment needed, but the breaks did not go their way in a fleeting five-minute spell of attacking pressure.
Mark Fenwick looked to be fouled in the area by his marker, a stamp on his leg going unnoticed by the referee and his officials.
When they did breach the RCA back four, the hosts found Carmichael in fine form, the keeper charging out to meet Reid, the resultant block from the attacker’s effort spinning agonisingly around the far post.
Stoneman’s wild blaster from eight yards constituted Allotment’s final chance to haul their way back into the game.
Instead, RCA might even have added to their tally. Moments prior to the player-manager’s miss, his playing partner had to come to Celtic’s rescue once again, another goal line clearance from a header keeping faint hopes of a comeback alive.
Hughes and Davis were both blocked at close range as the game slipped away from Allotment, who upped the work rate and threw bodies forward but lacked the requisite quality and sharpness when it mattered. The desperate attempt to salvage the game late on presented further counter-attacking opportunities for Martin Swales’ side.
Callen thought he had bagged a brace when he beat Beal to a high cross, but Pendlebury was there to clear for a remarkable third time, before the sub dragged a late one-on-one wide.
Despite RCA’s victory, both sides remain 19th and 21st respectively, though the victors have moved to within six points of Allotment with four games in hand.