League leaders Chorley took a big step towards clinching the NPL Premier Division championship with help from an unexpected quarter.
The Magpies duly disposed of already-relegated Stocksbridge 3-1 in workmanlike fashion to be greeted at the final whistle with news that Buxton had pulled off a shock 2-1 win at Gigg Lane to severely dent closest-rivals FC United’s title hopes.
Apart from a brief purple patch which brought them two stunning goals in as many minutes, Chorley understandably looked battle-weary after the epic encounter with FC United in midweek.
So, having conceded the sloppiest of goals within minutes of going two up, they edged tentatively towards victory against a shot-shy Stocksbridge until Josh Hine settled the nerves with the third goal – the Magpies’ 100th of the season – 20 minutes from the end.
It would have been a more relaxed atmosphere if Darren Stephenson had accepted a gilt-edged chance to open the scoring early on. Teed up in acres of space by Hine with only Jack Ward to beat from eight yards, Stephenson rushed his shot and fired straight at the keeper.
Happily for the anxious home fans in a splendid crowd of 1,007, the lead was not too long delayed. A flowing move from back to front in the 15th minute led to Jake Cottrell freeing Hine on the right and from an acute angle he drilled a fierce low cross-shot past a motionless Ward which literally broke the side-netting as it nestled in the far corner.
If that was sensational stuff, the mercurial Stephenson did his best to eclipse it. Charging through the middle from inside his own half, he shrugged off a challenge to beat Ward all ends up with a cracking rising drive.
But loss of concentration cost Chorley on 19 minutes when two defenders in turn made a hash of clearing a long throw-in and Jamie Smith stroked home the loose ball from 10 yards. Stephenson could have restored the two-goal cushion soon afterwards but in almost identical circumstances to his spectacular goal he this time allowed Ward to parry his shot.
Thereafter the entertainment level dropped significantly and after both James Dean and Cottrell had wasted clear shooting-chances in the second half it needed goal-snatcher Hine to come up with his 21st of the season after 69 minutes to give the home side some security. S
tephenson broke through on the left and squared the ball across the face of the goal where it deflected off a defender to the lurking Hine who scored with ease from close range.
Steels were unable to test Sam Ashton in the home goal and Dean threatened a fourth for Chorley, only to fire into the arms of Ward after a surging run.
Elsewhere, Southport moved a step closer to securing their Conference Premier status with a 2-0 victory over Tamworth at home.
After a scrappy first half, in which the only incident of note was what looked like a serious ligament injury to Karl Ledsham, Southport turned up the pressure after the interval with the introduction of the pacy Yeman Osawe
Jason Walker put them in front in the 50th minute when he converted David Fitzpatrick’s cross.
Substitute Danny Hattersley should have doubled the score in the 63rd minute, shooting over from six yards with only the keeper to beat.
Scott Brown shot over after a good run from Osawe before Walker headed in another Fitzpatrick cross for his second goal and should have had a hat-trick seven minutes from time when put through by Hattersley, only to fire over the bar.
The win put the Sandgrounders three points clear of their nearest relegation rivals.
In the Northern Premier League First Division North, Bamber Bridge maintained their play-off charge with a 2-0 win over derby rivals Clitheroe at Irongate.
Greg Johnstone opened the scoring after 10 minutes and Ally Waddecar made the points safe five minutes after the break.
Lancaster City are still very much in the play-off picture after they cruised to a 3-0 victory at Ossett Town.
Lee Dodgson gave them the lead a min ute before the interval and Tom Kilifin’s double in the 59th and 67th minutes completed the win.
Burscough were well beaten 3-0 at home to Mossley, Kendal Town enjoyed a 3-1 win over Harrogate Railway Athletic at Parkside Road.
Michael Rushton struck twice before half-time, but Nathan Cartman penalty reduced the arrears after the interval.Warren Beattie ensured the points for Town with a spot kick eight minutes from time.