A JJ Hooper inspired comeback helped South Shields to a 4-2 win over Nantwich Town at the 1st Cloud Arena.
A muted start to the game was well and truly broken 14 minutes in, as Akiel Raffie led the Dabbers first real attack, a pacy and brilliant run that was ended with him brought down in the area for a penalty.
Sean Cooke, as so often, nervelessly converted for 1-0, leaving the league leaders reeling.
South Shields tried to respond, midfielder Mitchell Rose was often playing very high up the pitch and had a couple of half chances, an effort curled over and a header that hit the side netting from a narrow angle.
But it was the Dabbers who struck again, in spectacular style.
An attack down the left from Matty Devine saw the ball get to Jake Bickerstaff in the left channel, he beat his man, cut inside onto his right foot and slotted it past Myles Boney in the Shields goal. Pure magic to put the Dabbers 2 up.
Nathan Lowe was an ongoing danger for Shields, dropping into little pockets of space on the right and whipping in crosses, a shot of his forced Matty Gould into his first proper save.
Then the non stop right back for Shields, Jordan Hunter, fired low to Goulds right and he kept it out well, he also managed to somehow save the rebound but it didn’t matter as he was offside.
The 2,000 plus home crowd were starting to get frustrated, groans could be heard even on passes that went backwards, showing the demands put on this team to deliver attacking and winning football.
Another cross from Lowe just evaded JJ Hooper who would surely have scored with any sort of touch, and that meant the Dabbers went in with an unexpected but brilliant 2-goal lead.
You always sensed that Shields would come out swinging in the second half, and they did just that.
Unfortunately, it was a poor refereeing decision that really started to build the momentum for the home side. A shot hit Matty Devine on the elbow, the referee pointed to the spot but video footage clearly shows that Devine was outside the penalty area when the ball hit him.
The penalty was well hit but struck the post, justice maybe but the spark of belief had been lit under Shields.
After Devine had to leave the pitch injured, South Shields got back into the game down that side just two minutes later, an unfortunate slip let in Sam Hodgson who dinked the ball over Gould for Hooper to finish off and really ignite the home crowd.
Just three minutes later, it was all square. Lowe, in that half-space again, clipped a smart ball in and it only took a flick of the neck muscles of Hooper to direct it goalwards and see the Dabbers lead disappear.
After Robert Briggs fired just wide, the Dabbers had to try and settle things down, and they nearly retook the lead with 20 minutes to go.
A counter that didn’t really look as if it was going anywhere saw the ball drop to Cooke, taking a touch to control and another to hit hard and low, it took a great save from Boney to stop it finding the far corner.
Gould then had to be alert to stop what would have been a goal from a mishit cross from the right hand side.
Joe Robbins tried in vain from distance to pull the lead back, but a final push from Shields was coming.
It was Hooper again, a dominant header to give Shields the lead for his hat trick and retain their place at the top of the league.
The scoring was completed just four minutes later, another stumble making Hooper’s job a bit easier as he finished high past Gould, an incredible afternoon for him and a tough one to take for the Dabbers, two bursts of two goals had turned the game on its head but there were definite positives to take into what is surely the biggest game of the season so far against Witton on Tuesday night.
South Shields: Myles Boney, Jordan Hunter, Blair Adams, Jon Shaw, Dillon Morse, Jack Bodenham, Nathan Lowe, Mitchell Rose, Sam Hodgson (Darius Osei, 75), Robert Briggs, JJ Hooper
Subs not used: Will Jenkins, Will McGowan, Conor Tee, Alex Kempster
Goals: Hooper (62, 65, 84, 89)
Nantwich Town: Matty Gould, Sky Sinclair (Dan Cockerline, 75), Matty Devine (Jacob Edwards, 59), Troy Bourne, Josh Langley, Matt Bell, Akiel Raffie, Joe Robbins, Jake Bickerstaff, Sean Cooke, Shaun Miller (Joe Malkin, 60)
Goals: Cooke (15, pen), Bickerstaff (25)