Hartlepool Rovers endured a nightmare defeat against relegation rivals Novocastrians on Saturday to further ramp up the pressure on their increasingly drooping shoulders.
This result, in one of only two games to beat the freeze, cuts third bottom Rovers’ points advantage over Novos, a place below them in the Durham Northumberland One table, to three with the visitors having a game in hand in hand.
All the build-up to Saturday’s clash was around the fact that Rovers couldn’t afford to lose.
With the hosts 15-0 to the good as the first half came to an end, and so on top that Novos looked completely bereft of ideas, the omens looked good.
Rovers then conspired to blow that lead, a combination of events letting Novos off the hook and they clawed their way back into the match taking the lead in added time.
The first big mistake was to waste two easy penalties that Lewis Humble could have kicked blindfold towards the end of the first half. On both occasions, however, Taz Pelser took quick taps only to be snaffled each time.
The next was to concede two needless penalties, one advanced for dissent, that put Novos into the home 22 where the pack drove to the line for a converted try. Instead of a 21-0 lead it was 15-7.
Last but not least, with Novos on the run, Rovers blew an attacking lineout in the Steetley Corner which cried out for a short throw and not a mis-throw to the tail that was picked off.
Rovers enjoy the biggest support home and away in the division and, whilst the fans haven’t turned on the team, there is an undercurrent questioning if the players care enough about the plight that they are in.
Humble, on his league debut after returning to the club from Seaton Carew, put his side 3-0 up with a 29-metre penalty after six minutes.
A try beckoned for Chrissy Harrison five minutes later when he hacked on a Steven Barnfield grubber kick only to knock on when he tried to pick the ball up with a clear run to the line.
Two turnovers by Rovers in quick succession put them on the front-foot in the away 22 and Humble took an offload to burst through to score for an 8-0 lead.
A great passage of play on the half hour, started by a 20-metre Humble break, saw Ian Pinchen, Pelser, Billy Lloyd and Kevin Maguire all held less than five metres out.
Novos held firm but from a defensive scrum Maguire kicked through to the line, Patrick O’Callaghan being the quickest to react and touch down unopposed. Humble added the touchline conversion and the lead had been stretched to 15-0.
Rovers only needed to play out a few minutes but indiscipline saw them pushed back into their 22 and some good forward play by the away eight brought a try for lock Iain Dodds. Jonno Wilkes put over the extreme conversion and then went wide with a stoppage time penalty.
Cutting the deficit to 15-7 re-energised Novos and the visitors started the second half a changed side.
Having just messed up that attacking lineout, the Friaragemen then missed out on seven points on 52 minutes.
James Evens had burst through and, although tackled 10 metres out by Carl Parkinson, first phase possession would have found an unopposed home line but a bout of handbags saw referee Colin Davison stop play and award a scrum to Rovers.
The penalty count was starting to mount and, after Rovers had initially held out in the right hand clubhouse corner, Bruno Smith took advantage of a sucked-in defence to play in Parkinson.
Wilkes slotted another touchline conversion and the lead was now 15-14 with 59 minutes played.
Wilkes went for goal after 66 minutes but his 34 metre three-pointer dipped under the crossbar and Humble then suffered the same fate with an ambitious 38 metre penalty five minutes later.
Rovers had a let off on 77 minutes when Mr Davison spotted that Jez Nash had knocked on as he dived for the line.
Any hope that they might hold on for a one-point victory was dashed when Wilkes was on target with a stoppage-time penalty from the 22 and although play continued for another three minutes the White Shirts could not fashion a get-out-of-jail-free chance.
“We can’t buy a win or close a game out,” said head coach Carl Robinson afterwards.
“Having got off to a good start and created a lead to build-on, we let them back into it through poor game-management.
“We had potential match-winners in Liam Austwicke and Steven Barnfield and yet they hardly saw the ball.”
Rovers: Austwicke, Harrison, S Barnfield, Evens, Rochester, Humble, Pelser, Pinchen (c), Maguire, Lloyd, Langley, Ryan, Little, O’Callaghan, Dring. Subs used: Whitehead, Stephenson, Ross
Tries: Humble 16; O’Callaghan 33; conversion: Humble 33; penalty: Humble 6
Penalties awarded 9, kicked 1, missed 1; scrums won 11, 1 against the head; lineouts won 6
Novocastrians: Parkinson, Bradford, Busby, Nash, Wilkes, Smith, Goodman, Dias, Twentyman (c), Dodds, Stewart, Rowntree, Fearon, Arbuckle. Suns used: Menzfield, Igoe, Wollerton
Tries: Dodds 38; Parkinson 59; conversions: Wilkes 38, 59; penalty: Wilkes 80+2
Penalties awarded 13, kicked 1, missed 2; scrums won 6, 1 against the head; lineouts won 10
Referee: Colin Davison (Durham)
Sent off: none; sin bin: Rowntree 19
Other results: Consett P Barnard Castle P; Gosforth P South Shields Westoe P; Hartlepool 12 Gateshead 22; Horden and Peterlee P Northern P; Medicals P Stockton P; Middlesbrough P Ryton P