By Glen Robertson
Newton Aycliffe moved 10 points clear of the relegation zone with a hard-fought 0-0 draw at sixth-placed Bedlington Terriers.
The Royal Blues kept a second successive clean sheet and have now been beaten just once in six outings this calendar year.
Form like that has seen Allan Oliver’s side move clear of the drop zone and it puts the club into a healthy position ahead of the weekend’s must-win trip to third-bottom Billingham Town.
Aycliffe will start that game as favourites, but arrived at Welfare Park as underdogs against a side who, while struggling off the pitch, are flying high in the top six on it.
Bedlington have been issued with a winding-up petition this month due to outstanding debts, but the club are confident they will be able to come through the trouble.
And on the field it has been business as usual. Since the turn of the year, only West Auckland have beaten them, with the likes of Newcastle United reserves, Spennymoor and Whitley Bay failing to beat the Terriers.
Aycliffe handed a debut to Middlesbrough teenager Shane Bland in goal, in the absence of Scott Pocklington and Ste Richardson, while James Oliver came in for the unavailable Darren Craddock and Sean Reay replaced Danny Earl in attack.
Both sides cancelled each other out in a cagey opening, with the home side restricted to long-range efforts that failed to give Bland a chance to showcase his talents.
It was Aycliffe who came the closest to opening the scoring in the first period. Stuart Owen rattled the crossbar from 25-yards after the Royal Blues were awarded a free-kick in a dangerous position.
The Terriers – who could have leapfrogged Bishop Auckland into fifth if they had won – brought on Steven Stewart and Jack Norton at the interval to try and force an opening.
It almost worked. Stewart came the closest to scoring the decisive goal with 15 minutes left, but he was denied by a terrific save from Bland.
The debutant and the Aycliffe defence held firm for the rest of the encounter to record the club’s sixth shut-out of the season.
And the point moved the Royal Blues above Durham into 18th place in the table and set them up nicely for Saturday’s massive game.