Newton Aycliffe put in their best performance in weeks, but fell to a harsh 2-1 defeat to reigning champions Spennymoor that leaves the Royal Blues in the bottom three.
Micky Rae struck late on to keep the visitors’ hopes of promotion alive, after Danny Lambert had cancelled out Gavin Cogdon’s free-kick.
But Aycliffe created enough openings to feel they deserved something out of the game.
Scott Pocklington returned in goal, while James Oliver came in for Steve Gibson at right-back and Danny Lambert returned to the midfield as Allan Oliver selected an attack-minded 442.
Spennymoor were at full strength, as they start their attempt to cut Darlington’s sizable gap at the top of the table.
Aycliffe had lost their last five going into the game, but settled quickly and Fred Woodhouse had an effort blocked by Leon Ryan after good work from Paul Broom down the right.
Spennymoor didn’t threaten until the 25th minute, when Ryan’s knockdown found Rae but the striker scuffed his shot wide.
The game sprung to life in the 36th minute as Moors took the lead. Lambert gave away possession cheaply on the halfway line and Craig Ruddy tore towards goal before being hauled down by Darren Craddock on the edge of the area.
From the free-kick, Cogdon curled a shot around the wall and into the top corner at Pocklington’s near post.
But Aycliffe reacted well and could have been level at half-time. Earl raced clear but could not beat Robert Dean, who had raced from his line. From the corner, Broom’s header was heading for the top corner before Dean tipped it over and from the next set-piece Craddock rattled the crossbar.
After the break, Aycliffe took control with Martin Young and Sean Tarling dominating in midfield. First, Earl’s goalbound snapshot was headed away by Chris Mason then Woodhouse went close with a header that sparked a melee in the area.
And the deserved equaliser came just before the hour mark. Woodhouse sent Lambert clear with a clever through ball and the former Darlington winger atoned for his earlier error with an emphatic finish that sent Moore Lane Park into raptures.
Not happy with a draw, the Royal Blues pressed for a winner. Woodhouse got in down the left and fizzed a ball across the face of goal that just evaded Earl and Broom.
Then the big chance fell as Dean made a hash of his clearance and with the ball looping in the air, Earl steered a header goalwards but the ball did not have enough pace to beat the recovering Dean.
The miss appeared to galvanise the FA Vase finalists and with 11 minutes remaining Ruddy skipped past a challenge down the left and crossed for former Hartlepool striker Rae to smash home from close range.
Aycliffe tried one last assault in stoppage time, with Pocklington joining the attack, but Moors held on to send Aycliffe into the relegation zone.