GRIMSBY Town began their Christmas programme by returning to the top of the Blue Square Bet Premier with a hard-earned victory over fellow promotion challengers Wrexham.
In a close contest between two well-matched sides, one goal proved to be enough for the Mariners to claim all three points, with Ross Hannah on target in the last game of his loan spell at Blundell Park.
Town started the game on the front foot but their visitors grew into it and perhaps looked the more likely to force a breakthrough at the halfway point.
But the hosts dug in and eventually ran out worthy winners, giving them the perfect start to the festive period and taking them back above Newport County in the table, ahead of their game against Braintree.
Four changes were made to the Town side after the 4-0 FA Trophy success over Havant and Waterlooville last time out.
Shaun Pearson missed out through illness, meaning Ian Miller came in at centre-back, while Joe Colbeck’s suspension after being sent off against the Hawks left the way clear for Scott Neilson to start the last game of his loan spell from Crawley Town.
Aswad Thomas returned at left-back in place of Bradley Wood, while the final change saw Hannah, also playing the last game of his temporary move from Bradford City, replace Greg Pearson in attack.
James McKeown began in goal, with Sam Hatton, Miller, Nathan Pond and Thomas forming the defence.
Neilson started on the left of a four-man midfield which also included Craig Disley, Derek Niven and Marcus Marshall, while Hannah was joined up front by Andy Cook.
The Grimsby substitutes were Greg Pearson, Wood, Dayle Southwell, Andi Thanoj and Michael Rankine.
Town knew they would return to the summit of the league table with a win but their opponents made the journey from north wales with table-topping ambitions of their own.
Wrexham sat just a point and a place adrift of the second-placed Mariners at kick-off and player-manager Andy Morrell named himself alongside fellow veteran striker Brett Ormerod in the Red Dragons’ starting XI.
Grimsby’s first attack came on two minutes and saw Thomas hit a cross from the left that had to be headed away by left-back Neil Ashton before it could reach Marshall, although the winger was penalised for a push.
Another Thomas cross came after a superb piece of control on the left took him past Danny Devine but the ball was just too high for Hannah.
Town had started well and they were given a set-piece opportunity when Cook was fouled 30 yards out but Hatton dragged his shot wide from the resulting free kick.
At the other end, a shot from Morrell was blocked, before Martin Riley’s right-wing cross was caught by McKeown.
Town were back on the attack on six minutes, with Hannah rifling a 20-yard shot just wide of visiting keeper Joslain Mayebi’s goal.
The game’s first moment of controversy came when good work by Marshall and Neilson on the right led to the Crawley loanee finding Disley in the box.
He turned and looked to have worked an opening for a shot before being caught in a challenge but the home penalty appeals were ignored.
Morrell was forced off with an injury on the quarter-hour after going down under a challenge on the halfway line. He was replaced in attack by Adrian Cieslewicz.
Grimsby’s next attack saw Marshall chase down a ball on the right and cut inside, before swinging a cross over that beat everybody and went out for a goal-kick.
A handball decision against Neilson on the Town left gave Wrexham a free kick inside the Mariners’ half but Dean Keates’ delivery was headed onto the roof of the net for a goal kick.
A spell of pressure from the away side followed, with the ball being passed around inside the Town half, although the defence coped well and a shot from Jay Harris was blocked, before the pressure was relieved when Disley headed back to keeper McKeown.
Cook was winning the aerial battle with centre-backs Devine and Chris Westwood and his header gave Marshall a chance to shoot on 25 minutes but the shot was comfortable for Mayebi to get down and stop.
Soon afterwards, another good chance came when Cook picked the ball up 25 yards out but instead of slipping it through for strike partner Hannah, the former Barrow forward instead took it on and ran into trouble.
A foul on Cieslewicz in a central position gave the visitors a free kick 25 yards out but the shot from Keates was blocked by the Town wall, before Harris put the rebound wide.
Neither keeper had been seriously tested at the half-hour mark and that continued five minutes later, when Neilson found Marshall and he jinked into the box but could not pull the trigger and Wrexham counter-attacked through Danny Wright, who shot at McKeown.
Harris launched another shot for the away side on 37 minutes but again, it caused no problems for the Town stopper, who caught the ball comfortably.
Cieslewicz had a shot blocked by McKeown soon afterwards, before a Town free kick on halfway saw Hatton’s ball to the 18-yard line headed away by Wright.
Wrexham were now taking the initiative and Wright was the next to go close, with Hatton having to hook his shot off the line as the away side looked for a breakthrough.
A ball from Keates set Cieslewicz away three minutes before the break and he ran through the middle but could only send his low shot wide.
Three added minutes were signalled as Neilson sent a cross to the far post that was plucked out of the air by Mayebi.
Wrexham were still picking up most of the loose balls in midfield and looked the more likely to force the games first goal, although the Town backline was standing firm, with Pond particularly impressive.
A foul by Thomas on Harris gave the visitors one last chance to attack but the free kick from Keates was punched clear by McKeown.
That proved to be the last action of an entertaining first half, albeit one which had seen neither side seriously trouble the opposing goalkeeper.
No changes were made before the restart and Town made a good start to the second half, with Thomas having a 20-yard shot blocked.
Wrexham’s first effort of the half came from Harris but his shot from the edge of the penalty area trickled harmlessly through to McKeown.
Cook and Neilson linked up in midfield and eventually forced a corner on 49 minutes and Marshall found Neilson with a low ball to the 18-yard line but his shot was blocked.
A foul on Thomas by Wright gave Town a free kick on the left but Cook could only send a header bouncing through to Mayebi from Neilson’s delivery.
Another attack came when Miller sent Neilson away down the left and he ran through to force a corner.
That eventually turned into another flag-kick when Pond showed good skill to get into the box and send a cross over that had to be headed behind.
A quick Wrexham break by Cieslewicz led to a corner off Niven at the other end but the visitors were unable to make it count as Town cleared.
The Welsh side went close again when a chipped cross from Keates just evaded Jonny Hunt, who dived in at the far post but could not connect as the ball went out for a goal kick.
The game was moving from end to end, with both sides looking for what was looking set to be a crucial first goal.
A super ball from Niven found Hannah down the Grimsby left on 62 minutes but good defending from Riley saw him beat Cook to the low cross from the Bradford man, before Mayebi gathered the loose ball.
Hunt then had a chance to put Wrexham ahead when the ball was played to his feet 15 yards out but he looked to be off-balance as he directed his shot off-target.
Hannah was fouled just inside the Wrexham half to give Town a free kick but again, they could not profit from it, with Marshall eventually firing over the bar after the ball had been played down the left to Neilson.
The town supporters appealed for another free kick when marshall appeared to be fouled as he looked to turn on the edge of the Wrexham box but the referee instead restarted the game with a drop ball.
Another forward run, this time from Neilson, led to Thomas shooting but he could only find the side netting from a tight angle on the left.
The next chance saw Neilson’s shot from inside the box deflected away for a corner with a little over a quarter of an hour to go.
The kick from Neilson was cleared but it proved to be the start of a spell of Mariners pressure which finally told on 77 minutes. Thomas ran into the box from the left, before pulling the ball across the six-yard line for HANNAH to sweep it home at the far post.
After taking the lead, the hosts looked for a second goal which would seal the points and they forced a corner when a shot by Cook from inside the penalty area was deflected wide, although the kick was cleared.
Ashton was booked for a foul on Marshall near the dug-outs, just before a double substitution by the visitors introduced Joe Clarke and Nick Rushton to the action in place of Hunt and Ormerod.
Southwell was sent on for Grimsby with a minute left to play, with Neilson receiving a standing ovation as he made way for the young striker.
Three added minutes were played at the end of the game and substitute Clarke hit a volley just wide from 25 yards after a headed clearance from Niven looped to him.
The visitors were attacking in search of a leveller and they won a corner deep into stoppage time, although a handball decision from it gave Town a free kick and made sure the vital three points were theirs.
Town now look forward to a trip to Lincoln City on Boxing Day.