GRIMSBY Town earned a hugely important three points as they beat fellow play-off contenders Eastleigh at Blundell Park.
After a good start by the visitors, the Mariners took the lead when Ollie Palmer scored for the third game in a row.
After that, Town always looked to be in control and although Eastleigh had plenty of possession, they rarely caused any threat to the home defence for much of the game.
Nevertheless, there was a feeling the hosts might need a second goal to make sure of the victory and they got it with 12 minutes to go, when substitute Lenell John-Lewis struck.
A dramatic end to the game saw Eastleigh substitute Deon Burton sent off before defender Jamie Turley did get the away side on the scoreboard but after five minutes of added time, Town held on for maximum points.
The victory meant the Mariners moved eight points clear of their opponents, who sit just outside the Conference’s top five.
One change was made to the Grimsby starting XI from last week’s draw at Chester, with Christian Jolley coming in for Jack Mackreth on the right of midfield.
James McKeown started in goal, with Carl Magnay, Toto Nsiala, Shaun Pearson and Gregor Robertson making up the back four.
Jolley, Craig Disley, Craig Clay and Nathan Arnold were the midfielders, with Palmer and Jon-Paul Pittman again preferred as the strike partnership.
That was despite the return of top scorer John-Lewis, who had to be content with a place on the bench alongside Paul Bignot, Scott Brown, Ross Hannah and Daniel Parslow.
Eastleigh made the long journey north looking for a win that could have seen them break into the play-off positions, as well as reducing the gap between them and the Mariners to just two points.
Richard Hill’s men would look to the likes of attackers James Constable and Ben Strevens to fire the goals, while experienced midfielder Brian Howard and former Town loanee Harry Pell could also prove to be key.
Constable had a shot blocked for Eastleigh inside the first minute, before Nsiala had to concede the first corner to minutes later as the visitors made a good start to the game.
A free kick from left-back Michael Green from halfway was then half-cleared for Craig Stanley to hit a dipping 20-yard shot that was caught by McKeown.
Town were yet to have the ball in the attacking half of the field at the seven-minute mark but they launched their first attack of the game soon afterwards, as Arnold made progress through the middle but pushed the ball too far ahead of Pittman.
A foul on Arnold gave the hosts a free kick inside the Eastleigh half but they could not turn it into a goalscoring opportunity.
Town had not been in the game for the first 10 minutes but they built a spell of pressure which led to the opening goal on 14 minutes. The ball was crossed in by Magnay on the right and after Jolley appeared to be fouled by keeper Ross Flitney, the referee allowed play to go on and PALMER poked it into the net from close range.
Clay hit a snap-shot that got a deflection and went out for a corner as the Mariners immediately looked to add to their lead. Arnold’s ball from the flag was missed by Flitney but cleared from danger by Strevens.
Another chance almost came from a free kick chipped into the box from halfway by Magnay. After Pearson headed it down for Arnold, he could not get a shot in but instead worked the ball to Disley on the left but his cross was just too high for Palmer at the far post.
A free kick at the other end from Howard was headed away by Pearson before Nsiala completed the clearance.
Jack Midson then shot well wide of McKeown’s goal after an effort by Pell had been blocked as the visitors looked to get themselves back into the game following a spell of Grimsby dominance.
A foul on Disley gave Town a free kick inside the visitors’ half on 24 minutes and after it was half-cleared, Clay’s cross was headed wide by Palmer.
The Mansfield loanee had another good opportunity three minutes later, when he raced onto a ball through the middle to go one-on-one with Flitney but could not lift the ball over the keeper.
Arnold then beat an offside trap down the right but could not pick a team-mate out with his cross and the Town lead remained at one goal.
Eastleigh began to see more of the ball either side of the half-hour, albeit without causing any major problems for McKeown or his defence.
Town were still creating the better chances and a cross from Palmer on the right just eluded the head of Pittman, before a good interception by Magnay eventually led to him sending a cross-shot over the bar.
A free kick pumped forward by McKeown from his own half was headed on by Palmer on 38 minutes but the ball was just too far ahead of Disley and Flitney gathered it.
The away side then had an opportunity to get the ball into the danger zone after a foul by Clay but they could not profit from the free kick.
A Grimsby free kick from the right led to Clay smashing a 25-yard shot over the Osmond Stand as the game moved into one added minute.
And with no further chances for either side before the referee’s half-time whistle, the Mariners retained their advantage at the interval.
Eastleigh had made the early running but after Palmer’s goal, Town had been the better side and deserved to be ahead at the halfway point.
No changes were made before the restart and Eastleigh, now playing with the strong wind at their backs, won the first corner of then half off Nsiala two minutes in. Howard’s delivery was too strong though, curling out for a goal kick at the far post.
A foul on Pittman inside the visitors’ half gave Town their first opportunity to attack but the ball would not drop for a man in black and white after it had been headed on by both Palmer and Pittman.
Another Grimsby free kick, this time from the left, saw Arnold’s ball headed down by Disley but Flitney got to it first.
The keeper was called into action again on 51 minutes to stop a snap-shot by Pittman.
A foul on Strevens by Nsiala near the left edge of the Town box earned Nsiala the first yellow card of the game and gave Eastleigh another chance to force an equaliser. From the free kick, the ball was cut back to Howard in space on the edge of the box but he could not keep his shot down.
Jolley did well to keep the ball in on the town left just after the hour before advancing and crossing, only for defender Jamie Turley to get a head to it and divert it back to keeper Flitney.
A free kick for Eastleigh then came when Pell was fouled in a central position, 30 yards from goal. Pell took it himself but the opportunity was wasted as his shot flew wide of McKeown’s goal.
With the Mariners still holding their narrow advantage, Eastleigh were the team needing to force the issue and they made a triple substitution with 22 minutes to go. Craig McAllister replaced Howard, with Deon Burton sent on for Midson and Dan Walker coming on for Constable.
Town boss Paul Hurst responded with a change of his own, sending John-Lewis on in place of Pittman.
The substitute linked up with Palmer on 76 minutes but could not get to the ball ahead of Flitney, who punched clear.
A drive from Jolley soon afterwards brought a corner when it was beaten away by the keeper, who caught the ball from Arnold’s flag-kick.
But the home fans did not have to wait much longer to celebrate their side’s second goal. Disley played the ball through for Palmer on the right side of the box and he then pulled it back for JOHN-LEWIS to hit a sharp finish past Flitney at the near post.
Eastleigh kept looking for a way back into the game and they won a corner on the right with two minutes left, although the kick caused no problems.
There was still time for some late drama as a pushing match developed inside the Town penalty area. Burton was shown the red card for his involvement, while Magnay was lucky to escape the same punishment as he retaliated and pushed his opponent to the floor. Instead, the right-back was only shown the yellow card.
After the game moved into four minutes of added time, the visitors would have pulled a goal back but for a brilliant save from McKeown, who kept McAllister’s header out.
Eastleigh boss Hill was sent to the stands as the game threatened to boil over, before the away side did get themselves on the scoreboard when TURLEY’S back-header from a free kick pumped in from halfway beat McKeown.
The visitors went in search of an unlikely second goal as the clock ticked past the allotted four minutes but it was not to be for them, as the referee’s final whistle calmed any home nerves and confirmed the Grimsby victory.
The Mariners now go on the road again for an away fixture at Dover Athletic on Tuesday.
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