GRIMSBY Town kept their Blue Square Bet Premier title challenge going with victory over Ebbsfleet United at Blundell Park.
The Mariners got off to the perfect start when Marcus Marshall marked his return to the starting line-up with a goal less than a minute after the kick-off.
Town looked to be on their way to a comfortable win when Andy Cook doubled their lead before half time.
But Ebbsfleet rallied after the break and they pulled one back through Liam Enver-Marum to set up a nervous finish for the home fans.
Grimsby came under pressure as their visitors sensed they might be able to claim a draw but the hosts made sure of the points with a fantastic third goal, scored by Craig Disley.
Three changes were made to the Town side that booked the club’s place in the FA Trophy final with a goalless draw at Dartford on Saturday.
Ross Hannah and Cook were both handed starts as Rob Scott and Paul Hurst opted to rotate their strike force, with Richard Brodie and Lennell John-Lewis both dropping to the bench.
The other alteration saw Marshall come back into the XI in place of Joe Colbeck, who was also named as a substitute.
James McKeown began in goal, with Sam Hatton, Shaun Pearson, Ian Miller and Bradley Wood forming the defence, meaning Aswad Thomas was also on the bench after missing out on a starting berth against the Darts.
Marshall started on the right of midfield, with Craig Disley, Derek Niven and Jamie Devitt completing the central quartet.
Hannah and Cook were the strikers, while the other sub was loanee Tom Naylor, making his first appearance in a Town match day squad since making a temporary switch from Derby County last week.
Ebbsfleet made the long journey from Kent looking to spring a surprise and claim the points that would help them claw their way away from the bottom of the league table.
Strikers Stefan Payne and Josh Scott would be looking to get the goals for Liam Daish’s men, while England C stopper Preston Edwards would be aiming to keep the Mariners out at the other end.
That plan failed within 45 seconds of the kick-off though, as Grimsby made the perfect start to the game by taking the lead. A low ball from Cook on the left was met by MARSHALL, who swept it into the bottom corner of the net from eight yards.
Ebbsfleet responded by winning a corner on five minutes but the visitors could not make it count as Town eventually cleared their lines.
Both sides were looking to attack in the early stages and a foul by Marshall near the halfway line gave the away side a free kick, although the resulting delivery to the 18-yard line was headed clear by Pearson.
Marshall conceded a corner on the Ebbsfleet right on 17 minutes but the ball in from left-back Gareth Gwillim was headed away by Cook.
An attempted clearance by Hatton was charged down by winger Enver-Marum just before the 20-minute mark but the rebound bounced harmlessly through to McKeown in the Town goal.
Ebbsfleet were forced into an early change soon afterwards, when midfielder Craig Stone failed to shake off an ankle knock and had to be replaced by Liam Bellamy.
The substitute then won a free kick midway inside the Grimsby half but again, Cook was there to head clear after Gwillim’s delivery.
The away side’s bad luck continued when striker Payne also went down injured and had to be replaced by Lanre Azeez.
The game had been stop-start with delays for injuries and Marshall was the next to go down in the centre circle, although he was passed fit to continue and won a corner on the right soon afterwards.
A foul on Marshall close to the edge of the penalty area on the right side brought a Town free kick on 28 minutes and Devitt’s whipped delivery was headed on by Disley but nobody could convert the chance at the far post.
A good attacking move by the Mariners four minutes later eventually led to Devitt crossing from the left but the ball was taken by keeper Edwards.
Town were now controlling the game and Devitt was involved again on 34 minutes, beating his man on the edge of the Ebbsfleet box and looking to square the ball across the six-yard line, only for it to be intercepted.
At the other end, a shot by Enver-Marum from 20 yards was blocked as the visitors launched a rare attack
Most of the pressure was coming from the Mariners though and it told on 38 minutes, when they doubled their advantage. A cross from Hannah on the right eventually fell for COOK and he worked an opening to beat Edwards from close range.
Centre-back Jack Saville was booked two minutes later for a foul on Niven near the halfway line and the resulting free kick led to Marshall winning corner on the Town right.
The kick was eventually dealt with by the visitors and after they broke clear, substitute Azeez won a corner at the other end, which saw Scott head over the bar.
Niven appeared to be brought down inside the Ebbsfleet half just before the game moved into four minutes of added time but no foul was given and the visitors broke, with Enver-Marum running through the middle and hitting a shot which deflected through to McKeown.
Another Ebbsfleet corner led to a Town free kick for a foul on McKeown and with no further chances for either side, the Mariners took their two-goal lead into the dressing rooms at half-time.
No further substitutions were made before the restart and Grimsby’s first opening of the second half saw Hannah run down the left but his cross was too strong for any attackers inside the box.
A better chance came on 48 minutes when Edwards came for a cross but failed to claim it and Pearson hit an effort against the bar, before Cook volleyed the rebound into the ground but watched it bounce over the top for a goal kick.
A long-range shot by defender Joe Howe bounced through to McKeown as the Town stopper remained relatively untroubled by the Ebbsfleet attack.
Another good chance to make it 3-0 came when a flick by Cook set Hannah away down the left. His low ball into the box found Disley but Edwards did well to block the Town skipper’s first-time shot.
Ebbsfleet were still looking for the goal that would bring the game back to life as a contest and they won another corner just before the hour. The ball was cleared but the visitors worked it back for Enver-Marum to hit a shot wide of the near post from a tight angle.
Colbeck replaced Marshall on the Town right on 65 minutes, with the away side bossing possession but posing little threat to McKeown’s goal.
A through-ball from Wood found Cook two minutes later and the striker held off a Ebbsfleet defender to work his way into the box but shot at Edwards instead of looking for strike partner Hannah, who appeared to be in a better position.
John-Lewis was sent on in place of Hannah in the Mariners attack for the last 20 minutes of the game and his first involvement was to head over the bar after a Hatton free kick had been nodded across goal by Pearson.
Ebbsfleet halved their deficit with 17 minutes to go as they finally turned their possession into a goal. ENVER-MARUM was the man to get his name on the score sheet, holding off Miller and slotting past McKeown from inside the penalty area.
Suddenly, what had looked like a comfortable victory for Grimsby was now in doubt, as the visitors gained confidence from their goal and threw an extra striker on in the shape of Nathan Elder.
Town were having to defend and Miller was forced to head a cross from the left clear as Ebbsfleet began to sense an unlikely point may be up for grabs.
Naylor came off the bench to make his Town debut in place of Devitt as the clock began to tick down.
Cook was guilty of more selfish play on 83 minutes, when he collected a pass from Colbeck on the edge of the box and worked an opening before slicing a shot wide instead of looking to find another man in black and white.
The Mariners were coming under pressure but the home nerves were calmed with five minutes to go, when the two-goal lead was restored.
Naylor and John-Lewis combined before the ball was played to Colbeck on the left. He then found DISLEY and the skipper looked up, picked his spot and rifled past Edwards from 25 yards to make the three points safe.
Four minutes of added time passed with no further chances for the Mariners, although McKeown was forced to tip away a free kick at the other end to keep the two-goal cushion intact.
Town saw out the game to claim an ultimately hard-fought victory and they are next in action in a televised clash at Macclesfield Town on Friday.