A LAST-gasp equaliser from Craig Disley rescued a point for Grimsby Town against Gateshead and kept them firmly in the race for automatic promotion.
The Mariners came into the game looking for the win which would have seen them keep pace with Barnet and Bristol Rovers at the top of the league.
But their visitors, who were without several players due to injury and suspension, had other ideas and two goals from striker Kevin Sainte-Luce looked to have given them maximum points.
Sainte-Luce gave the away side a half-time lead but Town were given hope when a Jack Mackreth equaliser brought the near-6,000 crowd to life nine minutes after the restart.
From there, the hosts looked the more likely to go on and win the game but they were hit with a sucker-punch as Sainte-Luce grabbed what looked likely to be the winner with 17 minutes to go.
But Town kept going to the end and they got their reward in the fourth minute of added time, when captain Disley’s far-post header made it 2-2 and kept them within three points of the top of the table.
Town boss and Conference Manager of the Month Paul Hurst named an unchanged starting XI following the away victory at Welling last time out.
That meant it was James McKeown in goal, with former Gateshead man Carl Magnay, Toto Nsiala, Shaun Pearson and Gregor Robertson across the defence.
Mackreth, Disley, Scott Brown and Nathan Arnold were the midfielders, with in-form strikers Lenell John-Lewis and Ollie Palmer again selected as the attacking partnership.
Craig Clay, Jon-Paul Pittman, Daniel Parslow, Christian Jolley and Jordan Chapell were the Grimsby substitutes.
A familiar face to home fans lined up in the colours of the visitors in the shape of winger Alex Rodman, who left Blundell Park last summer.
Another ex-Town winger, John Oster, was unable to play against his former club as he was one of Gateshead’s squad on an extensive injury list.
The Mariners had an early chance visiting keeper Joel Dixon failed to hold a 25-yard effort from Brown but Palmer could not profit from the rebound as the stopper recovered to make a block.
Disley was shown the first yellow card of the game within the opening three minutes for bringing down striker Kevin Sainte-Luce after Palmer had lost possession near the halfway line.
At the other end, Michael Rankine’s flicked header looked to be going into the path of Rob Ramshaw but McKeown made a brilliant block, unaware the offside flag had gone up against the attacker.
The winger’s delivery from the flag fell perfectly for Pearson but his header dropped wide of the far post, although the referee gave a free kick to the visitors for a foul. Arnold won the game’s first corner on 10 minutes when his shot was blocked by Craig Baxter.
The winger got to the by-line and crossed but the ball was caught by Dixon. Town were looking to attack at pace and they put together another forward move through Mackreth on the right soon afterwards.
Again, Dixon got to it first and made sure the striker would not be celebrating. A Gateshead free kick from the right was comfortably caught by McKeown, before another opportunity almost fell for Palmer from a flick-on by John-Lewis.
Good work by John-Lewis saw him rob defender James Curtis of the ball and advance towards the penalty area on 19 minutes before crossing for Mackreth, who fired a volley well over the bar.
Midfielder Valentin Gjokaj hit a similarly off-target shot for Gateshead on 22 minutes, before John-Lewis was booked for a rash challenge on Rodman inside the visitors’ half.
Rodman failed to trouble McKeown as his shot flew into the packed Pontoon Stand three minutes later after another flick-on by Rankine.
The game then entered something of a lull, with neither side able to keep possession for any significant periods and neither defence coming under any serious pressure.
A long free kick from Magnay on halfway was flicked on by John-Lewis just after the half-hour but Nsiala could not get to the loose ball ahead of keeper Dixon.
Rodman won the ball to break up a Grimsby attack and after running at pace into the Mariners’ half, he found SAINTE-LUCE, who advanced into the box before smashing a left-footed shot past McKeown and into the top corner of the net. Town were made to pay when their visitors took the lead on 34 minutes.
An opportunity to force a second goal came with a free kick on the Gateshead right but after Matty Pattison’s kick was half-cleared, a shot from Jamie Chandler flew over the bar for a goal kick.
Town then could have equalised when Disley made an interception and found Mackreth, whose cross led to a shot from Arnold hitting Palmer, who made an inadvertent block.
Frustration appeared to be creeping into the Grimsby play as they struggled to build meaningful attacks and gave away some needles free kicks.
Rankine and Pearson were both booked after an altercation in the Town right-back position as the game moved into one minute of added time and the resulting free kick eventually led to Disley shooting wide.
That proved to be the last real action of a first half which had not gone according to plan for the Mariners and their bumper home support.
Gateshead boss Gary Mills would have been delighted with his side’s opening 45 minutes, while the hosts were left with plenty to do after the break if they were to come away with a positive result.
No changes were made before the restart and Town’s first attack of the second half ended when a cross from Magnay proved easy for Dixon to claim.
A cross from Robertson on the opposite flank was headed backwards by Palmer but he could only help it on to the keeper.
Gjokaj then gave away a free kick for a high foot on John-Lewis but Pearson could not get enough power on his header from Arnold’s delivery to beat Dixon.
Roberton worked the ball for Arnold but Palmer could not find the target from the winger’s cross. A foul on Disley brought a yellow card for Gjokaj and gave the Mariners a free kick in a central position on 52 minutes.
But the equalising goal was not long in coming, as MACKRETH picked the ball up and cut in from the right before arrowing a left-footed shot into the net from 20 yards to bring the home crowd to life.
And the Mariners could have taken the lead within a minute, as Palmer went through down the left but dragged his shot just wide of the far post.
Magnay had to concede a corner as Gateshead looked to respond but Pattison’s kick was headed clear by Pearson.
Palmer headed a Magnay cross over the bar as the Mariners, with the crowd behind them, took the game to their opponents and looked for the goal that would give them the lead.
John-Lewis had a shot blocked and Arnold sent a low effort tamely wide as Town continued to attack.
Gateshead made the first substitution, sending young striker Adam Campbell on in place of Ramshaw.
The hosts were pouring forward and Disley created the next chance with a driving run before pulling the ball back for John-Lewis, who sent it over the Pontoon Stand.
Nsiala was harshly adjudged to have fouled the substitute midway inside the Town half and the resulting free kick looked to be going out for a corner off Pearson until Robertson got back to turn it away for a throw-in.
That signalled the start of a brief period of Gateshead pressure which ended with Pattison hitting a poor shot that missed the target at the near post.
At the other end, Mackreth worked an opportunity to cross for John-Lewis but his far-post header was caught by Dixon.
Robertson had a 20-yard shot saved by the keeper after a cross from the right was half-cleared to him.
Gateshead had not had many opportunities to attack in the second half but they reclaimed their advantage with 17 minutes to go, as the ball was worked to SAINTE-LUCE with the Mariners looking for a free kick and he took a touch before hitting another powerful drive which McKeown could not keep out.
Town immediately looked to get themselves back on level terms and after a penalty shout for a foul on John-Lewis, there was another chance as the ball bounced around the six-yard box, only for the visitors to eventually clear.
Brown was the latest Town player to go into the referee’s notebook for a foul on Sainte-Luce on 78 minutes.
Jolley came on for Arnold and Pittman replaced John-Lewis as Town boss Hurst made a double change soon afterwards, knowing his men needed two goals to keep pace with the league leaders.
The Mariners won a corner with nine minutes to go but Brown’s delivery was well claimed by keeper Dixon.
Rodman sent a low shot just wide of the target for Gateshead soon afterwards, with McKeown at full-stretch.
Rankine blasted a free kick into the Osmond Stand with seven minutes left, before Chapell replaced Pearson for the last three minutes as Town looked to use an extra attacker in a bid to get something from the game.
Gjokjaj was shown a second yellow card for a foul on Magnay as four added minutes were signalled, meaning Gateshead had to play the remainder of the game with 10 men.
Town’s hopes of getting anything from the match appeared to be fading but in the last of the added minutes, they got their second equaliser, when DISLEY popped up with a far-post header from a Mackreth cross to make it 2-2 and secure a point.
The Mariners are next in action when they travel to Alfreton Town on Easter Monday.