LAST week Sunderland RCA manager Neil Hixon sang the praises of Darlington 1883 after the Quakers had put 11 goals past his side in the space of five days.
On Saturday, Martin Smith’s team received another ringing endorsement, this time from Whitley Bay boss Ian Chandler who had watched his side be second-best for most of the 90 minutes in front of a packed Hillheads.
“One of the best sides to have played in the Ebac Northern League for a long time,” was Chandler’s assessment of the champions-elect.
Two penalties by Stephen Thompson and a third goal from Joe Tait were just reward for a classy display.
Whitley’s best chance came late in the game when James Novak’s free-kick was superbly saved by Mark Bell.
The Quakers now lead their only rivals for the championship Spennymoor Town by a massive 28 points, although Jason Ainsley’s side have nine games in hand. Moors, playing their third game in six days after qualifying for the FA Carlsberg Vase final last Saturday, needed a late equaliser in the derby at Bishop Auckland.
Although Andy Johnson’s 35th-minute penalty was saved by goalkeeper Robert Dean, he headed in the rebound.
Spennymoor then suffered another blow when the hugely-influential Gavin Cogdon was shown a straight red card on 68 minutes.
His forthcoming suspension could prove pivitol to Moor’s chances of overtaking Darlington.
Despite their numerical disadvantage Spennymoor dominated the final 20 minutes and deservedly equalised through a Michael Rae headed 10 minutes from time.
Only two teams are challenging for the title, but at least eight are battling to avoid dropping into Division Two.
Norton and Stockton Ancients look doomed, especially after losing to Dunston UTS whose marksmen were Stephen Goddard and Daniel Craig.
Stephen Oakley had levelled for Norton, who are 18 points from safety at this stage.
Until a week ago, South Shields were also favourites to do down but three consecutive wins has lifted the gloom on Filtrona Park and manager Jon King could yet engineer a great escape.
The Mariners still have a lot to do but victory at Bedlington Terriers, with goals from Adam Burnicle and Andrew Thompson, gives them a fighting chance.
Phil Bannister replied for Terriers, who remain in the top six.
Penrith, who lost to a Danny Newby goal at Billingham Synthonia, occupy the third relegation spot and Newton Aycliffe are just outside the drop zone.
Their cause was not helped at West Auckland Town, for whom Mattie Moffat rifled a hat-trick with John Campbell also on target. Danny Earl bagged a brace for Aycliffe.
Newcastle Benfield are also fighting to retain top-flight status.
They trailed by two goals from Stephen Archibald at Celtic Nation before Tommy English threw his side a lifeline, but the Cumbrians held on.
Only seven points separate six sides and Marske United are looking over their shoulders following defeat by Hebburn Town, for whom Dean Nicholson (2), Stuart Nicholson and Chris Jewels struck.
Chris McGill and Jordan Hugill responded for the Seasiders.
The other two teams involved in the relegation fight are Sunderland RCA and Billingham Town who met on Wearside.
RCA won by an only goal from Jamie Clarke to relieve the pressure.
In Division Two, Crook Town are within a whisker of claiming promotion following their six-goal blast of Chester-le-Street with strikes from hat-trick hero Richard Hodgson, Kevin Devine, Stephen Turnbull and Robert Bird.
Although Ryhope CW are also in a strong position to go up, their fate is awaited since Recreation Park has failed an inspection by the ENL.
The Wearsiders, who defeated Northallerton Town courtesy of Chris Winn (2) and Chris Trewick, are second with Jarrow Roofing third.
Jarrow dented the hopes of Morpeth Town when they won the crucial game 3-2..
Daniel Smart and Liam McBryde (2) netted for Roofing with Steve Anderson, who also missed a penalty, and Alex Benjamin replying.
Horden CW, who were without a fixture, remain bottom with Esh Winning immediately above them after going down at Washington, whose match-winners were Ian Davies, Lee Hamilton, Dean Walker and Nick Evans.