VIDEO: Saturday's local football round-up: Ely City win basement battle while Halstead Town slip up in title bid and Bury Town lose vital ground in play-off push
As the season turns the corner into its business end, managers know it is the points against the teams in and around you that make or break promotion and relegation aims.
Brady Stone had told his Ely City players their home encounter with Hadleigh United was a real 'must-win' situation in their bid to ensure they end up preserving their Thurlow Nunn League Premier Division status for 2019/20.
So there was a massive sigh of relief at the Elligia Stadium when the referee finally blew up after nine minutes of additional time to signal three precious points being added to The Robins' tally with a 2-1 result.
It was the kind of scrappy game which summed up its importance to both sides, and it could have taken a different course had Ely's Harry Reynolds not managed to produce a good save to deny Romario Dunne from the penalty spot in the ninth minute, following a handball from a jumping Tom Williams.
The hosts were far from fluent with the ball but managed to take a 1-0 advantage into the interval courtesy of Ashley Walters' glancing header from captain Jamie Alsop's deep free-kick.
They started the second half well and doubled their advantage from another set play, with Tom Williams slamming home another Alsop delivery from deep after Hadleigh's Kris Rose could only head it up to the far post.
As the game wore on the visitors, who had been looking to bounce back from last weekend's hurtful 8-2 defeat at home to Woodbridge Town, applied pressure but could not find a finish until the eighth minute of stoppage-time.
A Brett Crisp throw-in was not cleared by a static defence and substitute Shane Murphy chipped it into the far corner.
But the muted celebrations spoke volumes as it was all too little too late as the whistle blew a minute later to condemn Appleford's side to back-to-back defeats.
For Ely the three points, their first in nine matches, moves them up from one to two places above the bottom two and widens the gap from one point to four. But it sees remain in 16th, three places and six points above second-bottom Great Yarmouth Town, who now hold two games in hand.
Elsewhere in the division, basement side Framlingham Town had led 1-0 at home to four-placed Wroxham at the break thanks to Mason Ransome's strike, but had to settled for a point in the end as The Yachtsmen replied in the second period. The Castlemen are 10 points from safety with just four wins from their 29 matches ahead of hosting Hadleigh in a key game next weekend.
The side just above Hadleigh, Thetford Town, are a point better off but could have been two more to ease their relegation worries further were it not for Newmatket Town player-manager Michael Shinn coming off the bench to equalise Valter Rocha's early opener.
Stowmarket Town moved up two places to fourth with a strike from the returning Josh Mayhew, who came off the bench, sealing a 1-0 victory over Whitton United at Greens Meadow.
Walsham-le-Willows were one of the sides to make way, dropping from fifth to sixth after their winless run stretched to three games at home to Haverhill Rovers (10th) to give new manager Stuart Wardley his first victory. Jamie Judge got the only goal 77 minutes in.
Up a level in the Bostik League North Division, Bury Town needed to match or better Coggeshall Town's result to keep their play-off hopes alive and well.
But with the fifth-placed side comfortably beating Mildenhall Town 3-0 to leave Ricky Cornish's men six points from safety, Bury's point at fourth-placed Aveley did not seem to be good enough.
Jake Chambers-Shaw had got the afternoon off to the perfect start for Ben Chenery's Blues with the opening goal coming inside seven minutes.
But Jason Raand equalised just before the half-hour mark and Thomas Richardson gave the hosts a 2-1 lead going into half-time.
Bury did dig deep though and got back on level terms through top scorer Olly Hughes five minutes after the re-start. But they could not force a winner and it leaves them now eight points adrift of Coggeshall, despite just one place separating them in table, and with the Essex side holding two games in hand.
Soham Town Rangers have slipped to just a place and six points above Mildenhall in the final relegation spot after their winless run stretched to five games with a 2-0 defeat at home to third-placed Maldon & Tiptree. The Jammers struck a goal in each hald at Julis Martin Lane.
It was a good day at AFC Sudbury though as Mark Morsley's side bounced back from back-to-back defeats on the road with a 2-0 success over lowly Great Wakering Rovers to move back up to seventh.
Both goals at King's Marsh Stadium came in the first half with Tom Maycock putting the Yellows into the lead in the 10th minute with a close-range finish before a 25-yard strike from teenage full-back Liam Bennett.
There was also good news ahead of kick-off with Morsley confirming 18-year-old defender Baris Altintop signed a two-year contract ahead of kick-off.
Needham Market's play-off push in the Evo-Stik League South Premier Division Central now looks firmly over after they suffered a third defeat from their last four winless matches, going down 4-1 at relegation-threatened Redditch. It leaves Richard Wilkins' side ninth and eight points from fifth-placed Stratford Town, who have played a game less.
The Marketmen had led through top scorer Joe Marsden's latest successful penalty but the hosts overturned that with two goals by the break before adding another two in the second half.
Down in the Thurlow Nunn League First Division South, Halstead Town will be kicking themselves after dropping crucial points in the title race on their return from a three-week break at home to eighth-place Hackey Wick.
Both the goals in the 2-0 win for the visitors came in the first half with the result proving costly with White Ensign, who leapfrog them into second, and Hashtag United both winning. The Humbugs are now nine points off top spot, but with two games in hand on Hashtag.
In the Thurlow Nunn League First Division North, Kevin Parsons is left still wondering where his first win as Haverhill Borough (15th) manager will comes from following a 5-1 defeat at Norwich CBS. It was a sixth straight defeat since the former Newmarket assistant took over.
It was a good day for Jon Abbott though as his Diss Town (13th) side held on for a 1-0 home win over AFC Sudbury Reserves (9th) at Brewers Green Lane courtesy of debutant James Baughurst's goal, against his old club, just before half-time.
Debenham LC (11th) bounced back from a trio of defeats with a good 1-0 win at seventh-placed Lakenheath.
Elsewhere, Cornard United (12th) picked up a decent point in a 1-1 draw at high-flying March Town United (4th), while Needham Market Reserves are now just a point away from lifting themselves off the bottom following an excellent 3-1 win at home to title challengers Mulbarton Wanderers.
It was a third straight win for the side under the interim management of Kevin Horlock (on loan from Colchester United in Steve Foley's absence through illness). Jose Santa De La Paz scored 13 minutes in to put the young Marketmen into a 1-0 lead. He doubled his and his side's tally in the game with another strike within a minute of the re-start before Jamahl Godward put the hosts into a dream 3-0 lead at Bloomfields. Mulbarton pulled one back from the penalty spot in the 70th minute but Needham's second string were able to hold on to claim another memorable victory.
That result did Harleston Town a big favour while they were in First Division Knockout Cup action, recording a resounding 5-1 victory at home to Leiston Reserves to seal their progress. They remain four points ahead of Mulbarton at the top of the table and now have a game in hand.
* For reaction to the weekend's action, as well as previews to the week ahead, see next week's papers.