Chichester City bounced back from their disappointing midweek Peter Bentley Cup semi-final defeat against Saltdean to grab a late winner in their home SCFL premier division match with Uckfield.
It was the best of times at Oaklands Park as Ryan Peake headed home the only goal of the game deep into time added on.
As Peake wheeled away to celebrate with team-mates by the corner flag things got even better for City as news came through that second placed Newhaven had lost for the third time in four games and in-form Eastbourne Town’s 16-match unbeaten run had ended in a 4-1 home defeat to Horsham YMCA in the battle between the teams in third and fourth spot.
This is the second time the City defender has scored late in a game to earn his side all three points. In December Peake’s goal with five minutes to go against Langney capped things off as Chi recovered from 2-0 down at half-time to win 3-2.
This time his bullet header that sparked scenes came in the 95th minute.
Bosses Miles Rutherford and Graeme Gee made several changes to the side that faced Saltdean earlier in the week. Terrell Lewis, Gicu Iordache and Kaleem Haitham all returned to the starting XI with Peake partnering captain Connor Cody in the centre of the defence.
The Uckers, sixth in the league, are Peter Bentley semi-finalists.
In a bright start to an at-times stop-start match it was the visitors who forced the first corner of the game after 60 seconds.
City counter-attacked and a nice touch from Josh Clack set Iordache up for an attempt that skewed wide.
Uckfield’s stand-out player Dee Okojie went close with a cross-shot before Ryan Welch headed over a dangerous cross from Gianfranco Mici.
Chi’s first real chance came 12 minutes in when Lewis took the Uckers midfield out of the game with an inch perfect pass to Clack, who battled his way through two challenges but was denied by a smart stop by Louis Rogers.
Chi stopper Ryan Young did well to gather a Craig Norman effort. Next Clack found himself one on one with Rogers following a precision pass from Haitham but the keeper impressed once more and denied the No7 for a second time.
Okojie had a shot on the turn diverted for a corner and an unmarked Shaun Loft, on for Tayler Maddock, headed wide.
Matt Maclean picked up a yellow card in the game’s first talking point when he caught Matt Axell with a high tackle.
Axell got a super shot off moments later after good work by George Way before Dave Herbert stung Rogers’ gloves with a fierce strike that was turned round the upright.
Okojie forced Young into a save in the first opportunity of the second half. Bailo Camara followed Maclean into the notebook on 51 minutes for a deliberate handball.
The Chi left-back was forced into a perfect last-ditch tackle with Okojie bearing down on goal. Only another well-timed intervention, from Lewis this time, prevented Uckfield taking the lead.
Clack delivered a lovely ball to Way only for the midfielder to head off target when he really should have scored. City continued to press and Rogers had to have his wits about him to punch clear a Lewis cross into the box.
It was a feisty affair at times and the visitors were reduced to ten men with five minutes of normal time when Camara picked up a second yellow for an off-the-ball incident.
Chi might have gone in front after a goalmouth scramble but Herbert couldn’t get the ball into the net with a clever back-heel.
Super sub Sammy Ndlovu, who recently scored an 84th-minute equaliser against Peacehaven, played his part in another dramatic late goal when in stoppage time the tricky winger drove into the area past a defender and forced a corner. Fellow sub Ellis Martin swung the ball in and there was Peake to head home, much to the euphoria of the home fans and players alike.
Chichester might have added a second after Clack passed to Ndlovu but his touch was a little heavy and Rogers got to the ball first.
The win extends City’s lead at the top to nine points with nine league games to go.
Next to visit Oaklands Park are Eastbourne United on Saturday.
Chichester: Young, Lewis, Hutchings, Axell, Peake, Cody, Clack, Herbert, Haitham, Way, Iordache. Subs: Martin, Williams, Biggs, Dunn, Ndlovu.