SALFORD City sustained their pursuit of the Evo-Stik Premier Division’s top two with three games to play after a comfortable 3-0 win at promotion rivals Ashton United on Tuesday night.
The Ammies dominated the first half and took an early lead through an exquisite finish from Jordan Hulme.
James Poole doubled the lead on 15 minutes with a stunning half volley which found the top corner of Paul Phillips’ goal.
Danny Webber lobbed in a third soon after the break for his 20th of the season after a poor defensive header from Ashton captain Jay Gorton.
Martin Pilkington and Gary Gee saw efforts easily saved by Salford keeper Jay Lynch – who kept a sixth successive clean sheet – as the Robins struggled to threaten their local rivals.
The Ammies move eight points clear of fourth-placed Ashton and to within one point of second-placed Darlington, who fell to a surprise 3-1 defeat at Frickley Athletic despite leading at half-time.
Their electrifying front three now have 54 goals between them in all competitions this season after all three were on target at Hurst Cross.
Hulme – who scored twice in Saturday’s 5-0 thrashing of Grantham Town – got the ball rolling in the sixth minute with a controlled effort with the outside of his right foot which found the bottom corner for his 16th of the season.
Salford’s sprightly start continued as Poole headed Gary Stopforth’s cross wide and was denied from close range by Phillips.
But the former Hartlepool striker did notch his 19th of the campaign with another eye-catching goal – firing home an unstoppable effort from the corner of the box as the ball dropped invitingly into his path.
Webber had another curler saved and rifled a free-kick over as the dangerous Ammies came at the Ashton defence from all angles.
The hosts gained a foothold as a competitive first half turned feisty in its latter stages – with referee David McNamara booking five players in the space of 20 minutes.
Their only real sighting of goal before the interval came when 20-goal top scorer Pilkington flashed a header narrowly wide from Matt Chadwick’s right-wing cross.
Ashton were 3-0 down at the break against Stourbridge at the weekend before eventually losing 3-2 but could not find a similar stirring second-half revival.
Their recovery hopes were firmly extinguished when Salford confirmed their superiority with a third goal in the 54th minute.
The lively Webber did not give up as Gorton nodded a weak defensive header back to Phillips and – despite Ashton’s appeals in vain for an offside flag – stayed calm to lob the ball home for his 15th league goal of what could be his final playing season.
Salford managerial duo Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley will have been impressed by their side’s game management as they kept the Robins at arm’s length, with Tunji Moses – recalled in place of John Johnston – particularly impressive.
Substitute Gareth Seddon sidefooted tamely at Phillips and Hulme’s overhead kick flew inches over as the visitors passed up further opportunities to add to their 12 goals in the last three matches.
To their credit, Ashton – without injured forwards Craig Lindfield and James Dean – kept going and did not let their heads drop, which was helped by the late introduction of joint-manager Steve Halford from the bench.
Pilkington had a low effort saved before he was withdrawn, substitute Paul Marshall saw a shot travel narrowly wide and Adam Morning’s dangerous corner was kept out well by Lynch at his near post.
But Salford City saw out a fifth win in six games unscathed and have now gone eight hours and 79 minutes without conceding, as they prepare for a long trip to Lincolnshire to face Stamford on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Ashton United – who still have five league games remaining – will be hoping to bounce back from successive home defeats to fellow play-off contenders with a positive result at Nantwich Town this weekend.
Ashton United: Phillips, Coo, Gorton (c), Frost, Mason, Lees (Marshall 57′), Baguley (Halford 82′), Chadwick, Gee, Morning, Pilkington (Gray 70′).
Subs not used: Brownhill, Haining.
Booked: Coo (23′), Gorton (39′), Pilkington (45+2′), Chadwick (45+4′)
Salford City: J Lynch, C Lynch (c), Priestley, Howson, O’Halloran, Stopforth, Moses, Burton (Seddon 75′), Poole, Hulme, Webber (Clark 75′).
Subs not used: Gumbs, Mwasile, Johnston.
Booked: C Lynch (34′)
Goals: Hulme (6), Poole (15), Webber (55)
Referee: David McNamara (Lancashire)
By Adam Higgins at Hurst Cross