Johnston’s return increases Boro’s chances of survival

Northallerton could be hit by a blow from down under when their survival fight continues in their crucial home match against fellow relegation strugglers Middlesbrough.

Boro have been boosted by the return from New Zealand of former league player of the year Paul Johnston, who will now be available for the rest of the season. Johnston left early in the summer to take up a university placement in Canterbury as part of his training as a student doctor, and he could have an effect at both ends of the table as his club meets Richmond on the final day of the campaign.

Town are reaching the critical stage now, having slumped to the bottom of the table after Monday's defeat at Billingham, and with league leaders Hartlepool to come next week, they need to get something from the Boro game. They are, for once, at full strength, with Joe Clarkson and Richard Bartram back this afternoon.

Six of today's seven Premier Division games have something hanging on them in either title or relegation terms, with Marske and Bishop Auckland the other two sides still in the mire near the foot of the table.

The Seasiders gave themselves some valuable breathing space with their bank holiday win over Barnard Castle, a victory that lifted them out of the bottom two. And they have home advantage against an understrength Great Ayton, who will be playing without one of their professionals, Chris Batchelor.

Batchelor is at a wedding, but his absence is significant as he loves the Windy Hill Lane ground - he hit a century there two seasons ago, and last year created a national individual record on the ground when he crashed 185 against the NEPL in the Presidents Trophy. Marske have no such problems, with Jo Wing and Josh Carroll available again.

Bishops enjoyed a fabulous bank holiday weekend, winning one league game and gaining a valuable draw against the league leaders in the other.

Sandwiched in between those was victory in the Premier NYSD Fifteens and with a trophy in the cabinet, confidence will be high at Kingsway against a Guisborough team who have little to play for. The hosts show one change with Nigel Turner replacing the holidaying Ryan Nicholson.

It's 23 years since Hartlepool last won the title, but they emerged from last weekend's double programme with an 18-point lead, and if they can win two of their last three then the crown will be theirs. They travel to Cricket Lane with an unchanged line-up which includes Ian Palmer. Graham Robinson returns for Normanby Hall.

Whatever happens now Barnard Castle have enjoyed an excellent first season in the top flight, and they will certainly provide a stiff Vere Road test for Marton, who would appear to have no other option than to go all out for victory in all their remaining matches. Tom Sparrow retains his place in an unchanged Barney team, with the visitors also putting out the same side.

Richmondshire also have to be positive, beginning today at home to Darlington who have Alex Deuchar missing.

In Division One, just four points separate leaders Thornaby from second-placed Sedgefield, with the Teessiders facing a test at an improving Seaton Carew side, and Sedgefield facing a trip to Whitby.

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