Shildon can take a big stride towards first division safety if they avoid defeat at third-bottom Ashington today.

While the match might have lost some of its edge following the sacking of Ashington's former Shildon boss Ray Gowan last weekend, Shildon manager Gary Forrest knows its importance.

"It's important that we don't get beat," he said. "If we lose, then Ashington could overtake us with the games they have in hand, and if we win, then we're only one point less than last year's safety figure. We must produce the form we've been showing in recent weeks."

Shildon are unbeaten in their last four league games and are nine points ahead of Ashington, but their opponents have four games in hand. Peter Johnson will be in charge of Ashington today.

Billingham Synthonia can strengthen their grip on second if they beat Morpeth at Central Avenue.

Leading scorer Micky Dunwell returns after suspension for Synners.

West Auckland, who have won their last five, go to Thornaby. West manager David Bayles will keep an unchanged side, while Thornaby have been badly hit by injuries, the latest, defender Nicky Mohan, whose comeback lasted just a few minutes in midweek. Striker Richie Storr is leaving for for Bishop Auckland.

Tow Law, sixth bottom, are hoping to complete the signing of defender Rob Huntley from Sunderland Nissan before their game at Newcastle Benfield.

Sunderland Nissan are at home to fourth-placed Billingham Town, and recall keeper Keith Finch and outfield players Brian Linighan, Steve Halliday and Steve Stewart.

Town, who have lost just once in their last eight league games, welcome back striker Jamie Clarke and midfielder John McKie, while defenders Andy Burton and David Able have fitness tests.

Bottom club Esh Winning are at Jarrow Roofing and are without Jamie Arthur and Graham Carter, while defender Danny O'Brien returns.

Roofing are missing midfielder Ben Gawthorpe and defender Trevor Ball. Craig Russell needs a fitness test.

Durham City are at home to West Allotment. City last night transferred defender Chris Scott to Newcastle Blue Star.

Dunston go to second-bottom Brandon with several players injured, including new signing Nathan Jameson from Darlington, so assistant manager Perry Briggs is included.

Horden, who face Chester-le-Street, are without defender Andy Bowes and midfielder Martin O'Riordan, but striker Kevin Devine returns. Chester miss trio Rob Houghton, Stephen Banks and Anthony March.

The top game in the second division is between Consett, unbeaten now in 22 league games since the start of the season, and third-placed Darlington RA.

Consett will give fitness tests to defenders Damien Maw and David Johnson and midfielder Colin McKenzie.

The RA, unbeaten in seven, are miss midfielder James Chapman.

FA Vase heroes Crook Town can add to bottom club Peterlee's misery if they win at Eden Lane, but must do without striker Danny Mellanby. Fellow frontmen Phil McGuire and Sam Vernalls, will have fitness tests.

Second-placed Northallerton go to Kennek Ryhope CA, but miss defender Stuart Jackson and midfielder Steve Cochrane because of suspension Ryhope are without Gareth Hill and Craig Ellison.

Spennymoor are at Alnwick and without suspended striker Kristian Dinsley.

Guisborough are at Hebburn, and welcome back striker Lee Alexander, while Nigel Smith will have a fitness test.

Seaham Red Star, who have Andy Boynton in caretaker charge, are at home to South Shields, with new manager Paul Bennett in control.

Norton go to Penrith, without midfielder Graeme Baverstock and defender Chris Fawcett, who suffered a broken leg on Wednesday against Blue Star.

Marske include new signing John Alexander, previously with Billingham Synthonia, in their squad at home to Prudhoe.

South Shields have had three points deducted by the league for fielding an unregistered player.

After the league was alerted by the match referee, Shields were also found to have deliberately falsified a team sheet when they played Peterlee on January 2.

Shields were also fined £60 for three offences of starting recent games with less than 11 players and another £50 for misconduct, when a former team official swore at a referee.

Washington were also kicked out of the Craven Cup for fielding an ineligible player in their win over Penrith.

* Bedlington are hoping to dispose of Sudbury in their fourth round Vase replay this afternoon and set up a home game against Bury Town in the last 16.

The Terriers drew 1-1 with last year's beaten finalists and competition favourites last week, and joint manager Tony Lowery said: "We are more than capable of raising our game but there's still a lot of hard work to do."