WITH four games remaining, and just three points separating the leading pair, it looks like the race for the NTSL championship could go down to the very last games in mid September.
Swalwell remain the favourites to take the crown for the fifth successive time, but they face the highest placed team of the four they have to meet in the run-in when they travel to Annfield Plain this afternoon.
Plain had genuine title aspirations themselves at the start of the season, and they were right up there with the front winners in the early weeks.
But they then went badly off-track with three successive defeats, and after a brief recovery they come into this game on the back of another three defeats in their last four matches.
And Plain’s hopes haven’t been helped by the fact that they have three absentees, with Dave Newstead, Saquib Khan and Adam Phillips all unavailable. Andrew Donnelly, Michael Allen and Dan Keegan are called up in their place.
Swalwell, meanwhile, will be missing Michael Armstrong, although Malcolm Clarke returns from holiday.
Sacriston are at struggling Chopwell, a side who have lost eight of their last nine played matches, so they should be a shoo-in for maximum points.
But cricket is very rarely as simple as that, and Sacriston have the added pressure of knowing they cannot afford to slip up in this one. Phil Peel is away and is replaced by Andrew Dixon.
Defeat at Swalwell last week left Shotley Bridge with a mountain to climb. They should make a successful beginning to the ascent as they play at rock-bottom Newcastle City, who are likely to have relegation confirmed if they lose.
Bilal Ahmed replaces wedding-bound Bob Brar in the home dressing room, while Stuart Graham has recovered from injury to take his place in the Bridge side.
Time is also quickly running out for Ashington. They are now 36 points from safety and face a trip to Burnopfield, who are within sight of their primary aim of consolidation in the top flight in their first season back. The hosts bring in Dave Baxter to replace the injured Adam Tinnion, while the Colliers are able to include Callum Storey and Greg Williams, although Jack Jessop is missing.
In today’s other games Lawrence Pearson plays for Lanchester in their home match with a depleted Percy Main, who have Guy Saxton suspended and Andrew Doherty and Stephen Peart unavailable.
Morpeth are at Tynedale, where Tim Raglan replaces Richard Darling, who is getting married.
A confident Blue Flames are ready for the ultimate test as they go in search of their second Northumberland League championship in three years.
Bedlington’s shock defeat by Blagdon Park last week means the Flames are licking at the Terriers’ heels.
With just four games left to play Bedlington are now just a single point in front of their challengers, and the pair clash head-on at Whitley Park this afternoon with the title very much up for grabs.
A glance at the remaining games suggests Bedlington have the easier three-game run-in, so the Blue boys probably need to win this one if they are to be crowned champions again.
But they will be missing the injured Rob Walker who is sidelined by a back problem. The all-rounder has chipped in with useful wickets and runs this season, but the Flames hope to offset this loss with the return of Andy Horner, Nick Humble, Keith Brown and, possibly, Bilal Malik.
Bedlington badly missed star all-rounder and skipper Paul Straker last week, but he returns for the big one to provide a massive boost to the top dog Terriers.
With the leading pair out on their own, the other main interest now centres on the relegation battle where Bomarsund and Clara Vale need victories if they are to save their skins.
Bomar include Gary Bell and Darren Dryer for their home game against a full strength Bates Cottages, while the Vale face a trip to Alnmouth, where their hosts hand a first-team debut to 14-year-old all-rounder Cameron Batey.