A first-half goal from FC St Helens striker Josh Hall was enough to earn the runaway league leaders in the North West Counties League First Division North a hard fought 1-0 win against a dogged and spirited Daisy Hill side on Friday night.

There were 14 league positions and 34 points separating the sides at the start of play, but the champions-elect were given a tough examination by a Daisy side who survived a torrid opening half hour, before eventually dominating the game for long periods in the second half.

But despite creating several clear chances, including a Jamie Ramwell effort that hit the post, Daisy were left unrewarded after a performance midfielder Jack Iley felt was one of their best of the season.

“We came here knowing it was going to be a tough game. They are top of the league, there was a big crowd, but I think we did ourselves proud,” said Iley post match.

“We’ve come away feeling disappointed that we didn’t take anything from the game, and I think that shows how well we played and how well we competed.

“It was the sort of game that when we went 1-0 down against a very good team, maybe a few months ago we’d have gone on and been beaten four or five nil.

“But it shows the character that we’ve got, and the way we have grown through the season, that we didn’t do that. We fought our way back into the game and I think we were unlucky not to come away with something.

“We know when we turn up, we can mix it with the top sides, and I really do believe that the league table doesn’t reflect the quality we have in the squad.

“We came with a game plan, we would have been very naïve to come away to the team at the top of the league if we didn’t, and it was a bit of a change for us and something we had worked on in training.

“I think we showed them a bit too much respect in the opening 15-20 minutes and maybe that put us on the back foot a bit.

“After that, we grew into the game, and started thinking we can have a go here. We came out of our shell a bit, and the game opened up.

“It was a tough game and an intense game, but you know you have done well when you are walking off the pitch at the end, and players from the team at the top of the league are saying that we are one of the best sides we have played this season.”

The goalscoring form of FC St Helens striker Joe Barker has been key to their success this season, and the 27-goal man wasted no time in imposing himself on the Daisy defence in the early stages.

In the sixth minute Daisy keeper Morgan Newns had to race out quickly to force the striker wide of goal as he chased a through ball, and Newns was called into action again soon afterwards when he made a great block with his legs from a Barker shot.

However, Newns topped those efforts with a fine penalty save on 22 minutes, after FC St Helens front man Hall was tripped just inside the box.

Hall dusted himself down and took the spot-kick, but Newns guessed correctly to get down low to his right to push away Hall’s effort.

But Daisy’s respite was only temporary, as Hall struck what proved to be the decisive goal two minutes later.

There was an element of fortune involved as Barker and Newns clashed in mid air as they challenged for a cross, and although the Daisy keeper got hands on the ball, he could only palm it upwards before it fell nicely for Hall to tap into the net from close range, amid claims for offside from the Daisy players.

The early momentum from the home side was stepped up, and after another great save from Newns on the half hour to push Nathan Dutton-Kay’s shot on to the post, the home side seemed certain to add to their tally sooner rather than later.

But Daisy dug in and gradually began to impose their mark on the game, and after Ramwell got on the end of Sam Twist’s cut back to steer a shot just wide, Twist himself had a decent effort from 20 yards that just cleared the bar.

The gradual shift in possession and territory towards the visitors continued in the early stages of the second half, and Ryan Talbot, returning to lead the Daisy front line after a month out with injury, was at the heart of the attacking threat.

After forcing a save from home keeper Joe Mason, Talbot headed just over from an Iley cross, but his best chance came just after the hour.

A pass back from FC St Helens right-back Elliot Bradshaw held up on the heavy pitch and Alex Dodd pounced on the loose ball to square into Talbot’s path, but Mason made a fine stop from the striker’s well-struck shot.

Although Daisy had a scare a few minutes later when the ever-threatening Barker sent a bullet header crashing off the post, they continued to push forward and came agonisingly close to finding an equaliser with 10 minutes remaining.

Once again, Dodd was the architect, outpacing the covering defender before driving in a cross into the path of the incoming Ramwell, whose shot beat Mason in the home goal but rebounded off the post.

As the game moved into the closing stages, FC St Helens took the sting out of it at every opportunity, using all five substitutes, taking time over free-kicks and throw-ins, and deep into stoppage time, taking the ball towards the corner flag to see the game out.

It was a tactic that ultimately proved to be successful in securing the three points, and Daisy were left reflecting on missed chances that proved to be costly.

Daisy are back in action with a double header of games in the North West Counties League First Division North this weekend, firstly travelling to face Steeton on Saturday, before hosting Ashton Athletic at the Plumb Factory Stadium next Monday night.