PICKERING Town's dream of winning promotion to the Northern Premier League is slowly starting to shatter, writes Ian Appleyard.

The Pikes, who have been locked in a battle for the Toolstation Northern Counties East League premier division title with Cleethorpes Town, could only manage a 1-1 draw last weekend at lowly Maltby Main.

It was the second setback in a fortnight for the Pikes who had been humbled 4-1 at Cleethorpes in their previous game.

Back-to-back victories would have put Paul Marshall's team two points clear at the top of the table and heaped immense pressure on FA Vase semi-finalists Cleethorpes who are currently juggling their promotion push with the possibility of Wembley glory.

But the Pikes, instead, are now seven points adrift in second place and, significantly, Cleethorpes still have a game in hand.

Anything less than a victory this weekend against Bottesford Town will leave the Pikes with an even bigger mountain to climb as they enter the final 10 games of a bold and brave campaign.

Unbeaten in 16 games prior to the defeat at Cleethorpes, the Pikes have still lost only four league games this season.

They have conceded only 30 goals - which is the joint lowest record in the division alongside Thackley - and

they have also reached the final of the North Riding Senior Cup where they play either Whitby Town or Middlesbrough reserves.

Few Pikes supporters predicted a title challenge and the club's pre-season target, outlined by chairman Wayne Taylor, was to finish inside the top four.

Barring a complete collapse, Marshall's men will achieve that goal comfortably (they led fifth placed Handsworth Parramore by 15 points ahead of last night's NCEL fixtures).

However, there will still be a sense of 'what might have been?' should they ultimately miss out on the title now - but only because results went so well for so long.

Defender Sam Denton marked his debut for last weekend with the goal that salvaged a point for the Pikes in the final minute of the game.

Denton had joined the club last week from NCEL rivals Harrogate Railway Athletic.

Maltby took the lead after 22 minutes when Ryan Carroll scored with a shot from the edge of the penalty area.

There were only three other games played in the league last weekend due to postponements caused by waterlogged pitches.

Cleethorpes, whose trip to Bottesford Town was among the casualties, play the first leg of their FA Vase semi-final this weekend at Bromsgrove Sporting.

Bottesford make their first ever visit to Mill Lane this afternoon (3pm) and are unbeaten in three games.

The Pikes are away at Albion Sports next Wednesday March 15 (7.45pm).

Both Ged Dalton and Nathan Kamara missed last weekend's game at Maltby Main but Ryan Blott, Nick Thompson, Denny Ingram, and Russ Parker returned to action.

Midfielder Tom Claisse, meanwhile, is currently unavailable due to his involvement with the Royal Air Force football squad.

The former Tadcaster Albion and Whitby Town player, 29, is the captain of both the RAF first team and the UK Armed Forces team.

He quit NCEL rivals Handsworth Parramore last month to join the Pikes - having worked previously under Marshall at Tadcaster.

Claisse has played for a number of non-league clubs including Bradford Park Avenue, Farsley Celtic, and Goole Town since being released by Bradford City as a teenager in 2006.

He is currently in Cyprus training with the RAF team ahead of a Inter-Services clash against the Army at Aldershot's Military Stadium on March 15.

Pikes V Maltby Main: Wells, Ingram (Dale 64), Danby (Robinson 70), Chipps (Parker 83), Bissett, Denton, Thompson, Birch, Blott, Taylor, Cooper. Unused substitute: Dunnett. Attendance: 105