SAM Collins’ first game in permanent charge of York City felt a little like an epiphany.

His players’ 2-1 success at Southport certainly seemed to suggest the side had suddenly realised how to win away on a Saturday afternoon again – a feat last achieved on January 6.

Since then, only three points from a possible 24 have been taken in weekend fixtures on the road, ultimately contributing to the curtain coming down on Martin Gray’s reign, just as the Christmas decorations had on the day City won at his former club Darlington.

During his stewardship, Gray regularly spoke of the importance of winning ugly at National League North level without having much joy in that respect.

His replacement has preached the importance of performance levels in the quest to pick up maximum points on a regular basis but was, nevertheless, happy to clear another little hurdle during his nine-game tenure as the team ground out a scruffy win.

The visitors unquestionably rode their luck during a dismal first half-hour when they could have been trailing by more than Dion Charles’ eighth-minute penalty.

But Collins acted swiftly, ditching the back three that he had started the contest with on 32 minutes and switching to a four-man defence which halted the hosts’ dominance, with Jordan Burrow levelling just before the break and Simon Heslop going on to settle matters on 84 minutes with a stunning strike – City’s only shot of the second period.

Earlier, the Minstermen had conceded before the quarter-hour mark for a fourth consecutive league game when Adam Bartlett rushed out to confront David Morgan, who was chasing a ball through the right channel.

Morgan went on to lift the ball over the advancing Bartlett but, even though the ball was bouncing wide, the City keeper’s momentum carried him into a collision with the Sandgrounders’ midfielder, prompting referee Elliott Swallow to point to the spot.

The home side’s top scorer Charles subsequently converted confidently, as he firmly found Bartlett’s bottom-right corner.

Fortunately, for the away team, he never displayed that same level of ruthlessness during the remainder of the match.

Five minutes later, he dragged a poor 15-yard effort wide, before a rare City foray forward saw Heslop shoot wide of the near post from the corner of the penalty area after David Ferguson had made inroads down the left.

Another Charles act of profligacy followed, meanwhile, when he was played through on goal by Jack Sampson but his dink over Bartlett bounced wide.

Moments later, Bradley Bauress scuffed off target after being left all alone eight yards from goal and a long-range David Lynch attempt, which deflected off Hamza Bencherif, had Bartlett wrong-footed, but spun just wide.

Just past the half-hour mark, Charles was then afforded the freedom of City’s left channel to charge on to a Bauress through ball, but the outrushing Bartlett smothered his shot well.

Collins had seen enough, though, making his tactical reshuffle immediately afterwards, with the Merseyside outfit not threatening again for the rest of the half.

Instead, City levelled on 42 minutes when Jake Wright did well to beat his markers to a right-wing Alex Harris cross and turn a first-time effort towards goal.

Home keeper Daniel Hanford was equal to his shot, as he was Wright’s follow-up attempt but, from the second rebound, Burrow clinically drove home his fifth goal of the season from eight yards.

City then ended the half in the ascendancy with Wright again meeting a right-wing centre first – this time delivered by 17-year-old team-mate Nathan Dyer – only to head over the crossbar.

A little forward impetus seemed to be lost, though, when Wright was replaced early in the second half.

Southport looked like they might seize the initiative, but a 15-yard drive by Charles was safely gathered by Bartlett and the former Halifax striker also missed the target with two chances in quick succession, after dashing past Josh Law and Russ Penn for the first and Tom Allan and Bencherif for the second, which he scooped over the bar.

A spectacular 30-yard half-volley by Morgan then flashed narrowly wide before Heslop settled matters in sensational style.

Receiving a square pass from Macaulay Langstaff after he had drifted in from the left flank, Heslop thundered an unstoppable 20-yard drive in off Hanford’s crossbar before racing away to be mobbed by delighted City fans.

It was a nice moment for a midfielder whose efforts for City are more often greeted with derision than delirium in some quarters.

Whether the subsequent chant of “There’s Only One Simon Heslop” was heartfelt or smacked of sarcasm is debatable and only time will tell if his strike can silence his fiercest critics.

For now, though, it at least succeeded in moving Collins’ men to within one win of a top-three place.

City ratings

Adam Bartlett 7

Josh Law 6

Hamza Bencherif 7

Sean Newton 6

Nathan Dyer 7

Simon Heslop 7

Russ Penn 7

Alex Harris 7

David Ferguson 6

Jordan Burrow 7

Jake Wright 7

Substitutes: Tom Allan 7 (for Ferguson, 32), Macaulay Langstaff 7 (for Langstaff, 54), Jon Parkin 6 (for Dyer, 68).

Subs not used: Ryan Whitley, Adriano Moke.

Star man: Allan – gave a really focussed display after being thrown on to resolve defensive issues

Southport: Daniel Hanford, Jordan Richards, Ryan Astles, Dean Winnard, Reagan Ogle, David Morgan, David Lynch, Bouwe Bosma (Devarn Green, 55), Bradley Bauress (Jason Gilchrist, 86), Dion Charles, Jack Sampson. Subs not used: Morgan Homson-Smith, Stefan Mueller, Josh Langley.

Southport star man: Morgan – midfielder capable of shooting from range and breaking into penalty box

Attendance: 1,149 (270 from City)

Referee: Elliott Swallow 7/10 – no real arguments with penalty decision and cautions

Booked: Lynch 45, Law 71, Heslop 82, Allan 90

Sent off: None

Shots on target: Southport 4, City 4

Shots off target: Southport 9, City 2

Corners: Southport 4, City 0

Fouls conceded: Southport 12, City 12

Offside: Southport 4, City 1