Wanganui Athletic have lost a league game at Wembley Park for the first time in more than 18 months after giving up a two-goal lead against rivals New Plymouth Rangers.

Saturday's loss means GJ Gardner Athletic's grip on the Lotto Federation League title race is slipping and even a perfect record in the remaining six games will struggle to be enough without the top two sides' fortunes changing.

It's not often Athletic give up leads, let along at home, but coach Jason King's side have been missing something since peaking in a 6-0 drubbing of Red Sox Manawatu on May 19.

A two-week break followed and Athletic haven't yet returned to that level of performance.

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"It really did show that they were a lot hungrier, especially coming out in that second half," King said.

"We controlled the ball well in phases but they were just hungrier for the ball and hungrier to come here and grab three points. Credit to their heart because that's what gets you to the end of these types of games."

Athletic aren't far off though.

The home side controlled much of the opening half with a creative quartet of Quinn Mailman, Scott Burney, Logan Hughes and Josh Smith all probing and testing Rangers' set up.

And apart from Dom Squatriti finding the goal early on but being caught offside, Rangers didn't have too much to offer and instead it was Smith who gave Athletic the lead with a free kick which soared untouched into the goal in the 33rd minute.

Athletic deserved the goal and then looked to be heading to the break with a handy advantage just four minutes later when Rangers' keeper James Burroughs fluffed a clearance, skimming the ball with the side of his boot which rolled into the path of Burney who was in position to punish the mistake and claim the two-goal lead.

But Jairo Aquino snatched one back for the visitors with nice control of the ball at feet to skip around Athletic keeper Matthew Calvert for his side's first.

That goal gave Rangers a boost heading into the second half and they came out with a lift in play which Athletic couldn't muster the energy or intent to match.

Wanganui Athletic's Ross Kinnerley on the ball under the watch of New Plymouth Rangers' Ethan Bird at Wembley Park. Photo/ Bevan Conley
Wanganui Athletic's Ross Kinnerley on the ball under the watch of New Plymouth Rangers' Ethan Bird at Wembley Park. Photo/ Bevan Conley

It was Rangers' third trip to Wembley this season with losses to both Versatile Wanganui City in the league and Athletic in the Chatham Cup.

But this time the visitors chipped away over 32 second-half minutes and found the two goals needed to claim a rare win for a side visiting the ground.

The first came in the 58th minute when Taku Warren took a long rage shot which seemed to hang in the air before falling into goal.

Then 13 minutes from time Squatriti collected the ball at his feet from a corner to shoot past Calvert.

There were chances for Athletic to equalise in the dying stages - a Smith free kick and a strong Burney header both flying of the bar – but none could be banked. King was "bitterly disappointed".

"We've got to own our result here and now do something with it. We can't do much about this, it's now what we do next week," he said.

"That's for the lads to sit down and reflect upon. There's not much I can say to them that they're not already going to know themselves."

Rangers goal keeper James Burroughs get airborne. Photo/ Bevan Conley
Rangers goal keeper James Burroughs get airborne. Photo/ Bevan Conley

King agreed the side hadn't got back to where they were before the break.

"The intensity the determination, the absolute, 'I'm going to take this through to 90', that's what we've really got to look at.

"That's the mentality we should have, that's the mentality that we like to think that we have, unfortunately today we just didn't have it."

King said his side had to answer some questions.

"Do we feel we fought for 90 minutes? Do we fee like we were wanting to get ourselves back into the game that much that we were willing to die on the pitch, basically, to get those goals that were needed?

"You can't change a whole lot of things but what you can change is how you approach the game and that's what need to pick up on after this game."

Athletic remain in third on goal difference but are now locked in a three-way tie with Rangers and Hokowhitu in the middle of the table on 13 points and were not helped by leaders Palmerston North Marist (23 points) and second-placed North End (18 points) both having wins.

"It now comes down a bit to maths now rather than the simple thing of winning games," King said.

Athletic have this weekend off before hosting Hokowhitu on June 30 at Wembley.

In the round's other matches unbeaten Palmerston North Marist beat Massey 5-1, North End AFC beat Versatile Wanganui City 3-1 and Hokowhitu beat Red Sox Manawatu 4-0.