Two second half goals from Ilkeston’s Che Adams replacement Ashley Hunter inflicted on Town a first home league defeat since August.
League One Sheffield United signed the Robins’ lively playmaker Adams, for a reported six-figure-sum, just 24 hours before Saturday’s clash, but in their man of the match Hunter, they look to have another young star in the making.
Blues boss Darren Williams made four changes from the side that beat Darlington in League Cup action, three days earlier, as rested quartet Lee Bullock, Liam Shepherd, Steven Snaith and Lee Mason all returned.
There was a first league start for speedy midfielder Niall Doran (20), who is on loan from Conference North Boston United.
The visitors, who were two places below the tenth-placed Blues going into the game, despite being the NPL Premier’s second-highest scorers, threatened on five minutes when overlapping right-back Shepherd was caught in possession.
Luckily, David Morgan’s resulting 20-yard snapshot flew well wide. Mason scuffed a similar effort off target, at the other end, before Matty Brown cut in off the left flank but curled high and wide.
Williams’ men came closer with 12 minutes gone as Matty Waters couldn’t get firm enough close-range contact on Snaith’s driven cross.
The Derbyshire outfit almost broke the deadlock when a neat move ended with a sweet back-heel and a Hunter effort being deflected over the crossbar.
They did find the opening goal, however, from the resulting corner, as James Reid’s deep right-wing delivery was headed emphatically low past Shane Bland by unmarked skipper Joe Maguire.
Reid almost went from provider to profiteer as he stayed up from the back and drilled a diagonal shot past Bland’s left-hand post, but Town levelled on the half-hour as Snaith went to ground just to the left of the Ilkeston D.
Four Blues players milled around the ball before Snaith ran over it and Dale Hopson curled a beautiful free-kick past Jordan Smith and inside the keeper’s left hand post.
With Whitby’s injury problems almost entirely concentrated on their centre-halves, there was concern when Bullock stayed down after a late challenge of his own near the right touchline, some 20 yards from the Town goal.
As he collided with Kane Richards, Bullock took a heavy blow to his knee-cap and it wasn’t long before physio Paul Scott was signalling that the veteran, who was booked while receiving treatment, was unable to continue.
Fellow defender Kev Burgess came on for a first appearance since September, after picking up an Achilles injury at Matlock, with nine minutes remaining in the first half. The subsequent set-piece was nodded down and goalwards by Hunter, only for Shepherd to clear at the far post.
Ilkeston, the league’s only full-time professional team, who boast their own academy, started where they left off after the break and had two chances to double their lead early on.
Maguire nodded against the bar from Reid’s free-kick and Hunter found the same spot on the woodwork from the follow up.
Just after the hour mark, Waters headed over Mason’s inswinging left-wing corner from 12 yards and Brown powered a low shot inches wide.
Another Reid right-wing ball flew across the face of the Blues goal, three minutes before the away side regained the lead, midway through the second half.
Rob Duffy headed down Kieran Wallace’s cross from the left, Bland parried, but Hunter reacted quickest to clip over the prone gloveman.
Williams was forced to take off Mason with a groin injury, with just over 20 minutes left, in-form Ross Gardner his replacement.
“I’ve never known so many prolonged injuries in a short space of time,” the Town player-manager lamented.
The Blues, who were always in the match, won another free-kick from similar range to their equaliser on 77 minutes.
Again Hopson stepped up, again it was low to Smith’s left, but this time a skiddy effort lacked power and the on-loan Nottingham Forest keeper was able to clutch the ball.
“We conceded two sloppy goals – I think we played just as well [as Ilkeston] and created our own chances, but weren’t clinical enough,” said Williams, who threw on a third striker, Craig Farrell, for Brown, seconds later.
The Town chief was also frustrated that referee Chris Ellis hadn’t brandished a second yellow card for Maguire.
The ex-Scunthorpe centre-back clashed with Snaith throughout the game, receiving an earlier booking, but later in the match just a talking to, after Ellis had played an advantage then returned to admonish the defender.
With seven minutes remaining, Hopson’s cross from the left was glanced over by Snaith point-blank and five minutes from time, Snaith pulled back from the byline, but Waters side-footed tamely, straight at Smith.
The game’s last act saw a speedy Ilkeston break and Hunter turning home point-blank at the second attempt for a killer third goal.
Williams told the Whitby Gazette afterwards: “I think we created our best chances in the second half, I didn’t see any tiredness out there, but we got sloppy and our end product wasn’t great.
“With the injuries we’ve had and with such a small squad, we’re in a fantastic position though.”
Town would have gone within two points of the top five with games in hand with a victory.
“We need to freshen up a lot and make some changes, but it’s not easy in the current situation,” he added.
Whitby Town: Bland, Shepherd, Robinson (c), I Hassan, Bullock (Burgess 36), Hopson, Doran, Brown (Farrell 78), Waters, Snaith, Mason (Gardner 69). Subs not used: Williams, Campbell (GK).
Co-operative Whitby WTFC Man of the Match: Dale Hopson.
Whitby Town 1 Ilkeston 3