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Quakers ensure Gray’s guarantee is honoured
Final Score: Salford City 0 Darlington 2
So annoyed by his team's display in midweek, Martin Gray guaranteed an improvement when Darlington went to Salford City on Saturday.
It was a bold claim that he could easily have ended up regretting and, in the circumstances, anything less than a win would have been a major disappointment.
So it was to Gray's relief that Quakers swiftly returned to form with a solid 2-0 win at Salford that took the team back up to third in the table and rectified all that was wrong at Ramsbottom.
Whereas Darlington's defending was woeful in their 3-0 loss to Ramsbottom, a couple of alterations bolstered the side, giving it a more resilient and stubborn approach, the outcome being a first clean sheet in four away games.
With Jordan Robinson dropped, Chris Hunter moved to centre-back, where he looks more assured, and the right-back spot was filled by Bruno Pilatos, while Leon Scot added some steel to the midfield.
A change in mindset may also have been a factor.
Gray explained: "You can't be cavalier. We've got good attacking players, but you've got to be respectful to the opposition and sometimes you've got to look at yourselves - you've got to earn the right to get into the game.
"One thing we stressed today was ensuring we had a better shape in midfield and defence. We did that, we were more resilient and harder to break down.
"That gave us a foothold in the game and we didn't concede early on, which we did on Tuesday, and some of our player the longer the game went on was very good."
Whereas last season the approach was to score early and then do it again and again, Saturday's game-plan was to keep it tight and not give away any cheap goals, which had been Darlington's downfall in midweek.
They succeeded, with goalkeeper Mark Bell having only one to save to make in the first 45 minutes, stopping Aaron Swift's volley, and set the stage for Darlington to make inroads in the second half.
It took them less than a minute, David Dowson meeting Chris Moore's cross and adroitly back-heeling the ball past goalkeeper Kieran O'Boyle. It was his second goal of the season and almost a carbon copy of his first a fortnight ago against Mossley.
The goal put Quakers in control against a team that, ninth in the table before play, were deflated by falling behind and offered little going forward.
Darlington, on the other hand, put in a vibrant performance in keeping with the teams' strong colours on show: Salford's tangerine and Quakers' shocking pink.
There was nothing shocking about Darlington's second goal though, as Stephen Thompson again underlined his value. Despite Gray's pre-match comments, no manager can ever truly guarantee a strong team performance, but as long as Thompson is around Darlington are assured of a goal threat, which he demonstrated by pulling the trigger on 71 minutes to produce a fierce 20-yard shot that pierced a gap between two defenders and gave O'Boyle no chance.
Quakers’ Steven Johnson, left, who made his first appearance of the season, competes with Aaron Walters
"We needed a second goal to kill the game off because they always had a chance at 1-0," said Gray, who was full of admiration for Thompson, following his fourth goal of the season.
He said: "Thompson had three or four chances to score when cutting inside like that and it seemed like a matter of time before he scored.
"It was one of the first he got on target and it was a top strike. He's a bit special and different to most players in non-league football."
Thompson had other efforts too as Darlington, without the injured Andy Johnson and Amar Purewal, came close to improving their tally.
They felt they should have had a penalty when Otis Gorman handled and Steven Johnson, making his first appearance of the season, tried a lob that O'Boyle dealt with.
Salford's frustrations were summed up in the dying moments when striker Nathan Bond volleyed the ball from the six-yard box out for a throw-in when trying to shoot at goal.
Darlington are three points off leaders Curzon Ashton, who do not have a league midweek game, whereas Quakers are in action at Heritage Park on Wednesday against second-bottom Ossett Albion.
Gray added: "After the performance on Tuesday and I said there'd be a positive reaction today because I know my players and I know I can trust them. They knew how I hurt I was after Tuesday, so to come away from today's game with three points and a clean sheet, having controlled the game, is exactly what I wanted."
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