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Quakers still on course for their happy ending
On the day that the clubhouse at Radcliffe Borough was off-limits to supporters because of a wedding reception, Darlington returned to action with a victory which maintains the belief that their engagement in the promotion race could end happily ever after.
A largely trouble-free 2-1 win against a side that had a player sent off in the second half kept Quakers on the right track, but it's still early days yet.
While their relationship with the play-offs is solid having been heavily involved in the top five since before Christmas, a union with the sole automatic promotion place has long been Quakers' hope.
While they remain some way from consummating the top spot because they are seven points off leaders Warrington, they have narrowed the gap with a formidable run of form that began at New Mills in November.
Martin Gray's men have not looked back since. Saturday's was their 11th win in 12 games - the exception being a draw with Salford - though the pressure is on to maintain the momentum as their promotion rivals appear to drop points only when they face each other.
One such fixture occurred on Saturday as leaders Warrington were walloped 5-1 at home by Curzon Ashton, who are now second and with so many games in hand will surely soon reclaim top spot.
If Darlington are to keep alive hopes of overhauling Curzon, they must beat them on March 19, which is one of only three fixtures against top seven sides that Quakers have to come, all of them at home.
Wednesday evening's engagement with Lancaster City at Heritage Park also falls into that category during the 14 remaining matches, nine of which are at Heritage Park.
Not that Gray pays much attention to the sides around Darlington in the table. So he says anyway.
"I don't look at other teams' points or fixtures, I just look at what my team has got to do and today we had to get three points to set us up for Wednesday night," said the manager, who admitted his team was a little rusty after three weeks without a game.
"It just goes to show how competitive it is at the top of the league. You've got to be in the mix and we are. We will be involved right until the final game."
Last time out, Quakers scored five at Kendal and looked like doing the same on Saturday during a one-sided first half in which chances were spurned with regularity.
Amar Purewal and Stephen Thompson both hit the woodwork, the former missed a one-on-one, and goalkeeper Chris Cheetham made a number of saves with David Dowson among those he denied.
Dowson put Darlington ahead on 19 minutes, taking a Purewal pass in his stride before keeping his composure to fire home his 11th league goal of the season.
And it was 2-0 just before the half-hour mark, when the impressive Rob Ramshaw was tripped in the penalty area by Dave Sherlock and Terry Galbraith smashed home from the spot.
"It was a really positive start," said Gray. "Amar, Dows and Thompson were all involved.
"The first half performance was decent and we had three or four great chances and it could have been game over at half-time."
Darlington’s Rob Ramshaw, on loan from Gateshead, brings the ball under control
By the start of the second half, however, the match lost some spark. Thompson did not look happy, Dale Hopson - selected ahead of Joe Tait - could not get on the ball and neither team impressed.
Gray sent on Nathan Fisher for Dowson and the substitute was involved when the hosts were harshly reduced to ten men.
Radcliffe centre-back Mark Ayres was dismissed for lunging in on Fisher on the halfway line, and Gray added: "I thought it was a booking at the most. The referee was right next to it and he was quick to get his red out, but I would've been disappointed if one of my players had been sent off for that challenge."
While Ayres had an early bath before, possibly, making an unscheduled start on the wedding buffet, his team-mates continued to make a game of it.
"Our game-plan in the second half was to get the third goal and kill the game off," explained Gray. "The sending off came and we still didn't really control the game. I just thought we were a bit rusty, a few players were below par, which you can expect when you've not played for three weeks.
"Plus, whoever we play against has always got the carrot of playing against Darlington, so they dug in and they went for it. Give them some credit, they kept chasing and chasing, even with ten men."
After a needlessly nervy last ten minutes, Darlington were able to reflect on a day when they ground a result out. It was not the most pleasing performance, but they would settle for the same outcome another 14 times this season, starting on Wednesday.
* Gary Brown was an unused sub on Saturday, Gray having decided not to send the defender out on loan due to the small squad at his disposal.