Whitley make Darlington work for win

First published in Sport Darlington and Stockton Times: Photograph of the Author by , Deputy Sports Editor

Played 18, won 17. The statistics suggest that's all been rather easy for Darlington, that they're steamrollering their way through the Ebac Northern League without breaking sweat.

Saturday was a demonstration, however, that it's not quite as simple as that.

Opponents Whitley Bay became the 11th team out of 11 to lose at Heritage Park, but they were arguably Quakers' toughest opponents so far of a season that appears to be increasing in difficulty.

Recent games saw fellow top-ten sides Ashington and Bedlington Terriers visit Heritage Park while on the next two weekends West Auckland and Celtic Nation, also fancied to do well, are Darlington's opposition.

Neither of those games will be simple and for a while fourth-placed Whitley Bay gave Quakers reason to be worried.

They created enough chances and Darlington were indebted to captain Gary Brown for two goal-line clearances as well as a linesman's flag which ruled out an offside 'goal'.

But again Darlington demonstrated they are up to the task, being clinical in front of goal to record a 3-1 win that maintains their eight-point advantage over Spennymoor Town.

"Whitley Bay are up there with Bedlington in being one of the best teams in the division," said Darington boss Martin Gray.

"Recently we've had Bedlington, Billingham Synthonia and now Whitley Bay, all teams in and around the top places, all challenging for promotion. They're all good teams and all good to get out of the way.

"It's just the way the league fixtures have panned out, but we've got the points on the board and we're now on 51 and scored another three goals. It's been a great start to the season, 51 points from 18 games.

"I hadn't set a points target, we just get on with it one game at a time."

Due to Bay playing with a narrow midfield, which succeeded in stifling Darlington's supply to forwards David Dowson and Stephen Thompson, Gray asked his full-backs to push forward and one of them put Quakers ahead.

Following a throw-in, right-back Stephen Harrison, after receiving a Dowson pass, hit the ball sweetly with the outside of his foot from 18 yards, leaving keeper Kyle Hayes rooted to the spot.

That was midway through the first half, but by half-time the visitors were level.

After Paul Robinson had seen his goal celebrations swiftly cut short by a linesman, he played a part in the equaliser, seeing a shot rebound to Chris Fawcett to force home for a deserved leveller.

They nearly went ahead too. Quakers keeper Craig Turns, on his debut, was beaten by a Paul Chow header that hit the post after an Ashley Davis cross and then Lee Kerr's follow-up was cleared off the line by Brown.

Quakers' captain repeated the trick at the beginning of the second half, this time denying Chow after good work by the impressive Robinson who had turned left-back Darren Richardson inside out.

Richardson was soon replaced by substitute Dan Smith while Clark Keltie was sent on for the out-of-sorts Leon Scott as Gray sought to engineer a change of tact. It worked.

Suddenly it was 3-1. With very little warning and with the Seahorses on top, goals from Dowson and Amar Purewal put Darlington firmly in control.

Dowson outpaced Chris Reid when chasing Thompson's through-pass before lobbing the onrushing keeper and then Purewal bagged his tenth goal of the season, tucking home after another Thompson assist.

It was harsh on Whitley Bay who had started the second half strongly.

Bay's display left boss Ian Chandler satisfied, but frustrated with referee Stuart Campbell, though he admitted that his side were fortunate not concede a penalty.

"We played decently against a really a good team," he said. "We performed and that's all I could ask for.

"On another day it could've been a different story if we'd put our chances away and some of the decisions went in our favour.

"The officials were maybe not up to the task. I don't know if they were overawed by the crowd or the situation, but he was bad for both teams.

"Near the end, when Thompson was through, that could easily have been a red card."

That was when defender Bradley Brooking brought down Quakers' play-maker when about to shoot, but there could have been a goal at other end were it not for acrobatics from Turns.

He made two fine saves, from David Pounder and Fawcett, to ensure he got his Quakers career off to a fine start

"Craig Turns had a great debut. His decision making was good and he made two great saves to keep them at bay," said Gray, whose team next play at West Auckland on Saturday.

He added: "You've got to give their manager credit because he'd done his homework and they stayed in the game for an hour.

"Once Thompson and Dowson got into the game in the second half, we started playing better and it was typical of their partnership that Thompson put Dowson through to score.

"After that we started to control the game and it was a good victory against a strong team."

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