8:00am Monday 26th November 2012
By Craig Stoddart
Final Score: Team Northumbria 0 Darlington 2
THEIR results so far suggest otherwise, but nobody ever said it was going to be easy for Darlington.
Their first four months in the Ebac Northern League have gone far better than anyone could have hoped for, winning 19 games out of 21 before Saturday, which is why most observers expected them to record win number 20.
Their 18th-placed opposition had won only one of their previous 12 matches. However, Team Northumbria had other ideas. The university side taught Quakers a lesson: you've got to take your chances.
Darlington had no fewer scoring opportunities than they have in most games, but for once they took none of them while Team North's Peter Watling was much more clinical, scoring twice to inflict a rare defeat.
Having created so many scoring chances, though, Martin Gray's outlook remained positive, the manager doing his utmost to look on the bright side.
His team remain top of the table and he rejected the suggestion that his players were too casual in their approach.
"We created a lot of chances, but it was just one of those days when it wouldn't go in. We're still top of the league," he said.
"Nobody wins the league in November, but we've put ourselves into a great position when you consider that four months ago we didn't even have a team. We've had a fantastic start to the season.
"We stick together through the good and the bad and what's important now is how we react to this, starting with Guisborough on Friday night.
"We've got a great team of staff off the pitch and we'll work hard on keeping the players positive."
After events of recent years, no Darlington supporter could ever be accused of expecting life to be predictable, but losing to a team with an average attendance of 67 was a jarring experience.
There were almost 500 in attendance at Coach Lane, most of whom were stunned at seeing Darlington defeated in the league for only the third time.
The game was evenly-matched in the first 45 minutes when Darlington were a little laboured in possession and both teams missed chances.
Amar Purewal and David Dowson wasted one-on-one opportunities, while Stephen Thompson directed a header too close to keeper Andy Jennison, who was in top form.
For the hosts, forward Watling was always a threat and he drew a smart save from Craig Turns that resulted in the keeper having to leave the field after suffering a dislocated shoulder.
He went to hospital and is expected to be out of action for at least a month, making a bad day even worse for Darlington.
Jack Norton was sent on for the final minute of the first half, but within seconds of the restart he was picking the ball out of the net.
A series of passes inside Darlington's half ended when Ben Sayer played a perfectly-weighted pass for Watling to run on to and slot home.
The goal meant Darlington have now conceded in 13 successive league games, clearly a cause for concern.
In most weeks, despite a failure to keep clean sheets, Quakers have found goals easy to come by, but on Saturday a combination of poor finishing and stubborn defending denied them.
Gray's team piled forward and for lengthy periods the ball did not leave the home team's half, sometimes resulting in every player on the pitch except Norton being in TN's third.
Dowson flashed a volley wide, Jennison saved when sub Adam Nicholls dribbled into the penalty area and he also went full-stretch to deny Gary Brown as Darlington failed to score in the league for the first time this season, a testament to Team North's rearguard action.
They were well organised with dominant centre-back pairing Tom Davies and Ross Wilkinson both in good form.
Paul Johnson, manager of the university team, explained that his team were content to defend their 1-0 lead.
He said: "We showed the difference between a team being dominated and a team that drops off and defends that is happy to play on the counter.
"We've been in that position before where we've had to defend a lot and we are good at it. Let's absorb pressure and get on the counter.
"A clean sheet shows we've defended well, especially against a very attacking team. But they do leave themselves open at the back."
In injury time Watling added his second when Mark Bertram intercepted Norton's kick and played in his team-mate to kill the game and in doing so handed the advantage to second-placed Spennymoor.
The defeat enabled Moors to narrow the gap to four points, which could be trimmed to just one when they play one of their three games in hand tomorrow evening at Whitley Bay.
Quakers may have more points on the board, but Spennymoor now clearly have the upper hand in the title race.
* Darlington have already officially informed league officials that they would accept promotion, Spennymoor will inform the league of their stance by Friday's deadline.
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