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Darlington see off Spennymoor
TWO goals in the last 13 minutes saw Darlington stage a fantastic fightback to take a crucial three points and wrestle the advantage from Spennymoor Town in the title race.
Quakers are now 18 points clear at the top of the Northern League after inflicting Spennymoor's first league defeat of the season in last night's keenly anticipated top-of-the-table clash.
Before last night, Jason Ainsley's men had conceded only four league goals at home, but strikes by Terry Galbraith, David Dowson and Adam Nicholls stunned Moors, who are hoping to win the title for a fourth successive season.
Finishing first this season also offers the prize of promotion, and Spennymoor looked to have one foot in the Evo-Stik League when Gavin Cogdon put them ahead with a 21st-minute penalty.
He netted from 12 yards after Leon Scott had unnecessarily tripped the Spennymoor striker, whose penalty was almost saved by Mark Bell, who got a hand to the effort.
The goal had been coming, though, as Moors started impressively.
Inside the first minute Bell had saved from Mark Davison as the tall striker got a shot away.
Darlington's only change to their line-up came on the right flank, where Chris Emms returned at the expense of Nicholls, but it was down Spennymoor's right that the hosts carved open a second opportunity.
Right-back Kallum Griffiths put the ball through Scott's legs and Wayne Phillips was just inches away from connecting with the resulting cross at the far post.
Phillips' left-wing cross was then headed clear by Joe Tait, before Cogdon turned Brown on halfway and used his electric pace to run at Darlington's defence before firing a low shot wide.
Scott did well to hook the ball away from the feet of Joseph Walton, but Darlington's left-back then conceded the penalty which gave the hosts a deserved lead.
Spennymoor were not finished either, looking good for more goals as Darlington conceded possession cheaply.
Then, from nowhere, Darlington were back in the game.
Galbraith picked up possession after a Darlington attack had been cleared and then thundered home a rasping low effort from 30 yards that keeper Robert Dean had no chance of stopping.
It will be a contender for Quakers' goal of the season and, given the occasion, was easily one of the most important.
The strike was only the fifth league goal conceded by Spennymoor at home this season and Dean was close to picking the ball out of his net again as Darlington finished the half on top.
Craig Gott had a free-kick saved by Dean, who then blocked a Dowson shot with his feet after good work by Stephen Thompson, who was finally free of Griffiths' shackles.
The same could be said of the whole of Quakers' front six as Darlington, attacking up a considerable slope, suddenly burst into life.
The half-time break succeeded in taking some of the tempo out of proceedings, to Spennymoor's relief, as the beginning of the second half was flat.
Although the number of goalmouth incidents dropped, it was Spennymoor who were being stretched.
Walton made a tremendous tackle on Amar Purewal as the forward attempted to reach Thompson's through-ball, then Dean tipped Thompson's shot over.
Nicholls had started the move with his first touch after coming off the bench, and he was to play a major part as Darlington got stronger.
Spennymoor became a shadow of the side that had previously forced Quakers back. And they were indebted to captain Daniel Moore, who had to repeat Walton's earlier efforts to block a Dowson shot after a neat pass by Thompson. But Dowson was not to be denied, and again Thompson was involved.
His pin-point pass into substitute Steven Johnson led to the Darlington man squaring for Dowson to net for the fourth successive game and put Quakers into a 2-1 lead with 12 minutes to play.
Although the assist was Johnson's and Dowson got the finish, the goal owed plenty to Thompson's vision, and the bustling play-maker was also to thank for Darlington's third.
Picking up the ball deep inside his own half, he dribbled 70 yards down Moors' right, shrugging off Steven Richardson's challenge, before laying a goal on a plate at the far post for Nicholls to secure the most valuable three points of the season.
There were vociferous celebrations among the Darlington fans who made up more than half of the 2,400 gate - the highest Northern League attendance since the 1950s.
As attack-minded as Quakers are - they have now scored 98 goals this season - few can have expected them to score three against a team known for its defensive capabilities.
Spennymoor have seven games in hand, but their backlog of games and involvement in three cup competitions means they will do well to overhaul Quakers' 18-point lead.