8:00am Monday 30th December 2013
By Craig Stoddart
One point gained or two points dropped?
That was the question Darlington were asking themselves after a 2-2 draw with Salford City in which a spirited fightback in the closing stages was needed after what had been a deeply disappointing display.
On the back of six successive wins, Quakers were well-fancied to make it seven in a row.
Their injury-ravaged opposition were down to their last 14 players, were 11th in the table and gave a debut to a goalkeeper who had not met his team-mates until Saturday.
Darlington, who made two changes, were nothing like the team that won 7-0 a week ago at Burscough and their fightback was partly instigated by a red card for either side on 75 minutes, Leon Scott becoming Quakers' only dismissal of 2013.
Stephen Thompson and David Dowson got the late goals, but they will only know the true cost of failing to win come the end of the season.
Martin Gray sought to keep the performance in perspective.
He said: "We've won six and drawn one. Let's be honest about things. We've taken 19 points out of 21, we've dominated teams for the majority of games recently. We've had an hour here when we didn't and we got punished.
"We've got to give the lads some credit for the last half an hour. Even in the first half their keeper made some great blocks."
Gray served the second game of a two-match ban, understood to be a punishment for an exchange with the referee following the Ramsbottom home game in November.
The ban meant he stood in the main stand at Heritage Park, from where he saw his team put in an underwhelming performance. Quakers had had a free week whereas Salford played on Boxing Day, but it was the visitors who settled first and deserved to take the lead. The goal came on 32 minutes after Terry Galbraith miscued a clearance and in nipped Matthew Purcell to ram home.
Although Salford pressed Quakers and won the midfield, where Philip Edghill was excellent, Gray's men did occasionally threaten with Thompson hitting the side-netting and goalkeeper Daniel Fradd saving from Nathan Fisher and Amar Purewal.
Fisher started ahead of the rested Dowson, who was on the bench, and Gray resisted the temptation to reverse the change at half-time.
"There was no need to panic," he said. "You've got to give the players an opportunity."
Darlington-born IBF bantamweight world champion Stuart Hall was introduced to the fans during half-time, though Gray might have been better off asking him into the changing room to inspire his lacklustre players.
Like a dazed fighter waiting for the final bell, they remained off the pace at the start of the second half and when Stuart Cook slammed the ball home from the edge of the penalty area Darlington were on the ropes.
Darlington-born IBF bantamweight world champion Stuart Hall shows his belt off to Quakers' supporters
Then the referee stepped in to end the contest, at least for Scott and Otis Gorman. The latter had fouled Scott, they both retaliated and were given straight red cards for violent conduct.
Quakers assistant Brian Atkinson was also sent from the dug-out for comments made to an official, but the dismissals at least sparked some fight in Darlington and for a frantic final 15 minutes they laid siege to Salford's goal.
Fradd made plenty of saves, the highlight being a finger-tip stop to divert a Thompson thunderbolt which bounced on the line and away after whacking the underside of the crossbar. Was it over the line? Don't ask the linesman - he wasn't up with play.
Thompson started the comeback on 82 minutes with a goal of his own making, cutting in from the left and shooting from outside the penalty area for his 17th strike of the season and Quakers continued to pile on the pressure.
With Dowson on, Gray switched to 3-4-3 and it became an unorthodox 2-4-4 when Alan White was sent up front. After a Thompson corner, the ball was back-heeled over bar by Dowson and then Purewal hit the bar.
Having played only 48 hours previously, Salford were hanging on, time-wasting whenever possible and desperately wanting the final whistle.
But Darlington had other ideas and after shots by Thompson and Purewal had been deflected their gung-ho approach paid dividends with Dowson bundling the ball home in injury-time.
Perhaps harsh on the visitors, but ample reward for Darlington's perseverance.
Gray added: "We didn't start well at all, which is the first time for six or seven games. It happens. You don't expect it and you don't want it, but it happens.
"Sometimes you've got to give the other team credit and they were better than us in the first half, they competed better, they won their battles.
"Some harsh words were said at half-time, but we still didn't start the second half well enough.
"We dominated the last half-hour and really should've won."
As surprising as the result was, perhaps it was predictable given Darlington's penchant for being disappointing in front of a large crowd.
Leon Scott, who was later sent off, is sent to the floor by a tackle
The 1,514 gate was the largest crowd of the season while the previous highest - 1,379 for the Prescot Cables game in October - also saw Quakers drop points against unfancied opposition.
How Darlington fare at Kendal on Wednesday will have an impact on how many return to Heritage Park on Saturday for the game with Clitheroe.
© Copyright 2001-2014 Newsquest Media Group