8:00am Saturday 11th January 2014
By Craig Stoddart
Popular defender Joe Tait has returned to Darlington - although where he will fit into the side remains to be seen.
The centre-back is the victim of a mid-season clear-out at Gateshead, where he was on the periphery of the first-team once Anth Smith stood down as manager in August.
Gary Mills has allowed the 23-year-old to leave and he has signed a contract with Quakers lasting until the end of the season.
Wednesday's Durham Challenge Cup tie against Quakers at the International Stadium, in which he played his final Gateshead game, was his first match for three weeks.
But that is unlikely to deter manager Martin Gray from pitching him into action today at Harrogate Railway Athletic.
Tait has joined in time for the club's shortest away journey of the season, which is expected to see a large contingent of travelling fans make the trip to Station View in the hope of seeing Darlington maintain their good run.
They will surely see Tait take to the pitch at some point, though Gray remained tight-lipped when asked to clarify if the Teessider would start, saying only "he's in the squad".
"We've monitored his situation as the season has gone along and as soon as he became available we wanted to bring him in," added Gray.
"He did ever so well last season and it's good to have him back at the club with Stephen Harrison.
"We're thin on the ground defensively, it wouldn't take much to really weaken us, so he's someone that comes in to strengthen us and give us another option. Plus, he can play in midfield as well."
Chris Hunter and Alan White have formed a solid partnership at the heart of defence, though the latter is one booking away from a two-game ban.
Gray could be tempted to use Tait in midfield today as Leon Scott begins a three-match suspension.
Aside from Tait, there is no like-for-like replacement for Scott in reserve and the manager confirmed he would not change the 4-3-1-2 formation which has served Quakers well this season.
They have won seven of their last eight games and aim to record another victory against 12th-placed opposition today.
"We'll be positive from the start," said Gray.
"We want to put on a show for the fans because there'll be a lot of them there with it being a local game, if you can call Harrogate local.
"We've started the year well with a 6-0 win last Saturday and we want to keep it going."
A defensive-minded Harrogate secured a 0-0 draw at Heritage Park in September, and Gray added: "I expect they'll try to keep their shape as long as they can, be resilient and tough to break down.
"That's what they were like when we played them earlier in the season and they've improved a little bit since then.
"We've had them watched and we're expecting a tough game."
While Darlington are fourth and nine points adrift of leaders Curzon Ashton, who visit Heritage Park on February 8, there remains optimism that Quakers could yet pip the pace-setters to automatic promotion.
Last season Darlington led the Northern League table throughout the campaign. This term has seen Gray's men further down the table, not that the manager minds too much.
He said: "We can catch them in my opinion. We're in good form and we're concentrating on the next game.
"We know what we've got to do, but we're just focusing on the next job, the next game.
"The pressure isn't on us to maintain the top spot for a change, we've just got to make sure we do our job.
"Of course I look at their results, you've got to do when you're trying to get a promotion. They keep winning, but that's football and all we can do is make sure we do things right."
Paul Weldon made his comeback on Wednesday by playing the first 45 minutes and is in the squad today.
Ordinarily a left-back, he played in the centre of defence during a match in which Quakers fielded a team made up almost entirely of youth team players.
Gray added: "He came through it okay and he's in the squad for Saturday.
"The game was a good experience for the lads. They were smashing, playing against older, bigger lads that have played at a much higher level.
"I spoke to them afterwards and told them they had done well."
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