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Darlington boss sings the praises of Thompson
With a glut of assists and goals, Stephen Thompson has quickly become a key player at Darlington and on Saturday his importance was again outlined.
Quakers were not at their best at home to third-placed Bedlington Terriers and for a lengthy second half period the visitors were on top.
So much so, in fact, that Martin Gray's men struggled to test Stuart Elliott - the former Quakers midfielder - who replaced injured goalkeeper Craig Pickering, but two moments of magic from Thompson secured the points.
The forward created Darlington's second and third goals at Heritage Park, playing his part in a hard-earned 3-1 win that, because second-placed Spennymoor drew with Celtic Nation, extends their lead at the top of the Ebac Northern League to 11 points.
"I thought Thompson's play was outstanding. His two bits of skill for the goals he created were of the highest level," said Gray, who reunited Thompson with fellow former Durham forward David Dowson soon after the season began.
"He's a top player at this level and he proved that again. He proved how good he is when we gave him the ball and it's always great to see his quality come through.
"He is an intelligent footballer and has an understanding with Dowson. The pair of them together know what they are doing and when Thompson gets the ball, Dowson is already making the right run.
"What I really like about Thompson is that he's not selfish. Many times he'll be in a position when most forwards would shoot, but he's happy to let someone else get the pat on the back so will pass to a team-mate in a better position. That's a team ethic and you can't buy that.
"That's two assists today and the free-kick when he and Dowson linked up ever so well was great to see. We've worked on that in training."
The assist after the free-kick, taken by Stephen Harrison, saw Thompson, back to goal, play a perfectly-weighted first-time pass into the feet of Dowson, who lashed the ball home.
That carefully-crafted goal gave Darlington a half-time lead, because for the second time in successive matches at Heritage Park they had to come from a goal down.
Bedlington took the lead on 23 minutes, Steve Bowey scoring from 18 yards after a pass from the left by the dangerous Paul Brayson.
As in the win over Ashington a week earlier, Darlington soon restored parity. Joe Tait beat Pickering to a floated free-kick to head Quakers level - three goals for the centre-back, all headers, in 11 appearances.
Darlington have often scored plenty of goals in the second half of games this season, but Bedlington were strong opposition.
Gray admitted: "They're the best team we've played against. You could see why they're up there challenging.
"They've got good players and they've got lots of experience in the team, so to get three points against a team like that is great.
"We defended well, throwing ourselves in front of things in the second half. In the last 25 minutes Bedlington were well in control and had lots of possession. They caused us problems, but our back four all did their jobs.
"We know we are not going to dominate every time. We are going to face these sorts of challenges, but we came through this one."
For all that Bedlington saw more of the ball, Quakers keeper Jack Norton was well protected, though he did make a tremendous one-handed reaction save, pushing over a powerful effort by Bowey.
To stem the red tide, Gray made a tactical switch, sending on new signing Clark Keltie for winger Adam Nicholls to stifle the midfield.
Keltie took time to settle, losing possession a couple of times, but he found his passing range by the time Scott sealed the win with his seventh goal in the last seven games. Thompson, again, was the provider.
He dribbled down the left before crossing to the unmarked Scott at the far post, though Bedlington hoped the goal would be ruled out for offside.
Gray said: "They were shouting for offside, but Thompson had played a little dink over the full-back and continued on to the ball. They thought Darren Richardson was offside so they stopped, but it had been nice play by Thompson.
"He put himself in a position so that he could put a great ball across the face of the goal."
The bulk of Darlington's games have been versus teams in the bottom half of the table, provoking the question: Can they beat the division's best teams? Saturday provided the answer.