9:00am Thursday 26th December 2013
By Craig Stoddart
Stephen Harrison plays his first Darlington game at Heritage Park today since returning to the club and has admitted re-signing has been like Christmas coming early for not only him, but his children as well.
The right-back was a mainstay of the club's title-winning campaign last season, but then left due to work commitments.
Six months on, during which time he has been playing for Durham City, and the 31-year-old is back and he timed his return to perfection, slotting seamlessly into the side for last Saturday's 7-0 win at Burscough.
He starts when Darlington welcome Wakefield to Heritage Park looking to record a seventh successive win.
"About three weeks ago I found out that Martin had put seven days notice in for me," he said. "It was like the best Christmas present ever!
"I was oblivious to what he'd done, but I was very excited when I found out because it's a huge club.
"My boys are excited too. They love match day when I'm playing in front of over a thousand fans - this season I've been playing in front of eight men a dog, but all of a sudden there's fans cheering so my little lads will love it as much as I do."
He admits to keeping an eye on Darlington's results this season.
"As soon as I finished a game I would check my phone to see what the Darlo result was," said Harrison, who has played in the Evo-Stik First Division when with Durham in a previous spell.
"I used to tweet the lads or send them a text and it was great when they were doing well, but it was really hard to see the results when they had a sticky patch. I knew they would come good and I'm pleased that we're back up there and flying.
"I only left because of work and I do some coaching in the academy at Sunderland. A lot of the coaching I do is on a Saturday morning, so I had to weigh it all up and it was devastating decision to have to make.
"I was absolutely devastated and thought that my last chance of playing at a level above the Northern League was gone.
"I'm 31 and although I look after myself, I understand there's young players coming through, including lads who've left the pro game who could easily end up at Darlo.
"I've still got mates here and they're playing at a better level than the Northern League, so it was a no-brainer to come back."
Now fourth in the table, Darlington are nicely positioned as they begin their last 20 games of the season five points off leaders Warrington with a run of games to come versus clubs currently outside the promotion race.
Promotion is something Harrison achieved in the Evo-Stik First Division while playing for Durham in 2008-09, but says the standard has improved since.
It is also tougher than the Northern League, says the experienced defender. He said: "The pace of last Saturday's game was much quicker than I've been used to over the past few weeks.
"In a few weeks time when I'm fully fit I'd like to show Martin that I can play at this level again. I've been out with a dead leg and in the last ten minutes I could feel my hamstring and calf a little bit, but I got through it and in the main the lads made it easier because there's always options to pass to.
"I think the difference in this league is that teams can punish you. It's quicker and there's a lot of ex-professional and ex-academy players. Another difference I noticed was the fitness, and when you lose the ball it's much more difficult getting the ball back.
"Players are sharper and tactically much better. When you lose the ball you've got to be switched on. We won 7-0 and nullified their attack because we had good team shape, but on another day if we weren't switched on it might've cost us."
Another difference is Darlington's formation. Gray now favours 4-3-1-2, whereas it was 4-4-2 last season.
Harrison added: "Martin has changed formation from last season so that teams can't punish us. The biggest difference for me is the way we play - we're a bit more direct and more effective.
"David Dowson and Amar Purewal were tremendous with their work ethic on Saturday, plus Stephen Thompson had a bit of magic, and it was just a tremendous team performance.
"There's great leaders like Alan White. The two centre-backs commanded a great line and Martin has drilled a great work ethic into the team."
Wakefield are second-bottom having won only our of their 23 league fixtures and last Saturday's 1-1 draw with New Mills ended a run of eight straight defeats.
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