8:00am Monday 13th January 2014
By Craig Stoddart
Full-time: Harrogate RA 0 Darlington 2
It took only eight minutes for new signing Joe Tait to set up Darlington's latest win by sweeping the ball into the net, marking his return in perfect style.
Quakers went on to win 2-0 at Harrogate RA on Saturday with Stephen Thompson also scoring, but Tait's early goal gave Quakers a foothold in a potentially tricky game.
A heavy pitch and a slope more suited for use at the Winter Olympics meant the conditions were as big a threat to Darlington as Harrogate were, yet Quakers dealt admirably with the situation and were deserving winners from the moment Tait put them ahead.
Six months after leaving for the bright lights of Gateshead, it is easy to suggest it was like he had never been away. But it could hardly be said that he carried on from where he left off.
With Leon Scott suspended, a strong-arm midfield presence was needed. So Tait, a defender by trade, was deployed in unfamiliar territory.
He did the business, however, and will surely play there for the remaining two games of Scott's ban.
"In the first half I coped all right," said Tait. "It was all about picking up second balls, hooking things on and putting balls into good areas. It was tough on that pitch in the second half and it caught up with me, but I'll get fitter and better and so will we as a team."
Manager Martin Gray explained: "He's not just a centre-back, he's a centre-back that can play a bit. He's got a defensive mind, so in that formation he can sit in front of the back four.
"He knew on Wednesday when I spoke to him that that's where he'd be playing.
"When I first brought him to the club 18 months ago he said he could play in midfield if he was ever needed there. Because he's a good footballer he can play that role and I thought he did all right.
"He's experienced so he's got good leadership qualities. It was a nice and steady, solid first game back."
After an attack up the right, Tait fired home from near the penalty spot. The shot lacked power but was enough to beat the otherwise excellent Peter Crook in the Harrogate goal.
"It was a decent way to come back. I don't get many so I'll treasure that one," he said.
Grabbing an early goal gave Quakers the impetus to drive forward. They frequently broke into the Harrogate penalty area and only wayward shooting and some top saves by Crook - including one eye-catching leap to his left to keep out Thompson - denied Darlington.
Thompson got a goal eventually, volleying home from ten yards just before the break to reach 20 for the season.
Although he got the final touch, it was a team goal that involved several passes before Terry Galbraith crossed to Amar Purewal, who chested the ball to Thompson.
"It was a good time to score, on the stroke of half-time, and it was a great bit of play," said Gray.
"We had possession for a while, then a ball into Amar, who chested it down for Thompson and it was another great finish from him. He could have had another goal before then. There was a top save from their keeper, who was the man of the match."
Crook made more saves during a scoreless second period, notably denying Purewal and substitute Nathan Fisher.
Harrogate offered a minor threat, but substitute Colin Hunter blew his big chance, firing an effort straight at Quakers keeper Mark Bell during a less entertaining and more even 45 minutes.
The energy-sapping terrain made it an uphill struggle to muster much in the way of excitement, though the bulk of the bumper 1,026 attendance went away satisfied.
Darlington's Yorkshire contingent attended en masse, contributing towards a figure larger than some seen at Heritage Park.
Darlington's Stephen Thompson on the ball. He hit his 20th goal of the season on Saturday
Harrogate's average gate was 94 until Quakers came to town for what was the shortest away journey of the season.
"It was unbelievable it really was," said Gray. "There must have been at least 900 Darlo fans here. I know there were lots of coaches organised to come here from Darlington.
"Days like these will be good memories, something to look back on.
"When the players come off the pitch at full-time and they've got the all those fans clapping and cheering them off it makes it all worthwhile.
"It's the same at the start of the game, you see the pride and players' chests puffed out, it gives them a boost to have so many fans on their side.
"It makes a massive difference to us. At this level the players don't usually play in front of this many fans.
"I was speaking to their manager after the game and he was saying those kind of numbers are unheard of.
"They got as many fans in today as they have had all season."
The one dampener on the day was that, despite taking 25 of the last 27 available points, Darlington remain fourth as the team above them, Farsley, are enjoying an even better run.
They have won nine of their last ten games, while second-placed Curzon have won six in a row.
They will surely return to the top of the table with a win at third-bottom Wakefield tomorrow evening.
Darlington are at bottom-of-the-table Ossett Albion on Saturday, when they have to keep their good run going.
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