9:00am Monday 3rd February 2014
By Craig Stoddart
Full-time: Kendal Town 1 Darlington 5
There have been times of late when Darlington must have wondered if they would ever make inroads in the fight for promotion.
During a winning run stretching back to November, it had become tediously frustrating at full-time to hear that their rivals had also taken three points.
Saturday, though, when the teams around them finally dropped points, proved that Quakers can still finish top of the pile and the manner of a 5-1 victory amid the stormy weather in Cumbria demonstrated they also have the mettle required to do so.
For the third game running it was a test of character as well as ability for Martin Gray's men.
As at Harrogate RA and Ossett Albion, the pitch was a boggy mess. That's no slight on Kendal Town, who did well to get the game on, and Darlington were thankful to avoid a second postponement in as many weeks.
This time around, however, horizontal rain, temperatures that left supporters shivering and a strong wind which saw the ball sometimes change direction in mid-air made for a scrappy game. It was a battle in the mud.
Furthermore, Quakers made it more difficult for themselves than necessary by going a goal down.
But they are nothing if not determined. Level at the break after Amar Purewal had headed an equaliser, four second-half goals meant they recorded an eighth successive away win.
A marvellous run of ten wins in 11 games, scoring 39 goals in the process, means they are genuine candidates for the sole promotion spot.
Quakers are seven points off leaders Warrington, the only team other than Darlington inside the top seven to win on Saturday on what could prove to be a pivotal day.
Darlington conceded an early goal for the second successive game, a handball in the penalty area by Joe Tait punished by Kendal scoring from the spot though Warren Beattie.
Although goalkeeper Mark Bell got his hands to the ball, it carried just enough power to crawl over the line.
But Purewal restored parity on the half hour, heading home after meeting a cross by Stephen Harrison.
Gray said: "Because of the conditions we would have been happy to get to half-time at 0-0. Apart from the penalty I don't think they really tested Mark Bell.
"It was important to get a goal back before half-time. We were up against a really strong wind which made it really difficult to get forward, but I always felt that we could get them pinned back.
"Once we got the second goal it became a really strong performance."
In a strong start to the second half by Darlington, there were two good chances, keeper Danny MaDonald saving from Stephen Thompson and David Dowson, before the long-awaited second goal.
But it was worth waiting for, Thompson scoring his 40th goal for the club in fitting style, lashing home from outside the penalty area after Purewal held the ball up.
"It was very direct," admitted Gray. "Belly took an early goal kick for a change, Amar held the ball up with one touch and Thompson came inside and bent one into the far corner from 25 yards, which is what he's done all season."
The strike came shortly after Gray made what proved to be a decisive substitution, replacing Tait with the more attack-minded Dale Hopson, who opened up the home side with his quick feet and eye for a pass.
Darlington celebrate Stephen Thompson’s strike which made it 2-1
Gray said: " Dale came on and changed the game for us. He scored two goals and got himself an assist. We went 4-4-2 to finish off - Dale on the right, Tommo on the left - and it worked. Dale didn't start because of the conditions, I needed some strong boys in there, but as the game went on we needed a little bit of creativity and he showed his class on the ball."
Also impressive was fellow former Darlington youth team player Rob Ramshaw, the midfielder playing after joining on loan from Gateshead.
His quality of pass and bravery on the ball and in the tackle suggests Gray has made a smart transfer.
It was Hopson, though, who proved the difference for the final three goals. After a dribble into the penalty area was abruptly ended, the ball dropped kindly for Jordan Robinson to score his first league goal for the club.
And there was no let-up from Darlington, whose goal difference is now easily the best in the division.
Hopson got the fourth when he dribbled away from the defence to confidently shoot beyond the keeper and added the fifth when tapping into the net following a pass by Purewal in the penalty area to complete a hard-earned triumph.
"As a team, everybody played their part," said Gray. "You want men on days like these. It was a day for rolling your sleeves up and the lads did that fantastically well.
"The players' mentality is to win. We ask them to give us everything and the lads did that."
Darlington are now relishing this weekend's crucial encounter with fellow promotion candidates Curzon Ashton at Heritage Park.
Win that and hopes of snatching pole position would receive a major boost.
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