9:00am Wednesday 30th April 2014
By Craig Stoddart
Darlington this evening contest their first play-off for six years and they go into their semi-final against Ramsbottom United with a team improved since the sides' league fixtures, believes Quakers boss Martin Gray.
The teams meet at Heritage Park on Saturday with the winners facing Bamber Bridge who last night defeated Warrington Town 1-0 in the other semi-final.
In order to reach that final, Darlington must overcome a team that have twice defeated them this season.
HEAD BOY: Recent signing Ian Ward, pictured against Burscough at the weekend, could start tonight
Both matches were inside the first four months of the campaign and Quakers' starting XI, however, has since undergone a makeover.
Of Gray's XI selected for the 3-0 reserve played in September at the Harry Williams Riverside Stadium, Chris Hunter had his last outing during an ill-fated spell at right-back, Jordan Robinson had his penultimate game at centre-half and David Dowson played his first 90 minutes of the season
Furthermore, Curtis Edwards and Chris Moore have since been released, and Gray admitted: "We underachieved in the game at their place.
"There wasn't much in the game, but they got the win. In the home game there wasn't much between the teams again, but we've since got better and stronger.
"But it's about what we do. They've got the confidence of beating us twice this season, but what's important is how we prepare and how we play. That includes myself and the staff, what we do with the players and our game-plan.
"I'm very confident and I'm sure Ramsbottom are too. It's set up to be a fantastic game.
"The squad has got us to a fantastic position, a home game in the play-offs and we're really looking forward to Wednesday.
"It doesn't matter who we've got, It's a home fixture and we've got to make sure that we prepare mentally and physically correctly, as I expect Ramsbottom will too."
In 2007-08, when Gray was assistant manager to Dave Penney, Darlington ended sixth before losing on penalties to Rochdale in the play-off semi-final.
This time Gray, who says Quakers have practised penalties, has guided his team to a second-placed finish and scoring 101 goals along the way.
Gray is keeping his team selection under wraps, though certain players are assured of a start having been rested during the final two matches of the league campaign.
It is central midfield where he has a dilemma. Gary Brown and Leon Scott were preferred during the season's closing stages, but Jordan Robinson is now available after overcoming injury.
The game is heading for a sell-out and Gray is urging supporters to make plenty of noise at Heritage Park.
He said: "We've had a fantastic season to finish second, having been in the division below and now have challenges all the way in this season. We've done a great job as a club, on and off the pitch.
"The fans have been absolutely amazing for us. You think back to some of the away games, like at Wakefield on Easter Monday or at Harrogate RA, places where we've had 600 or 700 fans, they've been magnificent and we've not got to make sure we do the business to repay them.
"The club's got the best support in the North-East outside of professional football and we'll have a full house. I want everyone to be loud and vocal and for that drum to be getting brayed all night.
"Darlington fans are going to come in numbers to support their team and we need that support because it makes a hell of a difference, the players react to it and they love it."
After a poor start to the season when Ramsbottom failed to win any of their first seven matches, a Jon Robinson hat-trick in their 3-0 win over Quakers kick-started their campaign.
They've since become one of the best sides in the division, scoring 112 goals and losing only four times since October.
Bernard Morley, who is joint manager with Anthony Johnson, believes the pressure is on Gray's men tonight.
"We played Darlington at home when we were under a lot of pressure because we hadn't won until then and if we're honest we expected to get beat that night, but we won 3-0," said Morley.
"We're not stupid, we're not naive, we know how football is, but in my opinion if we set up right and we hit them head on I think we can beat them.
"The proof's in the pudding, we've beaten them twice and they are going to be under a lot more pressure than we are.
"I don't think I'll be as nervous as I was on Saturday because getting into the play-offs is something that stands on its own. The lads have got to understand that there is no pressure on them whatsoever.
"They've got to go there and enjoy themselves, the hard work has been done.
"Wednesday is something we can enjoy. Win lose or draw, we'll come home with our heads held high.
"It's a free game for our players, they've earned the right to play in the game."
Johnson added: "Some of their players won't have played in front of 2,000 people either, so the pressure is all on them. We can go there and enjoy ourselves.
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