Darlington 0 Ramsbottom United 2
The play-offs and Darlington do not mix.
On three previous occasions they have succumbed in the end-of-season shindig and they are resigned to another season in the Evo-Stik First Division after a controversial night at Heritage Park which included two red cards, a dreadful refereeing display and manager Martin Gray being sent to the stand.
The night ended with a small number of fans exchanging punches with the victorious Ramsbottom players.
Gray, his team and the supporters were left hugely frustrated on a night when nothing went right for them from the 16th second.
That was when a crunching challenge by left-back Owen Roberts put Leon Scott in hospital with a broken leg and set the tone for an incident-packed night when referee Kevin Mulraine was all too often in the spotlight.
He let Roberts off with a yellow, presumably invoking the unwritten rule about not sending players off inside the first 60 seconds.
On the stroke of half-time the visitors’ Gary Stopforth escaped red despite raising pushing Gary Brown to the floor and then minutes after the restart Mulraine further infuriated the home fans when he incorrectly sent off Stephen Thompson for a second yellow.
An angry Gray said: “I’ve seen some and challenges in football and the challenge on Leon Scott was horrendous. Just horrendous.
“I’ve got a player lying in a hospital bed now with a broken leg and that had a massive impact on us after 16 seconds.
“It changed the dynamic of the game and we had to change the game-plan that we’ve been working on for four days. The referee wasn’t strong enough to deal with the situation. Our season has been ruined by weak decision making.
“Ramsbottom played well first half, give them credit for that. They went 2-0 up and deservedly and I’m sure they’ll go on to win the final against Bamber Bridge, but we can’t talk about the game because the referee has had such an impact.”
If Ramsbottom’s players were instructed to unsettle Darlington from the off then they succeeded via Roberts’ high challenge on Scott.
Roberts tackle succeeded in altering Quakers’ personnel, with Jack Walker coming on at right-back and Gary Brown shifting to the centre of midfield, giving Darlington a defensive outlook in the centre of the pitch.
Darlington looked pensive, nervous perhaps, and were second-best while Ramsbottom were more confident on the ball, utilising pacy right-winger Grant Spencer.
It was he that Thompson earned a deserved booking for a kick, one of the Quakers’ player’s few moments of note on a subdued night for the forward, while Spencer was heavily involved in the first goal on 23 minutes.
His cross was headed over by Chris Hunter and then swung over a corner that saw an unmarked centre-back Billy Priestley climb highest to head home.
Darlington did not respond. After charging down Scott Burton’s attempted clearance up the wing, Adam Mitchell turned to his team-mates to demand a reaction, but it was soon 2-0.
Striker Jordan Hulme cut in front the left, dribbling between Walker and Joe Tait and executing a cool finish.
Ramsbottom were the better side and it was just not going Darlington’s way, although they attempted to build a head of steam before the break.
After Priestley was deservedly booked for diving in on Jordan Robinson, a Terry Galbraith free-kick was half-cleared but eventually dropped to David Dowson whose powerful low effort wad wide from 16 yards.
Keeper Martin Fearon grabbed the ball inches ahead of Dowson as the striker chased Purewal’s flick-on, but that was as good as it got for Darlington, however, on the stroke of half-time came a remarkable moment when Mulraine chose not to punish Ramsbottom’s Stopforth when he pushed Brown in the face.
Instead, Mulraine booked Brown and Robinson, presumably for unsporting behaviour and dissent respectively, thus the referee was treated to a barrage of abuse at half-time.
Gray offered his opinion too and was sent to the stand. He explained: “The ref said I spoke to him in an aggressive manner, but I’m hardly going to speak to him nicely when I’ve got a player in hospital – how could I be happy about that?”
Mulraine was at it again soon after the restart sending off Thompson for having the temerity to be tripped in the Ramsbottom penalty area.
The Cumbrian official deemed it to be a dive, hence a second booking, leaving Darlington a man down and 2-0 behind.
From that point Ramsbottom were in easy street, playing it safe and seeing out time.
Darlington gave it a go, sending on striker Ian Ward and playing three at the back, but they were no match for the visitors, who have now beaten Quakers three times this season, scoring six and conceding none.
Darlington’s best second chance was wasted by Purewal. He flung himself at a Galbraith cross and headed over the bar with the goal at his mercy.
And the game ended with another red, though there were no complaints this time. Robinson received a second yellow for a very poor challenge on Hulme.
“We’ve ended up having two players sent off ad I was sent off and it’s down to frustration,” added Gray.
“We showed a lot of character. We should’ve had a penalty, Amar should’ve scored a header from Terry Galbraith’s cross.”
The action did not stop at the final whistle, however. A small number of fans invaded the pitch and punches were exchanged with a couple of Ramsbottom players.
Gray added: “I can’t ask anymore from the players. We were promoted last season and second this season, but I feel like we’ve been let down after all our hard work. You’re in the hands of other people and in these games you can’t have a young boy out there learning his trade as a referee.
“This is my business, this is my career and unfortunately we’ve now got to do it all again next season and we will do, no question. This will make us better.”