8:00am Monday 20th January 2014
By Craig Stoddart
With Darlington lying fourth in the table there is pressure to win each of their remaining games. It's not important how they take the points, just as long as they do.
With that in mind, Saturday's 3-2 win at rock-bottom Ossett Albion could be considered satisfactory. A hard-earned three points, job done.
Quakers needed a seventh successive away victory to maintain momentum and keep alive hopes of toppling leaders Curzon Ashton.
As Curzon's top-of-the-table encounter at home to Warrington was postponed, Darlington took the opportunity to narrow the gap to six points on a day when battling qualities rather than quality football came to the fore.
The opposition had a man sent off just after the break, but it was still a slog, not least because of a pitch that was equal parts grass, sand and mud.
Add a rope swing, wall climb and a few car tyres and it would have made for a decent army obstacle course.
Wet weather resulted in five games in the division being postponed and, with their largest crowd of the season in the offing, Ossett were keen to ensure the game got the go-ahead so were at the ground from 8am shovelling sand on to the boggiest areas.
"There was more sand on that pitch than I've ever seen in my football days," said Quakers' boss Martin Gray. "I can understand why they want the game on from a financial point of view, but it doesn't help us to play on that type of surface.
"I've seen games called off with pitches like this. If it wasn't for them playing Darlington the game would've been off. They've made a big effort to get the game on and got 500 people in, so they've made a few quid.
"We had to show some character. We ground a result out.
"It's three points on an horrendous pitch. It didn't suit the likes of Stephen Thompson and Dale Hopson to run with the ball.
"It doesn't matter how good you are, it's very difficult to run with the ball on sand."
The conditions were similar to last week at Harrogate RA, though this time it was Darlington who conceded early.
Darol Lucas was credited with the sixth-minute strike after hitting a 20-yard shot that a dubious goal committee - were one to exist at this level - would surely have categorised as a Joe Tait own goal.
The ball looped high into the air and over stranded goalkeeper Mark Bell only a minute after Lucas had hit the post.
Ossett's strong start had caught Quakers cold, but Gray said: "The players' mentality was okay. It was the same as it has been in recent weeks. Sometimes you've got to give other teams a bit of credit. We didn't come here expecting to win three or 4-0."
Ossett may have lost eight on the bounce at Queen's Terrace, but in recent home games had lost to both Curzon and Warrington by only single goal margins.
With a lead to defend, they denied Darlington time on the ball and Quakers were rattled and lacked composure.
The Northern League's infamous Secret Shoppers would have had a field day with the colourful language used by Joe Tait and Alan White when geeing up team-mates.
Gray's men did not give goalkeeper Adam Rhodes a save to make in the first 45 minutes, but that all changed within nine exciting minutes after the restart.
First, centre-back Wes Milnes saw red for being the last man when chopping down David Dowson, though there appeared to be a covering defender, and soon White headed home at a corner to make it 1-1.
The turnaround was complete when Dowson fired into an empty net after Amar Purewal's shot had been parried by Rhodes. From that point Quakers' ninth win in ten games was assured.
Darlington rarely looked in danger of conceding, while they created chances, although Thompson suffered a rare off day, wasting a couple of efforts.
There was a bizarre moment when inexperienced referee Luke Watson booked Ossett's Liam Schofield for diving, despite him being on the receiving end of a challenge by defender Chris Hunter, who says he did not touch the left-back.
Ossett were livid, though Quakers felt they had three or four good shouts for a penalty in the first half.
A diplomatic Gray said: "It was a difficult day for the referee. I don't think he was great for either team, but he's young and still learning."
Quakers had a grip on the game, but needed a third goal to give themselves some breathing space and it finally came in the 87th minute when substitute Nathan Fisher rounded the keeper and slotted home after Purewal's flick-on.
A free-kick led to Tyrone Gay giving Darlington a fright when he headed home deep into injury-time, meaning Quakers ended the game as sloppily as they started.
"I was disappointed with the two goals we conceded because we haven't done that of late," added Gray. "The players know we should be better than that defensively.
"We didn't start the game well at all. We give them the incentive to hang on to a goal.
"We sorted a few things out at half-time in the changing room and I thought the players were a lot better in the second half. We got the first goal at an important time, just after the sending off, and from then we really took off.
"It's not always about footballers and pretty football, it's about characters sometimes, about digging in and grinding results out.
"We've had two difficult away games and taken maximum points, so we're set up nicely for a home match next Saturday against Cammell Laird."
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