9:00am Monday 10th March 2014
By Craig Stoddart
IT HAS taken a fantastic run of 13 wins in 15 matches, but finally Darlington can be encouraged in their aim to achieve promotion, having moved up a place to third.
After weeks of being wedged in fourth, winning games only to hear their rivals had also won, they were wondering if they would ever leapfrog Farsley.
Now they have succeeded and a win on Wednesday at home to Cammell Laird will take them up to second.
Leaders Curzon Ashton remain nine points ahead with a game in hand, which they play this evening. But beating New Mills 2-0 on Saturday has reaffirmed Darlington's belief that the top spot is achievable.
"Psychologically it's a boost," admitted manager Martin Gray. "Every time we've won the other teams around us have also won.
"It's been so important, and still is, to win our games otherwise we would have been detached from the top three.
"A lot of the teams at the top have to play each other, we've just got to do what we need to do. We need to go head-to-head for the rest of the season and we're in a position to do that.
"Our vision before the start of the season was to be challenging for the title and be in the play-offs. That's where we are so we're on track."
With only one automatic promotion place available, Curzon are the team Quakers hope to catch.
Doing so requires a combination of Darlington continuing their winning run and Curzon stumbling towards the finish line in the same manner that infamously cost Newcastle United the title in 1996.
Such a collapse is unlikely as Curzon have lost only twice all season, but they do have five fixtures to come against sides inside the top four, including an encounter at Heritage Park on March 19.
One expects a tenser and more entertaining occasion than Saturday's lacklustre 90 minutes.
Darlington were far from their best against a team of limited ability who defended in numbers and attempted to nullify Gray's men. But they were unable to stop Terry Galbraith from scoring two first half goals.
"Performances at this stage of the season can be indifferent," admitted Gray. "You can have good ones and bad ones. You'd like to be consistent, but it's about winning and getting a clean sheet and that's what we've done with our last two performances.
"They haven't been our best performances, but nobody will remember that come the end of the season."
Darlington made a bright start but wasted scoring opportunities until Galbraith's opener on 38 minutes, driving home from inside the penalty area after meeting Stephen Thompson's pass from the byline.
His penalty came not long later, given after David Dowson was tripped by goalkeeper Peter Collinge, an incident which should have seen the New Mills No 1 sent off.
Gray fumed: "The referee said he was going away from goal, but how do you go around a keeper without dribbling left or right? Whichever way you go around the keeper, you are not going to be heading directly at goal.
"That was weak. That was a big decision and he got it wrong."
The second period was largely uneventful, aside from Nathan Fisher having a goal ruled out for offside with his first touch. New Mills, despite the two-goal deficit, did little to trouble Darlington.
James Hampson was on his own up front, occasionally threatening to get a touch on the ball, although he was second-best to defensive pairing Alan White and Chris Hunter, who were assisted at right-back by Gary Brown.
Gray was evasive in his explanation of dropping Stephen Harrison, though giving Brown a much-needed run-out before White begins a ban must have been a factor.
"It was nice to get Gary back on the pitch, another leader," said Gray.
"He's going to be a bit rusty because he's had so long out. That was his first 90 minutes since Gateshead in pre-season, so he'll be stiff in the morning.
"I just wanted to make a change and it was the right thing to do."
While White sits out two games starting on Wednesday, Darlington will also be without Hunter for a couple of weeks as he landed badly when challenging for a high ball and was immediately substituted, thus losing his ever-present record.
Gray said: "He's going to go for an x-ray. It's not a break, but he went over on his ankle so there's quite a bit of swelling around the joint. He's a tough lad and a big player for us. We'll get him back as soon as we can.
"That's football, you've got to deal with what's thrown at you. The medical staff at the club are great and it shows you how good they are, getting Gary Brown back six weeks early. Chris has the same mentality as Gary, so I have lots of confidence in him and the medical people that he will be back soon."
Joe Tait was Hunter's replacement and he and Brown are the obvious candidates to start at centre-back on Wednesday when Darlington bid to keep Curzon in their sights.
© Copyright 2001-2015 Newsquest Media Group