9:00am Monday 31st March 2014
By Craig Stoddart
Full-time: Ossett Town 1 Darlington 2
Too far behind the leaders to make an impact, yet virtually assured of a place in the play-offs, Darlington have five league games in which to time their form to a crescendo.
A 2-1 win at Ossett Town on Saturday, combined with results elsewhere going in their favour, left Quakers nine points ahead of sixth.
That's probably how manager Martin Gray prefers it - comfortable in second, but not detached enough from the chasing pack to relax.
Darlington remain competitive and with three new players joining the ranks of late there is renewed competition for places for the final five games, four being at Heritage Park.
It is perhaps the strongest squad he has had since the beginning of last season, says the manager.
Defender Jack Walker, winger Adam Mitchell and striker Ian Ward have added quality to Quakers, with all three enjoying fine displays on Saturday.
Ward grabbed the first goal. After a Terry Galbraith corner, the tall and powerful Ward lashed home from close-range on 28 minutes in his first start since joining from Durham City, while Walker, also formerly of Durham, attacked gamely up the right flank in a wing-back role.
"We've got really strong competition for places for probably the first time since I took over at the club," said Gray, who made five changes from the team that defeated Wakefield 5-1 in midweek.
"It's great to turn around in the dug-out and see really strong subs. Lads that have got us to where we are, like David Dowson and Amar Purewal, have been fantastic and now we've been able to bring others in and it's kept everyone on their toes."
Ward made an impact as a substitute against Wakefield, setting up Nathan Fisher to score, and he almost did the same at Ossett soon after scoring, but this time Fisher screwed wide.
Gray added: "Ian's a handful, another asset to the team. I was really pleased he got a goal because when you come to a new club you want to start with a goal. He's had an assist in midweek and a really important goal today.
"He did well in both boxes. Up front he held the ball up and won headers, and defensively he was in the right areas."
It was not long, though, until Darlington doubled their lead, Galbraith curling a terrific free-kick into the top corner after Gary Brown had been fouled.
It was a goal he would surely watch again and again on YouTube. Unfortunately, it was a game Quakers did not record on camera, which has almost always been the case whenever memorable goals have been scored on the road this season.
It's usually Stephen Thompson whose long-range efforts are not recorded for posterity and the play-maker sporadically threatened at Ingfield.
A volley floated over after Ward had held the ball up following a long throw by Brown, and keeper Sam Dobbs gathered the ball at the second attempt after spilling a Thompson shot, grabbing it just ahead of Fisher.
Fisher was one of the five changes, along with Walker and Ward plus Leon Scott and Chris Hunter, who returned after injury.
Alan White, ordinarily a first-team fixture, Jonny Davis, Purewal and Dowson, were rested by Gray, who again started with a 3-4-1-2 formation and was delighted with the first 45 minutes.
"The first half performance was the best we've had for a long, long time from a team point of view," said Gray.
"The lads stuck to the game-plan we had and the starting XI were really on the front foot."
The second period was more scrappy. Quakers did not find the flow they enjoyed in the first half, though they remained solid with the Galbraith-Hunter-Joe Tait back-three retaining their shape
Darlington celebrate Ian Ward’s opener
Eighth-placed Ossett gradually came into the game and fired a warning shot when they had a goal disallowed for offside, Jimmy Eyles heading home after meeting a left-wing cross.
With 14 minutes to go the hosts pulled back the goal they had been threatening. However, it should have been ruled out as clearly Nick Wood handled the ball.
It came from a corner, won by David Kuba-Kuba after a flurry of step-overs when taking on Chris Hunter, and from the set-piece Wood stopped the ball with his left hand before blasting beyond Bell.
The incident did not represent a borderline decision, but referee Ken Haycock allowed the goal to stand and Gray said: "I spoke to the referee and he said the usual excuse, that it was ball to hand. But apart from that they didn't really hurt us.
"We defended our box well. It was a bit nervy, but we would've come away very disappointed if we hadn't won."
Darlington defeated a team that have done the double over leaders Curzon Ashton and in midweek defeated third-placed Warrington.
"It's another three points against a team who have been taking points off all the top teams lately as well as the teams around them," added Gray.
"They're a team in form, they're organised, they keep their shape and haven't dropped many points recently.
"Today was a tough last 20 minutes, but the work ethic stood us in good stead. There were big tackles by Browny, Tait, Scott and Hunter - they were big players for us when we needed them.
"If you look at the last few months we've had a really good run, winning 15 or 16 games plus a couple of draws and not many defeats.
"Momentum is good, but we've got to keep the focus and that's our job as staff to make sure the players don't look further ahead than Saturday."
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