9:00am Monday 28th April 2014
By Craig Stoddart
Two teams have defeated Darlington home and away this season, one has won the title and the other stands in the way of Quakers reaching the play-off final.
Ramsbottom United will be Quakers' formidable but not unbeatable opposition in Wednesday's semi-final at Heritage Park, which is heading for a sell-out.
The winners will on Saturday face Warrington or Bamber Bridge, two teams Darlington defeated twice, though first up are the Rams, who have provided Martin Gray's men with their toughest games this term.
While title-winning Curzon Ashton also did the double over Darlington, only their win at Heritage Park was convincing, whereas Ramsbottom were deserving winners - 3-0 and 1-0 - on each occasion, with winger Philip Dean a real menace.
With 112 goals, they are the division's highest scorers and boast the top scorer in Lee Gaskell, although Quakers, whose Stephen Thompson was voted best player in the division by managers, have finished higher in the table and netted 101 times.
It's a tough one to call and whoever who wins Wednesday's crunch clash it promises to be a more dramatic, more exciting and simply more worthwhile affair than Saturday's lame 90 minutes.
Mid-table Burscough avenged December's 7-0 defeat by winning 2-1 at Heritage Park on a dull afternoon when Darlington used few of the XI who will play on Wednesday.
"It was a nothing game, a game we had to get out of the way," admitted Gray, who gave game time to teenagers Aiden O'Connor, Adam Cocks, Matty Lovegreen and Tom Young, the latter pair as subs.
"It was one of those days when you hope to get through without any injuries and keep people fresh for Wednesday."
Proof that Gray made the right decision in resting most of his first-choice players came after only 78 seconds, when stand-in goalkeeper Peter Jameson required lengthy treatment, having conceded a penalty.
He collided with striker Jordan Williams and came off second-best, with team-mate Jack Walker, whose day job is as a physiotherapist in Hartlepool, quickly putting him into the recovery position.
After various medical staff had rushed to the penalty area, Jameson declared himself able to continue, though he visited a hospital on Saturday evening after coughing up blood.
He was unable to stop Mark Beesley's penalty, taken five minutes after the foul, and Gray said: "Peter was winded, but he's a strong boy and carried on, which I was pleased about.
"If we'd put Mark Bell on as a sub he could've got injured and that would've given us a big problem for midweek.
"That's why we made nine changes, to rest everyone."
Gray had not actually made nine changes from Easter Monday's win at Wakefield, but that he mentioned the figure suggests there were nine players missing that shall return against Ramsbottom.
The goal stunned a subdued Heritage Park, which played host to its second highest Saturday gate since the turn of the year.
If the game acted as an opportunity for many to buy a ticket for Wednesday, it was also a worthwhile exercise for the teenagers in the team. Gray is a big believer in giving youngsters a chance and Saturday's squad included five youth-team players.
O'Connor, a 16-year-old from Spennymoor, was involved in a flashpoint on 23 minutes when on the receiving end of a reckless two-footed lunge by Burscough's Mike Brown.
Referee Helen Conley had no option but to show a red card, and Gray said: "Young Aiden took a nasty challenge, but he's a tough character and he did really well, so I was delighted with him and all the young lads.
"It was a good experience for them, playing in front of 1,200 people, because they're used to playing in front of 20 or 30. They showed good composure. It's a day that has set them up for next season."
Despite playing against ten men, Darlington failed to fire, though their cause was not aided by Mr C Gilbraith, a young, flag-happy assistant referee.
Nathan Fisher must have wondered what he'd done to upset the official, so regular was his interfering flagging.
By half-time it was 1-1 after Conley awarded a second spot-kick, this time when Ian Ward's shirt was pulled by left-back Phil Quirk, Dale Hopson converting.
The second-half dragged, with barely a noteworthy incident occurring, other than Gray withdrawing Fisher, Gary Brown and O'Connor. Ward played 90 minutes, suggesting Amar Purewal will get the nod against Ramsbottom.
Burscough's winner came on 71 minutes, though Beesley looked offside when he picked the ball up and fired home after Williams' left-wing cross rebounded off a post.
The visitors held on, ending Darlington's win of six successive wins, though momentum is hardly dented when a team largely made up of fringe players has lost an end-of-season run-out.
The match was followed by the bizarre spectacle of Darlington's players receiving a trophy in the main stand, despite being runners-up - silverware for winning nothing!
The bright idea was dreamt up by Evo-Stik League officials, who attended the match to hand over the meaningless prize.
"It's something that the league decided to do, we had no say in it," explained a baffled Gray.
"We just had to go with whatever they wanted.
"It's not something that you need to celebrate, coming second. Hopefully there are still two games to play and after that, hopefully, we can celebrate."
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