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Savory leaves a sour taste in Gray’s mouth
Anyone predicting a Darlington procession toward promotion must realign their forecast: winning the title won't be as simple as the bookies predicted.
Two wins from their first two matches suggested they could romp to promotion in much the same way as they did from the Northern League, particularly as some reckon the Evo-Stik First Division North is no better than the level Quakers have just left.
After Saturday's chastening 4-2 defeat at Farsley, however, a game in which they were 3-0 down after 35 minutes, manager Martin Gray was quick to point out the step up in quality.
It could yet prove a Farsley fluke - they are not one of the fancied teams - but Gray's side deservedly lost what was a dramatic game to a side who exploited Darlington's defensive deficiencies, with striker Aiden Savory bagging a hat-trick.
"This league is better," said the manager, who was measured in his analysis, pointing out it was his team's first defeat since losing at Newton Aycliffe in December.
"I don't know how people can say the Northern League is better than the Evo-Stik based on playing these sides once a season in a cup game. Play them over 40-odd games and then make a judgment.
"We've conceded four goals today and I'm not happy, but we'll learn from it.
"I'm not going to rant and rave. You could see how disappointed the players were in the changing room and the beauty is that we've got another game on Monday to respond."
That is against Kendal Town at Heritage Park (3pm) when Darlington need a swift return to form. Much will depend on whether the Cumbrians have a striker as tasty as Savory.
Neither Warrington nor Bamber Bridge had anyone as useful as the big striker, who combined quick feet and strength to good affect.
He won the 12th-minute penalty that put his side ahead after being tripped by stand-in captain Leon Scott. Rob O'Brien scored from the spot and suddenly the dynamic of the game changed.
Darlington had been in command, creating good chances, and Gray said: "Looking at the positives, in the first ten to 15 minutes we continued from where we left off on Tuesday and should have gone 1-0 up through Stephen Thompson.
"It was a really positive start, but then we conceded a cheap penalty. It was sloppy. Leon was marking on the wrong side and got himself tangled up.
"So we went from being in charge to conceding a penalty and you could see the confidence drop after that goal."
The absence of the injured Gary Brown was abundantly apparent as Farsley took a 2-0 lead. This time Scott missed his kick and allowed in Savory to shoot confidently beyond Mark Bell.
And it was 3-0 when Savory added his second with a goal that eptomised Quakers' calamitous defending.
Scott's hand-ball conceded a free-kick from which Paddy Miller hit the crossbar. Darlington could not clear the loose ball which pinged around the penalty area until Savory pounced.
The short, sharp passing had been replaced by long punts from the back as Darlington lost their composure, but just before the break they pulled a goal back.
After a Chris Moore cross, Thompson turned a defender and blasted into the six-yard box where Andy Johnson turned home for his fourth goal for the club to give Quakers hope.
It was extinguished, however, when man-of-the-match Savory completed his hat-trick 11 minutes into the second half due to more weak defending. He received the ball from a throw-in and turned past a defender before unleashing a powerful shot for 4-1.
"He's an ex-Football League player and we'll play against a few more of them his year," said Gray. "He won his headers, he's a big, strong boy and we found him difficult to play against.
"We've told the players that they will have to be prepared for playing against that quality again this season. We need to compete better because we didn't do that today."
Their defensive woes would have been further punished were it not for Bell's performance, yet Darlington finished the game as they started it.
Paul Robinson, on as a sub, saw a shot punched away by Tom Morgan, but the keeper was unable to stop Thompson's effort when he tucked home a low drive after receiving Johnson's pull-back from the byline to make it 4-2 with 17 minutes to go. They thought they'd made it 4-3 when Dowson's 'goal' was ruled offside, and it should've been 4-3 when they were given a penalty when Johnson was felled by Matt Young.
Thompson was on the spot but he wasted the lifeline by blasting wide and the chance of an unlikely comeback was over.
"Stephen hit the ball with his laces, but if he'd side-footed it in it would've been a goal and at 4-3 it would've been game on," said Gray.
"I know what wasn't right today, but I'm not going to shout about it in public. There was no shouting in the changing room either, just talking about where we went wrong.
"It was the first game we've lost in 25 games so we've not done too badly since Aycliffe."
Soon after the beginning of last season a 4-1 loss at Guisborough acted as the catalyst for a 13-match winning run.
Gray added: "It's about character now and responding in the right way. In the past we have responded well to a bad result so I'm expecting the same on Monday."