9:00am Monday 7th April 2014
By Craig Stoddart
With only four games to go, it would take an almighty nosedive for Darlington to lose their place in the play-offs.
They are 11 points ahead of sixth so their priority now is to finish second in order to secure home advantage.
There's a clamour of clubs behind them jostling for position with Warrington Town also almost assured of a position inside the top five, while top spot belongs to Curzon Ashton, who would seal the title with a win at Harrogate RA this evening.
All of which leaves Quakers homing in on second and counting down the days until the play-off semi-final, a one-legged affair to be played in the first midweek after the season finishes.
By that time they will need an improvement on Saturday's uninspiring showing at home to relegation battlers Radcliffe Borough.
The 3-0 scoreline flattered a Darlington team not at their best during a flat 90 minutes in which their midfield was second best and the three-man defence had to be ditched midway through the first half.
"We want to dominate games and put in good performances, but that wasn't one of our best," admitted manager Martin Gray, who again started with a 3-4-1-2 formation.
"Our finishing was good and the concentration levels of the defence and goalkeeper were high. Mark Bell didn't have a lot to do, but Radcliffe's finishing was poor so that was probably why.
"We looked comfortable, but I felt our play could have been better. At this stage the points are really important and nobody when the season is finished will complain about how we played against Radcliffe."
The visitors' Brad Robinson had a goal ruled out for offside before Nathan Fisher put Quakers ahead in the 19th minute with a goal from a Terry Galbraith throw.
The defender was involved in all three goals, the first seeing the ball thrown to Stephen Thompson, whose shot on the turn rebounded into Fisher's path for his seventh league goal of the season.
It should have been 2-0 when Thompson fired wide after receiving a fantastic diagonal ball over the top by Chris Hunter, but still Darlington were too open at the back, though their cause was not assisted by a heavy pitch.
Such is its state, particularly down the centre, that the Durham Challenge Cup final between Shildon and Spennymoor Town has been moved to Billingham Synthonia's Central Avenue.
Gray said: "The pitch was difficult, worse than we thought it was going to be.
"You look at personnel and formations and ask how can you miss out the middle section of the pitch, because it was horrible in there. But the pitch was the same for both teams.
"We changed formation to 4-4-2 after a while because we'd been too narrow through the middle and the pitch didn't help.
"They were getting their full-backs forward. A couple of times they had a spell, so we had to stop them because on another day we would've conceded goals as they had some great chances.
"The No. 11, Elliot Rokka, is on loan from Macclesfield Town, and did really well. They put a shift in, but we always felt that once we got the third goal they would fade away and they did."
The second goal arrived after 34 minutes, Ian Ward heading home after meeting a Galbraith corner.
AIRBORNE: Quakers captain Gary Brown makes a full-bloodedchallenge on Radcliffe Borough left-back Danny Lambert
He has made a terrific start to life at Darlington and on Grand National Day, the striker nicknamed the Hoss galloped away in celebration after netting his second goal in as many starts.
Carrying a slight injury, Ward was replaced by Amar Purewal at the start of a second half which began ominously.
Radcliffe gained possession following a wayward Gary Brown pass, leading to Robinson firing weakly at Bell.
Brown and Leon Scott made for a defensive-minded centre midfield high on brawn and low on attacking instinct.
Gray selected the pair to be a defensive shield, enabling the attack-minded team-mates to flourish, such as Adam Mitchell and Thompson, and the latter showed an occasional flash of quality in his 50th successive start for the club.
He played in Fisher, who shot wide, before a fierce effort from inside the penalty area was beaten away by Radcliffe keeper Chris Cheetham.
Although Bell was well protected by Darlington's defence, Radcliffe remained competitive until the 74th minute, when Quakers finally killed them off with the third goal.
Substitute David Dowson lashed home his 14th league goal after running on to Galbraith's ball up the left.
"It's about making sure we finish second," added Gray, who watched the game from the stand as he began a four-match touchline ban following an altercation with the referee in the home defeat to Lancaster last month.
"We haven't got into the play-offs yet, we're going for second place.
"It's not a time for experimenting and people are fighting for their place.
"Players have to put in big performances because competition is very strong so if we don't get big performances we'll make changes, it's as simple as that."
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