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Sorry season ends on high for Quakers
The final whistle blew on Darlington's sorry season on Saturday and you would struggle to find anyone not relieved to hear it.
The morale-boosting 3-1 defeat of Kettering Town finally gave fans reason to cheer at the end of a campaign in which Quakers have again been taken to the brink.
They have suffered a second relegation inside three years and that they made it until the end is an achievement alone, one propelled by commitment and pride that's shared by all those who care about Quakers.
Fans have shown unyielding spirit in their dedication, raising thousands of pounds, while the players did their bit too.
As midfielder Marc Bridge-Wilkinson said on Twitter yesterday: "Hopefully in time we can all look back and be proud that we were all responsible for saving not just a season, but a proud football club too."
He is one of the four - along with Paul Arnison, Aaron Brown and Phil Gray - that remain with the club who won silverware at Wembley at the end of last season and they also collected a trophy after Saturday's game.
As a gesture of appreciation for their efforts, the supporters' club awarded each of the players a memento. The word "effort" may have been inscribed incorrectly on the trophies, but it would not be Darlington without a minor hiccup or two.
Yet those players that chose not to head for the lifeboats when the ship began to sink mid-season should not need a trophy to remind them of their dedication to duty.
They can hold their heads high in the knowledge that they stood by the club in its (latest) hour of need.
Brown briefly decided to leave before performing a U-turn and staying until the bitter end.
He said: "Had I left in January, it would've felt as though I had unfinished business at Darlington, but playing until the end of the season means that, although we've been relegated, I feel as though I've accomplished something.
"We've been in administration and the fans have shown great spirit in getting behind the boys every week and the players have noticed that.
"Although we haven't got the results we wanted, the effort was there and we got that win for the fans.
"We broke the record for the worst run last week and we were made aware of that, so as this was the last match, we had to make sure we won."
Having set a club record of 20 successive league games without a win, Saturday's win, as meaningless to the league table as it was, at least ensured that run came to a halt.
The points were rarely in doubt against the bottom-of-the-table opposition from the moment that Ryan Bowman put Quakers ahead just after the half-hour.
He provided a neat finish to poke past Laurie Walker after latching on to a neat through-ball by John McReady, a player that manager Craig Liddle says deserves better than Conference North football.
The 19-year-old midfielder made several rampaging runs in one of his best games in weeks and he almost scored from the kick-off, but Darlington were otherwise sluggish until Bowman's goal.
The opposition, however, made the trip on Saturday morning and perhaps it showed as they posed little threat with Darlington's debutant keeper Jordan Nixon having little to do.
The win was sealed soon after the restart. Bowman grabbed his second of the game, and 11th of the season, when Rundle played him in to round the goalkeeper.
There was a scare when referee Peter Bankes decided to makes things interesting by awarding a penalty - Paul Johnson supposedly pulling Charlie Wyke's shirt - and the Kettering striker scored from the spot. But on 74 minutes a fine passing move combined with calamitous defending gave Darlington a third goal.
Quakers played keep-ball until Rundle crossed from the left and a back-heel from Haydn Hollis, playing up front, trickled over the line with Kettering's Ben Ford getting the last touch on the 100th and final goal that the Poppies conceded in the league.
Full-time saw Kettering shake hands with their 54 travelling fans while there was prolonged applause between Darlington players and fans.
It was not just the end of the season though, it also felt like the end of an era. The club's future remains in the balance and, even if it does survive, many of Saturday's team will no longer be at the Arena.
Liddle was clearly choked. His own future is likely to be away from Darlington and he said: "I can't lie to people, the likelihood is that this will be my last game for the football club.
"I've done all I can. I know the Darlington public appreciate it, so it's a huge thank you to them."
While the season is over, there remains unresolved issues such as which division Darlington will be in next season.
But wherever they play, it will surely prove to be a more enjoyable existence because things can only get better.
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