9:00am Saturday 27th July 2013
By Craig Stoddart
Martin Gray believes that testing his players against higher quality opposition can only be beneficial during Darlington’s pre-season preparations.
Today’s match at Gateshead represents the third tough game inside eight days for Quakers, who have won one of their five friendlies so far, but the manager is not interested in results at this stage.
Their first three matches saw Darlington use around 20 players per game including a number of trialists and youth team members and in the past week Gray’s side faced youth teams from Middlesbrough and Sunderland.
Both the young Black Cats and Boro defeated Darlington, and Gray said: “Everybody likes to win, but it’ll be more beneficial, now that we have a more settled squad, to work against opposition who can keep the ball and give you problems. It means you have to work really hard and be disciplined to keep your shape.
“For the majority of the last season we were in charge of games, we always had the ball. For the past two games we had to work hard to get the ball and even harder to keep it. You get more out of those games than playing against teams of lesser ability who play a rigid 4-4-2 when you’re in charge of the ball.
“You could play opposition in pre-season where you win seven or 8-0, but that would be of no benefit to the team.
“In the past two games we’ve played against some of the top kids in the North-East, lads who are full-time with far better fitness levels and are technically very good players.
“This time last pre-season we had a new bunch of lads together and it was important to get momentum going. No disrespect, we were playing teams like Northallerton Town, whereas the last two games have been against Sunderland Middlesbrough.
“In the first half on Tuesday I thought we did very well. We created chances, our possession was good, we closed down well and that’s what I’m looking to get out of it, to make sure the fitness levels keep improving as well as the understanding between the new players.”
Trialist Lee Bullock will play today while Leon Scott is in the squad having returned from holiday, one of a number of players to have missed friendlies due to being overseas, which is the reason for Stephen Thompson’s absence.
Gray added: “That’s something I’ve found so frustrating, but every manager at this level has to deal with the same problem.”
Scott played on Wednesday when a youthful Quakers XI also featuring Mark Bell won 2-0 at Norton & Stockton Ancients.
Gateshead manager Anth Smith, a former Sunderland team-mate of Gray’s, has made a number of notable signings in pre-season and overseen five wins in seven friendlies.
“Gateshead will be another good test of where we are in terms of fitness levels against a full-time squad on a big pitch,” added Gray.
“By the time that game is played it will have been a tough week with some tough tests and there’s been lots of plusses. We’ll get Gateshead out of the way on Saturday, and then we’ve got teams that are more around our level, like Whitley Bay, Blyth and Durham City, when we can think more about the kind of team we’ll be starting the season with.”
A handful of ex-Darlington players are at Gateshead, but Micky Cummins is injured (knee) while Jamie Chandler (ankle) and Joe Tait (groin) are doubtful. Liam Hatch, Rob Ramshaw and Jordan Nixon will be in the squad.
Left-back Dan Smith, the manager’s brother, has also joined the Heed having been released by Quakers during last season.
Anth Smith said: “We have had a good pre-season so far and scored plenty of goals while defending well. We want to continue in that vein for the remaining three warm-up games and it will be good to be back at the International Stadium for the first time in seven months this weekend.
“We will be fielding a strong side against Darlington and it will be good to be back on home soil again.”
Today’s match is the first at the International Stadium since midway through last season, when Gateshead had to abandon their home due to pitch problems so staged ‘home’ games at venues across the north of the country.
Tony Norman is to work part-time as Gateshead’s goalkeeping coach while he will maintain the same position with Quakers.
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