9:00am Saturday 25th January 2014
By Craig Stoddart
Darlington return to Heritage Park today knowing they must keep their winning run going if they are to keep pace with their fellow promotion-setters.
Having won nine of their last ten games, Quakers face mid-table opposition in Cammell Laird and another victory is required to maintain optimism of finishing top of the table.
League leaders Curzon Ashton are favourites to claim the one automatic promotion place available as they are two points clear of second-placed Warrington with two games in hand.
Martin Gray's men sit in the play-off zone six points behind the table-toppers, though, because of their current good run, remain hopeful of catching a Curzon team who must play both Warrington and Farsley twice, as well as travel to the North-East on February 8.
In the meantime, Quakers can concentrate only on their own fixtures, with today's opposition the club against whom their run of seven successive away wins began in November.
Goals by Nathan Fisher and Terry Galbraith gave them a 2-0 win in Liverpool and the core of the team has remained the same, with Gray having apparently discovered a winning formula.
Eight of the current starting XI have played in at least seven of the last ten league matches, and with Leon Scott serving the last game of a three-match ban, today's team will be unchanged.
Goalkeeper Mark Bell missed the first two games of the ten-match run as he was overcoming a calf injury, a problem which he has only recently fully overcome.
"I missed six weeks," said Bell. "It was a muscle injury, it was the first time I've had one for a couple of years, so it's not something that happens often. I tried to play on - it was a time when Craig Turns had just left - but in the end I had to tell Martin that I couldn't play. But Pete Jameson did well when he came in and he was unfortunate to lose his place to be honest."
Bell wanted to play at Cammell Laird, and he added: "I was speaking to Tony Norman - he's top notch, by the way - and it was him that made the decision for me not to play because he noticed my face when I was doing the fitness test.
"Even though I wanted to play, he could tell I wasn't right.
"Even my first game back after injury wasn't great. I'd only had one training session before the game, so it's only now, after training hard, that I feel I'm getting back to my best.
"It's taken a while to get going again, even though when I play I don't do much running!"
The six-week absence delayed Bell reaching his half-century of Darlington appearances.
Today's game will be his 45th league match for the club and he will be hoping for a 26th clean sheet in Quakers colours.
The former West Auckland No. 1 said Quakers' chief scout Harry Dunn had a role in his development as a goalkeeper.
He said: "I used to be really quiet. I liked a bit of a chirp on with referees, but it wasn't until I went to Blyth in the Conference North with Harry Dunn, when he was manager, when that changed.
"I was a young kid coming out of the Northern League and I used to travel with him, so I used to talk to him all the time and he'd say 'the more you make the defence do, the less you have to do'.
"So that's the way I look at it now, the more I make them do, the less I have to do. That's why I'm so loud on the pitch, because I make them do all the work!
"It's just a case of keeping them on their toes. It's quite easy for them to turn their back and not know there is a player over their shoulder unless I tell them. I'm at the end of the pitch and can see the whole picture."
Bell was brought in midway through last season and immediately became a mainstay in the side that won the Northern League title, keeping 15 clean sheets in 22 appearances.
Although only 31 and a veteran of several non-league clubs, Bell says Quakers will be his last club - and this could be his final season.
"I'll keep on playing until the day comes when Martin says 'we're going to bring someone else in'. I'll shake his hand and say thank you for the experience," said Bell.
"Come the end of the season, I'll wait and see what Martin's thoughts are and if he wants me to stay I'm more than happy to. This will be my last club; once I'm finished there'll be no more. I'm not going back into the Northern League.
"I'm 31, but I'm coaching part-time now as well as my full-time job and playing for Darlington. The coaching is where I'm heading once I've finished playing. I'm not knocking the Northern League, there's some good clubs there, but Darlington will be my last club."
*Darlington are asking supporters to help today's game get the go-ahead.
Due to rain this week, the Heritage Park pitch requires forking and volunteers are asked to attend the ground from 9am.
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