7:00am Thursday 1st May 2014
By Scott Wilson
IT'S quite some drop to go from Wembley to Whitley Bay in the space of two seasons. So having survived it reasonably unscathed, it has to be hoped that Darlington can put up with having to face the likes of Warrington for another 12 months with similar stoicism.
This wasn't part of the recovery plan, with last night's 2-0 defeat to Ramsbottom having consigned the Quakers to a second successive season in the First Division of the Evo-Stik League, but having become past masters at shrugging off disappointment and setbacks, the club's supporters will surely not throw in the towel now.
After all, they've already overcome the heartbreak of being demoted five divisions, not to mention the negative impact of being uprooted from their home-town to ground-share 13 miles away. If you can come through that, another obstacle on the road to recovery need not prove terminal.
Speak to fans who have been regular attendees at Heritage Park, and they will extol the merits of the non-league game, not to mention the satisfaction that can be drawn from watching a team comprised largely of young players, winning more often that not. That will still be there next season, and there should also be the added bonus of a return to Darlington as the football club moves into Blackwell Meadows to become lodgers with the rugby side.
Yet the momentum that has sustained the club to this point is not infinite, and as former fans of the likes of Scarborough and Maidstone can attest, it is not a given that previously successful teams bounce back when they are asked to rebuild from scratch.
Last year's Northern League title represented the first rung on the ladder back to the Football League, but four-fifths of the job is still to be completed. And every step is generally more difficult than the last.
For most of the season, Darlington have looked more than capable of claiming one of the two promotion places on offer, but when their fate was in the balance last night, they were unable to see off a Ramsbottom side who finished ten points below them in the table.
Their job was hardly helped by a truly wretched refereeing performance from Kevin Mulraine, who bottled what should have been a straightforward decision in the very first minute when Ramsbottom full-back Owen Roberts hurled himself into a reckless challenge that resulted in Leon Scott leaving the ground on a stretcher.
Regardless of the fact that only 16 seconds had passed, it had to be a straight red card. Mulraine only issued a yellow, and immediately saw his authority disappear.
Yet for all that Darlington can justifiably claim to have been let down by the official, they were also out-muscled too often by a set of opponents whose rugged, committed approach proved decisive.
Darlington played the better football when they had possession, but if you're going to get out of a league like this, at times you have to be brutal. And Ramsbottom did brutal rather more effectively than their opponents.
Perhaps that is something for Martin Gray to reflect on as he looks to rebuild for next season, but as he comes to terms with an increasingly fractious night that ultimately saw him consigned to the stands as his fury boiled over, he can still take some satisfaction from what has been achieved in the last two seasons.
In the likes of Stephen Thompson, whose 49th-minute dismissal for diving effectively killed off any hope of a second-half revival last night, and David Dowson, whose low first-half strike was probably Quakers' best hope of a goal, Darlington boast two of the best players operating at this level of the game.
The hope, despite last night's defeat, is that they will not be playing in the First Division of the Evo-Stik League for much longer. The ambition of a return to former glories continues to burn brightly. And let's be honest, it wouldn't be Darlington if things went smoothly to plan.
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