TWO wins in a row have changed the complexion of Darlington’s play-off prospects.
They are now only three points off second-placed Salford City after a weekend in which all of the teams above them failed to a win.
As a consequence, Quakers’ 1-0 success against Brackley Town hoists them up two places to fifth ahead of a week in which they could enhance their top-five position.
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There is a programme of games in midweek, Darlington at home on Wednesday to 18th-placed Bradford Park Avenue.
“It’s always been our target to get into the play-offs and we’ve given ourselves a great chance,” said manager Martin Gray.
“We’ve had two 1-0 wins in a row, that’s really important, that solidness that we’ve been seeking for a long time. We have looked solid in the last two games.
“This game is done now, it’s nothing to get carried away about, on to the next one now.”
By Wednesday captain Kevin Burgess may be fit enough to return to the team, the defender having failed a fitness test on Saturday that meant Quakers went into the contest without both first-choice centre-backs as Gary Brown began a two-match suspension.
Nonetheless, Chris Hunter and Terry Galbraith stepped into the breach and did not let anyone down, Darlington hardly giving Brackley a sniff and completing back-to-back wins for the first time since October.
After beating Stalybridge 1-0 last week, it is the first time Darlington have kept clean sheets in successive matches since April last year, when they built up a head of steam during their title run-in.
Having put together four unbeaten games for the first time in five months, the signs are promising.
“The lads that came into the team did fantastically,” said Gray, who recalled Galbraith as well as Liam Marrs due to Hunter moving into the middle of defence. “It’s about the squad and over the course of the season everyone has to play their part.
“Our goalkeeper did not have an awful lot to do, we were organised and limited their chances throughout the 90 minutes. That was encouraging, certainly when you bring lads into the team and you get a clean sheet.
“Clean sheets are what it’s about. If you can do that you’re always going to take something from the game.
“We’ve now had two clean sheets back-to-back and it’s a long time since we’ve done that. We’ve got to have that same focus come Wednesday.”
Bradford Park Avenue will not have to endure the 8.30am start and 200-mile trip that Brackley had, which perhaps had an impact on their underwhelming display.
The Northamptonshire team came into the game having taken points at each of the top-six sides and boasting the fewest away defeats in the division, but Darlington were on top throughout.
They were unable to make the most of their superior possession before the break, however, Dave Syers’ disallowed effort for a push on the keeper being the closest Darlington came to breaking the deadlock.
Brackley wasted a glorious opportunity in the closing stage of the half. After a cross-field ball from their right, striker Jordan Hempenstall headed ball into Matt Lowe’s path, but he mishit the volley.
Nine minutes after the restart, Stephen Thompson was much more deadly with an emphatic blast from an acute angle to make it 1-0.
It came after a Terry Galbraith corner caused confusion in the Brackley box, Mark Beck laid the ball off to Thompson, who appeared too close to the byline to consider shooting, but the pace and accuracy of his rising effort beat goalkeeper Laurie Walker.
Gray said: “He has lots of power, he hits the target and the pace of the ball beats the keeper. It was great technique.”
It put Thompson on eight goals for the seasons and he looked set for his ninth soon afterwards when Josh Falkingham pulled wide and delivered a low ball towards Thompson, but Jordan Gough had anticipated it and cut out the cross.
There was little in the way of danger at either end for the remainder of the match, Quakers closing out the game without issue.
The only moment of alarm came when Brackley’s Glenn Walker clashed heads with a team-mate, leading to a lengthy stoppage, after which he left the field meaning his team finished with ten men having already used all of their substitutes.
“We played with our brains and towards the end of the game we saw the match out,” added Gray.
“Brackley were down to ten men but how we kept the ball, how we kept it in the corners, was good. I knew they were really good on their travels. But they set off at 8.30 this morning and we’ve done that long journey ourselves. We went down there and ground a result out, but we should’ve won.
“It probably wasn’t the best performance they’ve had on their travels but you’ve still got to beat them and we were strong today.
“We were hard to beat and it was a great performance.”