Darlington’s promotion drive stuttered with a chastening and frustrating 2-0 defeat to Lancaster City last night.
But there were few home comforts as they suffered their first defeat in 13 matches against a well-organised and defensively sound side, managed by former Newcastle United centre-back Darren Peacock, who scored their goals at the end of each half.
Darlington were left to rue an early miss by David Dowson, whose shot beat onrushing keeper Mike Hale, but rolled wide of the post, in what was a rare lapse by a Lancaster defence that soaked up Quakers’ pressure that was non-stop in the second half.
Darlington manager Martin Gray was satisfied with his team’s display, pointing out the number of chances his team created.
“I’m not frustrated with my team at all because we dominated the game,” he said. “We had 17 corners and had a lot of chances.
“We had them pinned back, but conceded a goal a mistake by us but I can’t fault the players for that performance. If we keep putting them performances in we’ll be there or thereabouts at the end of the season.
“Lancaster had to defend because we made them, we were on the front foot. But I’m more bothered about what we did and we made them block our shots because our play was positive.”
Centre-back Neil Marshall, the visitors’ captain, had gone into the referee’s book early on for a rash challenge on Stephen Thompson, but the resulting free-kick came to nothing, while the game’s first moment of excitement came on 21 minutes when Quakers keeper Mark Bell did magnificently to push wide a Gavin Clark header.
Jordan Robinson had a goal ruled out after Alan White was penalised for pushing in the penalty area, a moment which came amidst a spell of momentum in Darlington’s favour, yet it was the visitors who took the lead after a swift break from halfway.
Robinson’s challenge on Clark in midfield was weak, leaving the Lancaster left-winger to play a quick ball into Tom Kilifin’s path and he rounded Bell to score.
Chris Hunter was unable to make a strong enough contact to prevent the ball crossing the line and Bell almost got back to clear.
The goal meant Darlington were 1-0 down at the break, though it was so close to 2-0.
Clark was first to Garry Hunter’s free-kick, conceded by White, but his close-range shot hit the woodwork.
Quakers made a real go of it after the restart, keeping play-off chasing Lancaster in their own half.
Thompson was the chief protagonist, seeing a handful of powerful shots blocked and sending a free-kick into the penalty that Hale eventually gathered after a Hunter volley had ricocheted off a couple of bodies.
Darlington were determined. Thompson broke down the right and pulled the ball back for Rob Ramshaw who had a shot blocked, and then Thompson was narrowly wide with a dipping volley.
Lancaster dealt with Darlington’s initial impetus, leading to Gray making two changes, Nathan Fisher for Dowson and Leon Scott for Robinson.
Gray’s final throw of the dice came with 15 minutes to go, an unorthodox move that saw him replace Hopson with centre-back Gary Brown, making his first appearance of the season and sent up front as Darlington switched to 4-2-4 and went more direct.
Thompson put Purewal in on goal, but the striker frustratingly hit the side-netting and then Thompson flashed the ball across goal, but nobody anticipated the pass.
For all Darlington’s endeavour during a one-sided second half, goalkeeper Hale was largely well protected by a team which blocked shots time after time.
Conversely, Quakers threw men forward, leaving themselves vulnerable at the back and the match-clinching second came on 87 minutes, Clark passing to Ryan Winder who side-footed into the net from 16 yards.
The goal instigated an exodus from Heritage Park and it was all too much for Gray, who was asked to leave the dug-out by the referee Barry Gordon for comments made in light of Rob Walker escaping what could have been a second booking for a foul when it was only 1-0.