Final Score: Darlington 0 Curzon Ashton 4
Darlington suffered a chastening defeat to Curzon Ashton who effectively sealed automatic promotion with a 4-0 win at a wind-swept Heritage Park.
The heaviest defeat since the club dropped into the Northern League means Quakers are now 12 points behind leaders Curzon, who have a game in hand and completed the double over Darlington.
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Quakers were second-best against a strong team that has lost only twice this season, though Darlington’s cause was not assisted by Jordan Robinson suffering an early injury while three of the visitors’ goals came after mistakes.
A combination of the strong wind and individual errors is what manager Martin Gray blamed the result on.
He said: “The wind was a massive factor in the first half, you couldn’t get any football or any momentum going, “They scored three goals from our mistakes in the second half, it wasn’t though their good play. Three howlers. That’s not us, but if you make mistakes like that in any game you will get punished.
Darlington's David Dowson battles with Curzon's Jonathan Hunt. Pictures: Chris Booth
“The wind killed the game and three mistakes cost us.”
As on Saturday at Northwich, Darlington started with a 4-4-2 formation, though after only eight minutes a substitution was needed when Robinson limped off.
He was replaced by debutant Lewis Wing, signed last week from Seaham, a tall and slim midfielder who looked like a contender to be blown off his feet as the blustery wind made for farcical conditions.
Neither team was able to settle with Curzon’s through-balls bouncing out of play for goal kicks while Mark Bell’s clearances were not even reaching the centre-circle.
One goal kick performed a u-turn in midair and spun out for a throw near the corner flag.
It was not just the conditions that caused havoc, as a mistake by referee Paul Keogh led to Curzon opening the scoring.
Alan White, who returned after suspension, made a strong challenge, yet Keogh awarded a free-kick which saw Sam Walker loft a curling cross to the near post.
Darlington’s static defence did not read it and in nipped Warburton to head home his 22nd goal of the season.
Darlington's Terry Galbraith take's on Curzon's Jordan Wright, left, and Simon Woodford, right
Though Quakers almost levelled seconds later when David Dowson was presented with a great chance, but poked his shot wide with only the keeper to beat.
“You’ve got to take your chances in big games, that’s the difference,” said Gray. “Dows had the best chance of the first half in my opinion and he didn’t take it.
“They had a free-kick, which shouldn’t have been a free-kick, and scored from it.”
Towards the end of a half in which little football had been played, the conditions almost worked in Darlington’s favour when Jonny Davis blasted a ball forward which held up in the wind to allow Amar Purewal to take a touch in front of goal, but he allowed the impressive Jonathan Hunt to challenge.
Two goals early in the second half killed the game off, however, with Warburton adding his second on 53 minutes.
He outpaced Gary Brown, playing at right-back in place of the unavailable Stephen Harrison, and rounded Bell to slot home and three minutes later White slipped and in nipped Ryan Brooke to fire past Quakers’ keeper.
Curzon's Matthew Warburton scores in the first half
The quick-fire goals stunned Darlington. They had been hoping the wind being at their back after the break, would be in their favour, but they were unable to react.
Joe Tait tried to gee up his team-mates, shouting: “Come on, it’s not over yet.” It was though, with the remainder of the game being a non-event.
Played in a flat atmosphere, some fans left midway through a half in which the visitors’ strong defence contained Quakers – they’ve now not conceded in six matches.
Davis took the ball off Thompson’s toe and his wild shot ended closer to the corner flag than Kakan Burton in the Curzon goal, and Watson appeared to hold Purewal in the penalty area, but there was little conviction in the appeal.
A Galbraith long-range free-kick was drilled narrowly over the bar, but in the final minute Bell made a hash of passing to a defender and substitute Mark Bett won possession and fired into an empty net to complete Darlington’s misery.
“It’s Curzon’s title now, 100 per cent,” added Gray. “The league is theirs and I can’t see them not winning it.
“We’ve got eight games to go, hopefully ten, and we’ve got to get everybody back fit in time for the play-offs.”
“We’ve got to forget about tonight, our job now is to go and win the play-offs.”
Referring to the criticism Curzon boss John Flanagan aimed at Thompson at the weekend, Gray added: “Fair play to Curzon. They’re very well organised and well-drilled. I would never speak badly about an opposition team, as their manager did about my player."