West Auckland Town 1 Darlington 1
Having waited three years to return to the FA Cup, it would’ve been a damn shame to exit the competition after only 90 minutes.
So although Quakers were disappointed not to overcome West Auckland at the first attempt, Darlington should be content to remain in the competition with another stab at their Northern League opposition to come.
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The teams will settle their preliminary round tie at Heritage Park on Wednesday, though Quakers would have secured a home game in the next round versus Blyth Spartans were it not for poor finishing.
Graeme Armstrong recorded a hat-trick of near misses: two close-range headers either side of the break went wide and, with goalkeeper Dan Lowson stranded, he also saw a six-yard shot blocked on the line by right-back Neil Pattinson.
Fair play to Pattinson for getting back to cover for his AWOL goalkeeper, last seen being beaten to the ball outside the penalty area by Adam Mitchell, but that was a howler by Armstrong.
It was not for the first time this season Quakers were lacking in front of goal, and manager Martin Gray revealed he is signing a striker today, believed to be Ryan Noble from Gateshead while Garry Guyan is also joining, a defender most recently with Queensland Lions in Australia.
“You don’t want it to become an issue, but in the same way that we ask our defenders to keep clean sheets, we also ask our strikers to score goals,” he said. “That’s what they are paid for.
“The chances that we missed were not half chances, they were ones you’d expect to score to ensure the game was put to bed before half-time. We needed to be more clinical.”
Pattinson’s goal-line clearance prevented an equaliser, West by that stage having got the tenure of new manager Anth Smith off to a promising start by taking the lead on ten minutes.
Holding off Chris Hunter in the penalty area, striker Dennis Knight collected Lewis Galpin’s looping ball from the left, turned and fired low past Peter Jameson.
Gray added: “The pitch made it difficult, but we created chances and the game should’ve been over by half-time.
“They took the lead against the run of play. It was a well-taken goal, but I was disappointed with our defending.”
Darlington bossed the remainder of the half while West were ordinary, but Armstrong’s misses coupled with Stephen Thompson hitting the post was the closest Quakers came to scoring.
It was not until the 49th minute that they levelled, Mitchell tapping home after David Dowson’s effort, following a long Thompson pass, had rebounded off an upright.
Having got the goal their play merited, Darlington slackened off.
The tempo dropped and once Armstrong and Dowson were replaced by Liam Hatch and Nathan Fisher Quakers’ attack was blunt.
The hosts defeated three Evo-Stik sides in the FA Cup last season, including Whitby Town.
Gray added: “West Auckland had a good shape, they worked hard and they kept at it. They made things difficult and it became too open in the second half.
“We were the better team, as we expected to be, but didn’t make the most of our chances.
“We didn’t test the keeper enough. We didn’t get to the byline, we didn’t put the ball in the box enough, but we should’ve won.”
It was West who looked the more likely to score in the last half hour, though Jameson was not seriously tested.
He was beaten by Pattinson with a 12-yard effort, but Brown was on hand to clear off the line.
Not that Gray was impressed.
“He should’ve defended properly, that way he wouldn’t have had to do it [the goal-line clearance],” said the nonplussed manager, who was serving the first of a six-game touchline ban, incurred during the play-off semi-final in May and is his third such ban.
“The defending in that situation wasn’t good enough. He’d made a mistake, but due to his endeavour he got himself back into position.”
Gray added: “We fought back and a draw was the least we deserved. If we’d left here after a defeat we’d have been very down, but we’re still in the Cup and looking forward to Wednesday.”
For West, a draw represented a solid start for Smith and assistant David Rush, who have known Gray and Quakers assistant Brian Atkinson since their Sunderland days.
“We needed to go in front, something to chew on,” said Smith. “I told Martin that I’ll put the lottery on tonight because they hit the bar and post a few times!
“We rode our luck, but we haven’t had much time with these players and the big thing for me is that you can’t buy that kind of work-rate.”
He added: “We turned up with a team in mind, but four lads were injured so we had to make changes.
“Taking that into consideration, it was a good result.”