AN almost second-string Darlington side kept the club’s play-off hopes alive last night with a magnificent win that came against all the odds.
Due to a combination of injury, suspension and the impact of administration, they were without almost an entire team, meaning four teenagers were included in the squad.
That included 16-year-old Corey Barnes, a Sunderlandborn youth team player who made an impressive debut in midfield.
But it was Robin Hulbert, a fringe player most of the season, who grabbed the winner to give Darlington their first victory since going into administration and being docked ten points last week.
Manager Dave Penney was delighted, saying: “It was a great performance when you consider how many players we had missing.
“Because of the injuries, we knew it was going to be backs against the wall. We lost Franz Burgmeier and Neil Austin to injury on Saturday and Steve Foster played, even though he maybe shouldn’t have done because of injury.
“When you put out a side like that you are hoping they can gel, that they can play together.
They did that and I thought we were excellent.”
Darlington made the perfect start with Hulbert scoring after only five minutes.
Following a move up the right and a precise low delivery by Danny Carlton, he neatly finished at the far post and to celebrate the delighted midfielder raced towards the Darlington fans in the South Stand.
Quakers’ more vocal section had been moved from their usual position behind the goal due to the West Stand’s closure as a cost-cutting measure.
But they soon almost had another goal to cheer as Darlington’s commanding start continued.
Following Jason Kennedy’s ball over the top, Carlton just failed to make a clean connection.
As well as getting forward to help Carlton, who was Darlington’s lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation, Hulbert’s brief included assisting midfield team-mate Barnes.
One of the star performers in the youth team, Barnes demonstrated that he was not afraid to stamp his authority on the game with a crunching tackle on veteran Magpies striker Delroy Facey.
County hardly posed a threat during the first half with Darlington’s only cause for concern being Andy Oakes’ poor clearances – Kevin Pilkington in the opposite goal also suffered similar problems.
The keepers were not helped by a swirling wind which held the ball in the air on a bitterly cold and wet night at The Northern Echo Darlington Arena.
The conditions hardly helped the crowd size too as only 2,450 were in attendance - the third lowest league gate of the season - despite an appeal for support during the club's hour of need.
A long-range Carlton shot earned a corner from which the recalled David Poole struck a post direct from the set-piece and Kennedy then had a curling effort saved.
Darlington had been dominant throughout most of the half and came close to ending it with a second, but Pilkington punched away a 25-yard David Poole blast.
Poole was playing due to Burgmeier’s injury, one of ten on the unavailable list which included the injured Austin, Pawel Abbott, Liam Hatch, Rob Purdie and Gregg Blundell.
Suspended were Alan White and Ricky Ravenhill while the loans of Dean Gerken and Carl Tremarco have expired.
After the break Darlington kept County at bay, although Oakes would have been relived to see Jonathan Forte’s long-range effort fly inches over the bar.
It proved to be one of few efforts for either side during the second period as Darlington were not able to match their standards of the first half.
On-loan striker Carlton had one of the few opportunities but was was unable to strike the ball cleanly following a Foster flick at a Tim Ryan free-kick.
Left-winger Josh Gray entered the fray, replacing Adam Griffin, and his determination to keep the ball earned Phil Picken a booking as well as huge applause from the impressed Quakers fans.
Gray was soon join on the field by Main, meaning Darlington had three youth team products on the pitch, a proud moment for Craig Liddle and Neil Maddison who are in charge of the club's youth set-up.
As the final whistle approached Barnes left the field to a standing ovation, closely followed by the entire team at full-time as fans showed their appreciation to a patched-up team that kept the play-offs dream alive.
Goal: Hulbert (1-0, 5mins)
Bookings: Hulbert (5mins, unsporting behaviour); Tann (43, foul); Valentine (45, foul), Kennedy (50, foul); Edwards (77, foul), Picken (83, foul)
Referee: Clive Oliver (Ashington) 7
DARLINGTON (4-5-1): Oakes 6; Valentine 6, Miller 7, FOSTER 8, Ryan 8; Poole 7, Kennedy 6, Barnes 7 (Fortune 90), Hulbert 7 (Main 83), Griffin 7 (Gray 72); Carlton 8. Subs (not used): Kazimierczak, Fortune, Groves
NOTTS COUNTY (4-4-2): Pilkington 4; Picken 5, Edwards 5, Tann 4, Clapham 5; Forte 5, Noland 5 (Butcher 45mins), Thompson 6, Weston 6; Forrester 5 (Canham 78), Facey 6. Subs (not used): Strachan, Fairclough, Wedderburn
MAN OF THE MATCH: Steve Foster – The captain led by example.