DARLINGTON'S relegation was confirmed today in a cruel fashion at The Northern Echo Arena.
Anything other than a win would have consigned Quakers to the drop from the Conference, and they were on course for victory when they took a 2-0 lead against Bath City.
But bottom-of-the-table Bath grabbed two late goals to salvage a draw, leaving Craig Liddle’s side ten points from safety with three games to go.
He struck a glum figure after Scott Murray grabbed an 89th minute leveller, and the interim manager said afterwards that the manner of the game summed up the club’s season.
Their situation has looked bleak for the past few months and with the winless run continuing, many observers came to expect relegation.
But with struggling Newport to play on Tuesday and the season ending at home to already-relegated Kettering on April 28, there remained the tiniest glimmer of optimism.
Haydn Hollis bolstered lingering hopes when he put Darlington ahead on 34 minutes.
The centre-back found himself in the penalty area after going forward for an Arron Brown free-kick. It was not cleared, Adam Rundle played the ball back into the penalty area where Hollis, on loan
from Notts County, took a touch before turning and shooting past Glyn Garner.
That was one of the few notable moments during a moderate first half lacking in incident.
That there was so little quality on show was no surprise given that the game was between the teams positioned 22nd and 24th in the Conference.
But Darlington had clearly been the better side, improving as the half wore on against the part-time opposition.
The second half was similar, though neither keeper seriously tested for lengthy spells, but what appeared to be a match-clinching second goal came on 81 minutes.
It was a smart strike too, Adam Rundle volleying home from inside the penalty area after meeting a cross by teenage winger Danny Lambert.
Lambert had just come on as substitute, replacing Neil Wainwright who was carrying a calf strain as was Paul Arnison who returned to the side at
The two-goal cushion meant victory looked assured and, with relegation rivals Newport and AFC Telford unable to win, the fight against the drop looked likely to continue.
But within two minutes of Rundle’s goal, Bath pulled one back through Alex Russell.
The ball fell kindly to him outside the penalty area and he connected well with a lob that drifted over Jordan Pickford’s head.
The goal rocked Darlington and invigorated Bath who sensed blood and they got it in the dying minutes.
Murray dribbled towards the back-peddling defence, cut inside from the left and delivered a low strike beyond Pickford to salvage a draw and sink Darlington.
That Murray celebrated the goal by running across with the width of the pitch to goad some home supporters appeared wholly unnecessary, and hardly the conduct expected of an experienced player.
But his reaction was not among Darlington’s major concerns on a sad day for the football club as they dropped into the Conference North for the first time.
Relegation has appeared the likely destination almost since the club entered administration in December, but that has not made it easier to take.
There remains three games to play and the next opportunity to end the winless run, which now stands at 18 matches, comes on Tuesday at Newport.
Goals: Hollis (34, 1-0), Rundle (81, 2-0); Russell (83, 2-1); Murray (89, 2-2)
Bookings: Broughton (69, foul), Keltie (85, foul)
Referee: Scott Duncan (Newcastle)
Darlington (4-4-2): Pickford; Brown, Arnison, Hollis, Ferguson; Wainwright (Lambert 76), McReady, Keltie, Rundle; Broughton, Bowman. Subs (not used): Nixon (gk), Barton
Bath City (4-4-2): Garner, Jones, Rollo (Stonehouse 66), Preece, Gallinagh, Russell, Canham, Cook (Murray 46), Connolly, Hogg, Watkins. Subs (not used): Simpson, Egan, Canham