FROM relegation candidates to mid-table mediocrity, it’s been quite a turnaround for Darlington.

They are now at the heady heights of 14th, close to halfway, a lofty position in comparison to where they were not much longer than three weeks ago.

Quakers were cloaked in doom and gloom and understandably so as Tommy Wright had won just one of his first 12 games as manager, Darlington dipping into the relegation zone and seemingly into a miserable fight against the drop.

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Yet they are now unbeaten in five matches for the first time in 11 months, Saturday’s 1-0 win at Bradford Park Avenue making it three victories in a row and continuing the rediscovered feel-good factor.

Continuity and confidence have been key.

A relatively settled team has been selected, and it has brought about a string of good results, the last two both coming with clean sheets.

“The lads are playing without fear,” said Wright. “I haven’t been talking about relegation, it’s something I’ve tried to stay well clear of.

“I didn’t think we would get relegated and I still don’t. We’re not safe, but we’re winning games of football.

“The lads can see the league table, they can see that we’re starting to pull away and it’s up to us now.”

Dave Syers got the only goal on Saturday, his strike coming in the second half which closed with Quakers having to grind out the result as they went down to ten men late on when Stephen Thompson was dismissed, showing a resilience lacking until a month or so ago.

Wright added: “The mentality the lads had before was a panic situation. It was ‘we’ve got to keep a clean sheet because if we don’t we won’t win’.

“Now they’ve discovered they’re an attacking force and have got goals in them. I think they’re going into games and not overthinking things.

“So they’re not making the mistakes that they were because they’re a little bit more relaxed now.

“The ball isn’t a hot potato anymore. The lads were playing little triangles on the edge of the 18-yard box in the first half today, which is heart attack football for me! I’ve got to be careful with what I’ve created because I want them to play more football and it does look easy on the eye, but every now and again they’ll get caught out.”

There are 12 games to go yet, a lot of points to play for, and most of the clubs below Darlington have games in hand.

This weekend Wright’s men have arguably the toughest of their 12 remaining fixtures – away to third-placed Brackley, who have not lost at home since last March.

Yet Darlington will fancy their chances anywhere right now, having defeated the occupants of seventh position two weeks in a row.

Last week it was Blyth Spartans, beaten 3-0 at Blackwell Meadows, a scoreline illustrative of the performance, while Saturday was a closer contest, particularly a largely uneventful first half when neither team had a shot on target.

Darlington upped the tempo as the half ended, but an acrobatic Reece Styche effort went wrong and then the lively Thompson pulled the ball back, only for Styche took a poor touch and the chance was gone.

“For 20 minutes we didn’t test the goalkeeper,” said Wright. “All of a sudden one free-kick from Phil Turnbull switched play, sparked us into a life a little bit, Thommo got in behind them.

“I said before the game that their back four is slow and they play high, and that we needed to stretch them, but we failed to do that for 20 minutes until we got a bit of joy and it opened the game up.”

Darlington started the second half much better, Thompson again making headway down the right, and while his low ball across was not seized on, soon he teed up Syers to score.

It was route one stuff. Aynsley Pears’ punt was headed on by Syers, who then dashed into the penalty area to receive Thompson’s return pass from the byline to score his sixth goal of the season.

The contest became much more open with far more goalmouth incident.

Terry Galbraith made a crucial clearance just as Gianluca Havern was about to attempt a volley, and it was soon almost 2-0; Luke Trotman crossed to the far post where Josh Gillies, in for the injured James Caton, headed back across, but Bradford cleared before Syers could pounce.

Bradford’s first shot on target did not come until midway through the second half, Jamie Spencer side-footing an effort that Pears collected comfortably, before the goalkeeper showed smart reflexes to turn over Havern’s goal-bound effort.

Bradford cranked up the pressure, and Darlington certainly felt the heat when Thompson saw red in the 86th minute for two bookings.

Having been incorrectly booked for a foul a couple of minutes earlier, referee David Underwood then cautioned Thompson for simulation having made the most of Spencer’s half-hearted challenge, a yellow card the correct decision this time.

Wright explained: “Fair play to the referee because he has apologised to Thommo for the first booking, when he probably shouldn’t have booked him. Ultimately, if he feels Thommo has tried to cheat him then he has to apply the letter of the law and give him that second yellow.

“No complaints, it just means that Thommo is going to have a weekend off.”

That will be at Brackley, where Darlington go to full of confidence, though they would have been deflated by now had former Quaker Adam Nowakowski not wasted a glorious chance in nervy added time, getting a header all wrong when unmarked – a little luck going Darlington’s way this time, which may not have been the case a few weeks ago.

A top-half place is not out of the question, and such a finish would be quite an achievement given the team’s form from September to December.

“The lads are in a good place at the minute,” added Wright. “The atmosphere in the changing room is superb.

“We’re trying to get a settled team. The ones on the bench or on the sidelines have got a real fight on their hands to get in. It means the ones on the sidelines are keeping the starting XI on their toes. The boys are being challenged to keep their shirts.”