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Super sub Johnson earns Darlington away victory
MATCH-WINNER: Striker Steven Johnson slots home in the 71st minute to give Darlington the points at Ashington
He has only started four games for the club and there's others in the squad who have scored more this season, but Steven Johnson is the man to turn to when Darlington need a goal.
Nine of his ten goals have come when he has played as a substitute and he was at it again on Saturday at Ashington, starting on the bench, but ending as the Quakers' hero.
With the game deadlocked and neither keeper being stretched, early in the second half manager Martin Gray sent on his supersub and within 20 minutes he'd bagged the only goal of the game.
"He has a knack of coming on and finding himself in the right place at the right time inside the box," said Gray, after the team's 11th successive win.
"He's done it many a time, coming off the bench and winning us points.
"He has a sense of knowing where the ball is going to drop and it was a typical forward's finish; a scruffy goal.
"He comes off the bench and gives you that extra energy at times and at this stage of the season when there's heavy legs, he is important."
Quakers' supporters quickly made the Darlington-born striker a favourite at the start of the season, since then he has largely operated as the team's 12th man.
Nineteen of his 23 appearances have been as sub and often the game's been effectively over due to the margin of victory by the time he's made his entrance.
Saturday was different though.
Quakers may have scored 14 goals in their previous three games, whereas sixth-placed Ashington had netted 13 in two games, but there was never a hint of a goal frenzy.
During what was not the most thrilling affair, chances were few with Ashington keeper Karl Dryden called into action only once before the break, saving from David Dowson.
An uneven pitch and an off day for Darlington's creative players meant obdurate opponents were able to keep it to 0-0 until midway through the second half.
That was when Johnson pounced, stabbing home from close-range after a shot by another Darlington lad, Kerry Hedley, had rebounded off the post.
Gray added: "The players have that belief in Stevie that he'll get a goal and he has that belief that he'll do something when he comes off the bench: either a penalty, create a chance or get himself a goal. He's a handful to play against.
"Stevie has been nothing but great all season.
"He has had to be patient and he's maybe not had as many starts as he'd like, but he's a great part of my squad.
"He's never once complained about not starting. He would play for this club for no money, it's as simple as that, because he's proud to play for the club and he just gets on with it.
"It's nice to have passion in your team, but if you're from the town of the team you're playing for it can make such a difference and can mean so much more to you."
It was a game that Darlington could arguably have lost five months ago.
Back in November, both Newton Aycliffe and Team Northumbria were too stubborn for Darlington to breakdown, but on Saturday they ground out a win.
Ashington assistant manager Perry Briggs summed it up, admitting his team were not threatening enough.
He said: "I thought we were pretty solid, but we didn't test them in the final third where I thought they had more quality than us.
"Their keeper didn't have to make a save, but our keeper didn't have too much to do either. At this level Steve Thompson and David Dowson will give anybody a scare."
Quakers' goal came after a counter attack, switching play from right to left before Dowson fed Hedley.
"We've been conceding some sloppy goals recently, but I thought we defended all right," added Briggs.
"We told our players to be careful about Darlington on the counter attack, but look what happened.
"Their goal came from our free-kick into the box and we got caught with the sucker punch.
"Darlington ground out a result, and that's what winning the league is all about."
Johnson's effort appeared to be pivotal in the title race until well after the final whistle had blown at Woodhorn Lane.
Because right at the death at the Brewery Field, Spennymoor Town scored a penalty to take three points against Sunderland RCA.
So the gap remains 23 points with Moors, playing again this evening, holding eight games in hand, while Quakers face Celtic Nation on Wednesday at Heritage Park (7.45pm).