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Quakers relegated as they squander lead
Disgruntled and despondent Darlington supporters trooped out of the Arena on Saturday wondering what they and their battered club have done to deserve such continued punishment.
The song choice at full-time after after throwing away a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 with Bath City summed up the mood perfectly.
"What have I done to deserve this" - a Pet Shop Boys track - reverberated around the almost empty stadium as supporters contemplated the latest body blow to a club still on life support.
A second relegation in three seasons, combined with a second bout of administration inside four years, has made for a traumatic period which has almost killed the club.
There is no guarantee it will survive into next season, nor is there certainty which division it will be playing in should the supporters' company, Darlington 1883, succeed in taking over.
Those matters will be resolved in the coming weeks, but for now the situation is that Darlington have slid into sixth tier of English football for the first time.
The drop into the Conference North has felt almost inevitable for weeks and the final push came in the cruellest manner as Quakers crumbled in embarrassing fashion.
They had to win all their remaining four matches to retain slim survival hopes, but they managed to lose a two-goal lead in the final minutes as Bath salvaged a point.
"My hope was that we would not be relegated in front of our own supporters. It was meant to be here," said manager Craig Liddle.
"At 2-0 up with nine minutes to play, you should win the game so I'm disappointed that it happened in front of our own fans.
"It's sickening, I feel physically sick, but we'll come back stronger for it."
Haydn Hollis gave Darlington the lead on 34 minutes, turning and shooting past keeper Glyn Garner from close range after receiving an Adam Rundle pass.
The goal was a just reward for a side that improved as a largely abject first half wore on, although the lack of quality was no surprise given the game was played between the teams 22nd and 24th in the division.
The second half was similarly uneventful with neither keeper seriously tested for lengthy spells. But again it was Darlington, without being dominant, who looked more likely to score.
Good work up the left between Rundle and John McReady led to Neil Wainwright pulling the ball back for Drewe Broughton, but the lumbering striker saw his scuffed attempt deflected wide.
Ryan Bowman wasted a superb chance when his aim was too close to Garner when played through one-on-one with a perfectly-weighted McReady pass, but what appeared to be a match-clinching second goal came on 81 minutes from Rundle.
It was a classy finish too, a volley from inside the penalty area after meeting a cross by teenage winger Danny Lambert giving Darlington a two-goal lead with less than ten minutes to play.
But there was still enough time for bottom-of-the-table Bath to score twice, condemning Quakers to relegation with one of those draws that feels like a defeat.
Alex Russell lobbed Pickford from 25 yards when the ball fell kindly to him, and in the 89th minute came the coup de grace.
Just when Quakers were on the verge of restoring some pride after 17 winless matches, Scott Murray ran at the home defence, cut inside from the left and unleashed a low shot that bounced past the keeper.
"It sums everything up from late December. We were 2-0 up and should've gone 3-0 up because we had really good chances to kill the game off," said Liddle.
"As soon as they pulled one back I was nervous and I suspect the players will have been as well.
"The alarm bells started and the panic set in.
"No matter what level you're playing at them alarm bells ring in situations like that. When the first goal goes in you're waiting for the second one.
"After what we've gone through you come to expect that kick in the teeth."
That Murray appeared to relish relegating Darlington compounded Quakers' misery.
He celebrated his goal by running across with the width of the pitch to goad some home supporters.
It was a wholly unnecessary response that, provoked or otherwise, was not the sort of behaviour expected of a 37-year-old who should have known better.
Liddle added: "He had a point with somebody in the crowd I think. I don't know what it was, or who it was.
"He's an experienced player and he's scored an excellent goal.
"I've done silly things when I've scored goals and I think he'll be a little bit embarrassed when he gets back on the team bus, but I think he was just delighted to get his goal."
Three minutes of injury time saw supporters urging Darlington forward for one last hurrah, but the damage had been done.
That relegation rivals Newport and AFC Telford both failed to win added to Quakers' misery. Had Murray not scored Darlington's slim survival hopes would have remained intact.
Instead, there are now three meaningless matches to play, starting with a trip to Newport tomorrow.
Although conformation of Darlington's relegation came on Saturday, the drop into the Conference North had been coming for some time.
The moment last December that former chairman Raj Singh sank the club into administration condemned Quakers to a relegation scrap, one which they rarely looked like winning.
A failure to pay players' wages instigated an exodus that saw key players depart, but a small number stayed with the sinking ship and Liddle was keen to pay tribute.
He said: "The lads who've stood by this club, I'm really proud of them because the easy option would've been to walk away.
"The Paul Arnisons, Aaron Browns etc stood by the club like I have, so I'll always hold them in high regard.
"I'm proud and privileged to have worked with those boys because they have given everything from day one.
"It hasn't been enough to keep us up, but when speaking to the media I always said it was going to need a miracle.
"You can't rebuild mid-season, go through all the trauma we've been though and expect to come out of it smiling. It was always going to be a big ask.
"We have been relegated, but I think we knew it was inevitable. We've been relying on kids and people who have come out of retirement.
"The ones who've been here from day one, as well as the ones that have come in, have got my full respect because nobody really wanted to touch this place with a barge pole.
"The amount of phone calls I made to try and get people here was incredible.
"We're all disappointed and there'll be a few people pointing the finger of blame, that's natural, but I'm not going to do that.
"I feel sick that I've taken us down, but I don't think there's much more that between us we could've done."
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