EIGHT years ago Steve Claridge broke the heart of 14-year-old Sam Russell, along with thousands of other Middlesbrough supporters when he scored an extra-time winner to clinch League Cup glory for Leicester City.

And on Saturday he was at it again, scoring past the young goalkeeper in the first half for Wycombe.

But unlike the 1997 League Cup Final, this time, Russell was able to perform his own revenge act, producing an astounding save later in the game to deny the journeyman striker what appeared a certain goal.

With less than quarter-of-an-hour to go the 22-year-old dived full-length to his left, stretching out an arm to somehow prevent Claridge from scoring a powerful downward header that appeared a certain goal.

Claridge was left dumbstruck, hands on hips and shaking his head in disbelief.

Russell has been man of the match on several occasions this season, producing eye-catching saves that are becoming the norm and this latest stop was up there with the best of them.

Russell could do little about Claridge's first half goal - Ian Stonebridge's shot had already beaten the keeper and had bounced back to the striker off the bar, leaving the 38-year-old the task of heading into an empty net - but he admitted gaining some personal pleasure in denying the man who caused so much pain on Teesside in April 1997.

"One thing I didn't want to do was let Claridge score," said Russell.

"So when I looked up and saw the ball bounce back off the bar I couldn't believe it was him that was going to score.

"I got a text from my old man before the game saying 'good luck and whatever you do don't let Claridge score, remember 1997?' But how could I forget?

"I was at Wembley for the first game and at Hillsborough for the replay, I was gutted. I suppose I've got a bit of revenge with that save.

"It didn't have a great deal of pace on it so I just managed to get my hand to it but I think I've made better saves than that.

"I was very happy with it though, Claridge said well done and he gave me a pat on the back so fair play to him."

The save may been nothing out of the ordinary for Russell but manager David Hodgson had demanded an improvement in the commitment of his players who performed so woefully seven days earlier.

An average Notts County had beaten Quakers 2-1 and although the various formations Darlington have used had come under fire, Hodgson put the focus on "desire and commitment" - key words in his team-talk.

And the team certainly responded as Darlington produced a performance unrecognisable from the home defeat seven days before.

"It was a 100 per cent improvement on last week," said Hodgson.

"Football wise there was an improvement but formations count for nothing if players don't show any desire or commitment. But there was a vast improvement on that front."

Not that it would've been difficult to improve on the dire showing against Notts County, but it was imperative that Darlington demonstrated they could bounce back from defeat, especially as Quakers have tough fixtures over the next few weeks.

Third-top Swansea City visit tomorrow - weather permitting - and Hodgson hopes to have a young striker on loan from a Premiership club in the ranks in time, if only to provide another body because a virus disrupted his plans.

It ruled out Neil Maddison and Ryan Valentine, Matt Clarke played despite feeling under the weather while Curtis Fleming and Steven Thomas were on the bench even though they weren't 100 per cent, according to Hodgson.

Mark Convery made his first start since September and despite having to make do with reserve team football over recent months he looked sharp and, with Craig Hignett struggling with form and fitness, he provided Hodgson with another option.

Convery almost scored from distance but his 19th minute effort went over the bar in a game in which both sides created chances, the first being volleyed wide by Wycombe's Roger Johnson after only 120 seconds.

Darlington's goal came just after the half hour mark and although it arrived from a training ground set-piece, its execution was certainly a one-off.

Bobby Petta's free-kick was flicked on by Clarke to Clyde Wijnhard who somehow managed to head it backwards from 15 yards past the goalkeeper.

Perhaps the goal stunned Quakers more than it did Wycombe because Darlington's defence was caught napping just two minutes later, allowing Stonbridge to capitalise on a long ball to chip Russell from 18 yards. Although his effort bounced back off the bar, Claridge was unmarked and was able to head into the empty net.

Before half-time each team had opportunities for the lead. Alun Armstrong spurned one of his seven shots at goal when he fired directly at the keeper from a good position while Johnson escaped David McGurk's attentions only to head over from close-range.

Armstrong continued to get in good positions but a goal just would not come. A flick towards goal was blocked and a header went wide following good work by Petta but Wycombe had their chances too.

Petta's Dutch pal, Gus Uhlenbeek, looked dangerous on the right flank and it was from one of his crosses that Claridge looked a dead cert to score with a downward header, only to see Russell palm away spectacularly.

Not settling for a point, Darlington kept searching for a winner and Neil Wainwright's best moment came when he sprinted clear up the right but his precise cross was powered over by the luckless Armstrong who also had an appeal for a penalty turned down with five minutes remaining.

Wycombe's Stuart Nethercott appeared to block a shot with his hands and in similar circumstances Sheffield United won a penalty against Arsenal on Saturday, but a Quakers win would have been unfair on Wycombe.

Following the Notts County game, almost as important as the point was Darlington's performance and Hodgson said: "We've got to show the same level if commitment against Swansea on Tuesday so that the fans haven't got the opportunity of booing like they did last week, certainly not at half-time."

Wycombe Wanderers 1 Darlington 1.

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