SO often in the past David Hodgson's appeal for support has fallen on deaf ears.

But as in-form Darlington entertain fellow high-flyers Bristol Rovers this afternoon, assistant manager Mark Proctor feels there is no better time than the present for the stay-away fans to return.

Quakers are seventh in League Two and playing some of their best football in recent years.

It's been two years and four months since Hodgson returned to Darlington for a third stint.

During that period he has steered the club clear of relegation in his first season and taken them to the brink of a play-off place the next.

Two-thirds into the current campaign and Quakers have realistic designs on the top seven.

Progress has been gradual on the pitch and in the stands too.

Since the 2,905 who watched Quakers beat Barnet 2-1 on December 28, gates at the 96.6 TFM Darlington Arena have steadily risen.

There were 4,282 to see Hodgson's men put four past Mansfield a fortnight ago.

Today Quakers expect to break 4,000 for only the seventh time this season.

"I don't think there are going to be 7,000 or 8,000 there, but I think we're slowly but surely winning the confidence of supporters," said Proctor.

"There were an extra 200-300 at our last home game and if we can get another 200 on Saturday I'm sure everyone will be delighted.

"We can't just expect people to turn out in their droves but I think we are beginning to appeal with the results we've had.

"We scored four in our last home game and the fans went home knowing they'd been entertained."

It is Quakers' impressive home form which has propelled them back into promotion contention.

Oxford United were the last visiting side to win at the Arena back in September - 11 games ago.

"Most promoted teams are built on a fantastic home record. Our home form this season has been particularly good and that's why we are where we are," said Proctor

It's also 424 minutes since Quakers conceded a goal - in the 2-1 win over Peterborough last month.

The last time they kept five consecutive clean sheets was during the 1990/91 season, when they went on to win the Division Four title.

"The lads at the back have been doing a fantastic job and it's great that they have such a good record to show," said Proctor.

"Matt (Clarke) and Shelton (Martis) have formed a very good understanding and long may that continue."

Last season Quakers were edged out of the top seven in their penultimate game at Lincoln following a nerve-jangling goalless draw at Sincil Bank.

A 3-1 win over Cheltenham on the final day was to prove academic as Northampton pipped Quakers on goal difference.

Only four goals separate Quakers from today's opponents, who lie one place below in eighth.

The visit of Rovers is the first of a crucial double-header for David Hodgson's men, who travel to the side one place above them, Peterborough, on Tuesday.

"They're all big games," said Proctor. "Whatever the result is on Saturday, we have another massive game on Tuesday.

"We're seventh and we want to remain there. Bristol are eighth on goal difference, so there is plenty at stake. If we can beat Bristol then that will put us three points clear and set us up nicely."

Hodgson will be forced to make at least one change from the side that earned a point at Boston seven days ago.

Phil Stamp is ruled out with a toe injury, meaning Jonjo Dickman should earn a recall, providing the midfielder recovers from an ankle problem in time.

Guy Bates scored for the reserves in midweek to stake his claim for a full debut. Hodgson must decide whether or not to keep faith with Akpo Sodje or hand Bates a start.

Rovers boss Paul Trollope hopes to welcome back striker Jamie Forrester after a leg injury. Former Hartlepool defender Jon Bass will start at right-back for the visitors.

"I think it will be an open game but hopefully we'll have enough about us to be sound at the back and creative enough going forward to score," said Trollope.

Hodgson last night confirmed he would not be bringing Alun Armstrong back to the club.

The 30-year-old, a free agent after leaving Rushden last month, played for Darlington reserves on Tuesday, but Hodgson said: "After further talks with Alun, we have decided not to take it any further and are pursuing other avenues."

Armstrong was this week training with League One side Doncaster Rovers.

Read more about the Quakers here.