IT was in the wake of a humiliating 5-0 defeat to Rochdale back in October that managerless Darlington slumped to their lowest ebb of the season.

The acrimonious departure of fans' favourite David Hodgson, combined with Darlington's heaviest defeat of the season, led to angry scenes in the stands as supporters vented their frustration towards the club's board and, in particular, chief executive Jon Sotnick.

The defeat led chairman George Houghton to holding a post-match crisis meeting with several players to determine the extent of Darlington's problems.

Winger Martin Smith was one of the players present and he last night recalled the defeat was "one of the lowest points" of his career.

It wasn't just the result, but also the pathetic manner of Quakers' capitulation in front of their home fans.

The defeat did little to champion Martin Gray's cause to succeed Hodgson in the Quakers hotseat in his first game in caretaker charge alongside Neil Maddison.

And, perhaps inevitably given his inexperience in management, Gray made way for the arrival of former Doncaster Rovers boss Dave Penney.

The appointment of Penney, and the continued financial support he has received to rebuild the team, has gone some considerable way to the board winning over disgruntled fans.

Quakers are still very much in transition under Penney, yet, despite the continued overhaul in playing personnel, a play-off place is by no means out of the equation.

Smith will be one of the few players who played in the Rochdale debacle five months ago to start this afternoon and he admitted "The Rochdale game has to be one of the lowest points of my career.

"Looking back, I think we were a team just waiting to be beaten.

"Things weren't going right at the club, the supporters turned against Jon Sotnick and we also had Craig James sent off after about ten minutes.

"The chairman pulled a few of us in afterwards and asked us what had gone wrong and we all said that has to be the lowest that the club gets and it stops there.

"It was a big turning point and after that we kicked on.

"Since then, a new manager has come in, the squad has changed and things are a lot more positive now."

Despite ruthlessly beating Darlington, Dale have failed to live up to Smith's expectations.

Immediately after their emphatic win at the 96.6TFM Darlington Arena, Rochdale failed to record a single victory in their next nine games, culminating in the sacking of Steve Parkin after a 1-0 defeat at Hartlepool on December 15.

"The way they played up here I thought they were going to go up as champions," admitted the former Sunderland winger.

"It was frightening that night but that is what happens in this division.

"If you pick up a couple of injuries you can quite easily get turned over."

However, under caretaker boss Keith Hill, Rochdale have eased their relegation worries and go into this afternoon's clash at Spotland on the back of a six-match unbeaten run.

"They are one of the form teams, they have had a change of manager and it's done the trick," said Penney.

"The caretaker manager will want to keep winning games so he gets the job. It's going to be a tough place to go."

Penney knows anything less than a win could prove extremely damaging to Darlington's play-off prospects.

Despite extending their unbeaten run to 11 games against Walsall last weekend, Wycombe's win over Macclesfield, leaves Darlington with four points to make up on a play-off place.

The Quakers boss was able to take great heart from the draw with second-placed Walsall in a game they were unfortunate not to win.

"It was a good performance, but it would have been even better if we'd managed to get a goal," said Penney.

Penney will include Scott Wiseman in his squad today after signing the defender from Hull City on Thursday.

The 21-year-old right-sided player has joined Quakers on loan for the remainder of the season.

Wiseman could start at right-back in place of David Rowson, who has been preferred to Brian Close in the last two games.

With Lee Jones sidelined with a groin problem, Sam Russell will continue in goal.

Rochdale will hand a start to former Quakers winger Adam Rundle, who scored in Dale's 4-2 win over Accrington last weekend.