LEAGUE titles are the pinnacle, they look good on a manager’s CV and the silverware sits well in the trophy cabinet for 12 months, but promotion via the play-offs produces raw emotion like no other pursuit of glory.

Darlington can vouch for that. Twice inside four days they have enjoyed hugely significant victories, finally succeeding in the play-offs at the fifth attempt.

Having fallen short in 1996, 2000, 2008 and 2014, Quakers had grown accustomed to fearing these end-of-season mini-tournaments.

So the semi-final win over Spennymoor Town last Wednesday followed by beating Bamber Bridge 2-0 on Saturday will live long in the memory after Darlington finally emerged successfully from a play-off.

“Titles are great, but it feels better to go up through the play-offs because you have the atmosphere, the big crowd,” said defender Alan White, who was enjoying his first ever promotion at the age of 39.

“It’s harder. It’s more stressful for the fans and it’s made me lose even more hair, but it’s the best way to win promotion.

“It’s the first time I’ve won anything since a youth league when I was about 17. The closest I came before this was first time around at Darlington when we got in the play-offs in 2008, I’ve always been a middle-diddle, no promotions, so this is fantastic.”

Though Darlington would have preferred the title, they have made the most of the past week’s double-header.

Manager Martin Gray raced onto the pitch immediately after beating Spennymoor, and was again emotional on Saturday.

“For the first time in my career, after 24 or 25 years, I’ve got to a play-off final and managed to win,” said Gray, who played in the 2000 Wembley defeat to Peterborough, was assistant manager in 2008, and in charge for last year’s defeat to Ramsbottom United.

“I’m pleased that the first and second placed teams went up, which is how it should be. Number two played three in the final.

“My emotions got the better of me on Wednesday, I probably went over the top because we were only half way there. Today I want to enjoy the moment and the way I feel inside now I can’t put into words, it’s a special moment.”

The Moors match was unremitting in entertainment, while Saturday was more tense, Quakers’ players perhaps worried about making a mistake.

Brig, beaten twice by Quakers in the league this season and having finished eight points adrift, made the most of the wind being at their backs before the break but wasted chances.

Inside the first 60 seconds a Matt Lawlor shot whistled past the post, later Stuart Vasey flashed a low shot wide and a close-range save by Mark Bell, in for the suspended Peter Jameson, kept it at 0-0 when Alistair Waddecar looked nailed on to score after a mix-up in the Darlington defence.

Darlington rarely kept possession in the opposition half, though out of nowhere they almost scored, keeper Lee Dovey tipping over Nathan Cartman’s overhead kick.

From the resulting corner Terry Galbraith headed wide in front of goal when unmarked.

“Bamber Bridge started well and it took us about 20 minutes to get into the game,” admitted Gray. “Terry could’ve scored with a header, which would’ve settled us down.

“It was about winning the game. The wind was a factor, as it was on Wednesday. We couldn’t seem to get out of our half, but we knew that if we improved certain aspects in the second half we stood a chance.”

His team were invigorated at the beginning of a second half, possessing greater urgency, and soon the game exploded into life with two goals inside five minutes.

After a long throw by Gary Brown, White flicked the ball on and Cartman turned the ball home, the striker celebrating wildly.

It was his seventh goal for the club, and soon strike-partner Graeme Armstrong had his 26th of the season, heading home at close-range after another well-worked set-piece routine.

After Galbraith’s free-kick, awarded when Michael Muscat fouled Stephen Thompson on the byline, Armstrong nodded home after Cartman had headed back across goal.

Darlington now looked more assured, terrific noise emanating from the Tin Shed.

They would’ve been even louder had Cartman’s well-struck shot from outside the penalty area not hit the bar, the forward enjoying his best game for the club.

For the final 15 minutes the visitors sent on Jon Macken, a striker who once cost Manchester City £5m, but Bamber Bridge mustered little in the way of a comeback as they headed for a demoralising second successive play-off final loss.

Their season ended on a sour note, Dovey sent off after flattening Armstrong outside the penalty area in injury time, from which point Darlington knew it was in the bag.

White said: “In the last three or four minutes I saw Martin shaking hands with someone, Leon Scott had a big smile on his face, Chrissy Hunter had wandered off. I’m saying ‘hey, concentrate’, I was trying to keep everyone focused, but it was a bit futile in the circumstances!”

With fans gathered on the pitch, Darlington received a trophy from league officials, a moment which fulfilled the club’s aim to win two promotions in three years.

Next season they will be in the Evo-Stik Premier Division, the same level as Blyth and Whitby.

“It means more than the first promotion, purely because this league is so much harder,” added Gray. “We got pushed all the way. It’s a real jump up from the Northern League.

“We’ve had a first place, a second place and now another promotion. It’s been such a long hard season.

“The club means everything to me and I want to continue to build it.”

Goals: Cartman (51, 1-0), Armstrong (55, 2-0)

Bookings: Mahoney (25, foul), Muscat (55, foul)

Sending off: Dovey (90, foul)

Referee: Paul Newhouse (Peterlee) 8

Attendance: 1,876

Entertainment: PPPP

Darlington (4-4-2): Bell 7; Brown 7, White 8, Hunter 8, Galbraith; A Mitchell 7 (Watson 71), Scott 7, Portas 7, Thompson 6 (Dowson 67, 6); Armstrong 7, CARTMAN 8 (Hatch 83). Subs (not used): Watson, Weldon, Mota

Bamber Bridge (4-3-3): Dovey 5; MAHONEY 7, Lawlor 7, Muscat 6, Steel 6; Vasey 6, McKenna 7, Thompson 6 (Linney 62); Waddecar 6, Green 5 (Macken 76), Marlow 6. Subs (not used): Samberg (gk), Pickup, Alexander


NATHAN Cartman – The striker’s best game for the club so far