ONE point off the top of the table with ten games gone, Darlington are positioned quite nicely in this early stage of the season and Martin Gray is looking up.

His is an optimistic view of the season so far, choosing to focus on positives instead of the problems that cost Quakers in recent weeks.

The team’s defence attracted criticism when losing back-to-back games against Hyde United this month, the six goals conceded combined leading Gray to overhaul the defence for Monday’s trip to Ilkeston.

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Three of the four back four positions changed with Alan White reverting to centre-back, Chris Hunter switching to right-back and Terry Galbraith recalled to left-back ahead of Ian Watson.

Quakers still conceded another goal, following an early penalty due to a Leon Scott foul, but they drew 1-1 to go top of the table, and although overtaken 24 hours later by Nanwich Town Gray is feeling upbeat.

“The bigger picture is that we’re a newly promoted team and we went top of the league after ten matches,” said the manager, whose team head to bottom-of-the-table Ramsbottom United today.

“We’ve had a reasonably good start to the season and we’re at the right end of the table, so let’s take all the positives of what we’ve done this season.

“We’ve come an awful long way, but there’s still a long way to go. We’re in the mix and it’s great to be near the top of the table because it’s a strong league with some good teams.

“You’ve got to go to places like Ilkeston and grind out results and the character of the players, bearing in mind we had Chris Hunter sent off, was outstanding.”

Once Hunter was dismissed four minutes into the second half, Darlington adopted a defence-first strategy to secure a point against Ilkeston, who are 19th in the table and now winless in seven league and cup fixtures.

They created more scoring chances in the first half, giving Quakers a tough test typical of the step up in standard they have encountered since winning promotion at the end of last season, and Gray expects Ramsbottom to be similarly tricky today.

He said: “Anybody can beat anybody in this league and it’s about consistency now.

“If you look at Salford against Whitby the other night, it was 2-2 until the last few minutes and I’ve spoken to people who were there and everyone said it should’ve been a draw.

“Salford were good first half, Whitby were better in the second half, but Salford pinched the game at the end.

“The teams that are most consistent between now and Christmas will be the ones that are around the top of the table by the end.

“We’ve got to make sure we stay focused on every game and make sure we pick the right team and the right formation for each game.”

Today’s game, brought forward from January as each club has been knocked out of the FA Cup, comes less than three weeks since Darlington defeated Ramsbottom 2-1.

“It wasn’t an easy game at all, I think they’re in a false position as a club,” said Gray.

“They’ve had a lot of changes this year, but they’ve got players can win games.

“It’s another away game and it’s nice to get these longer trips out of the way early on. We’ve got three away games in a row with Skelmersdale next week, and I don’t mind as hopefully it means we’re playing these games while the pitches are decent.”

Graeme Armstrong is available today after overcoming illness, while Lewis Gibbons is in the squad having recovered from a back problem, but Adam Nowakowski remains sidelined.

Ryan Brobbel has been on trial at a club in Scotland and is not available today.

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