LIKE some of the runners in yesterday’s London Marathon, Darlington accelerated to the finishing line at a sprint then collapsed after collecting their medals.

The promotion race already won, Quakers had nothing left in the tank at Rushall Olympic on Saturday, losing 1-0, and who can blame them?

It took a superhuman effort to break the tape ahead of Blyth Spartans, winning 14 of their previous 15 matches since March 1.

Nine of their games came in the final 22 days of the campaign, Saturday’s being their fourth in seven days.

In running terms, they hit the wall.

Less than 48 hours after clinching the Northern Premier League title at Whitby Town with the club’s best performance in years – winning 7-1, 5-0 up after 20 minutes – an exhausted Darlington ended their promotion-winning campaign with a whimper in Walsall.

Played on a bone-hard pitch at Dales Lane which prohibited good play and with little at stake for either team, a dreadful match ensued.

It was a pity, but did not matter a great deal.

Given recent exertions supporters could excuse them – a third promotion in four seasons is what matters most, while last Thursday’s remarkable fixture is the one which shall be remembered fondly for years to come.

“Today was about coming here and getting through it without any injuries or suspensions,” said manager Martin Gray. “The most important thing to do was to win at Whitby and we did that.

“We’ve had a fantastic season, and we did the job on Thursday, and the week before and the week before.

“Everything seemed to stack up against us at times due to postponements, but the players stayed professional in their approach, they got the results and it’s the proudest I’ve ever been as a manager.

“The players’ focus and dedication has been nothing less than we asked of them.

“We’re worthy champions, believe me. These players have been through a lot, everybody wanted to beat them from day one.”

Reminded that Darlington would have set a record for the highest points total in the Northern Premier League had they not lost, Gray said: “Records are nice, but they don’t mean as much as championships.”

With 104 points Quakers share the record with Burton Albion, while Halifax Town remain top scorers on 108, two ahead of Darlington.

It was the first time Gray’s team had not scored in 16 games, but no doubt Darlington’s display would have been different had the title race not been resolved.

“Coming here today, we would have loved to get the record, of course, but it was just beyond us,” admitted defender Gary Brown.

“If the title had been at stake it would’ve been different. Don’t get me wrong, there was no lack of effort, we were flying into tackles and chasing balls down, but we just ran out of steam.

“After 60 minutes my body just shut down. We’ve been running on adrenalin for the last few weeks.”

Brown played alongside Alan White, the solitary change from Thursday, with Gray’s options limited due to players suspended or considered not fit enough for a game of little consequence.

Chris Hunter, Kevin Burgess, Phil Turnbull, Adam Nowakowski and Liam Hardy were sidelined, but every squad member, as well as club officials and volunteers, were on the pitch beforehand for a group photo.

It was Gray’s idea, always one to promote the values of a team ethic, eager to encourage a collaborative approach.

Rushall formed a guard of honour, a nice touch, but it was one of the few moments of applause during a dull afternoon amid a subdued atmosphere.

It was nothing like the promotion party at Whitby. Fans turned up in droves to congratulate the champions, around 500 of the 709 attendants backing the visitors, but they had little to cheer.

Aside from a tame shot by Kris Taylor, the former Darlington midfielder, neither team saw sight of goal until the Pics broke the deadlock on 36 minutes after a corner.

It was won when confusion between Peter Jameson and Brown led to the latter chesting a back-pass out of play, and from the restart Gavin Caines headed home.

Darlington had a bit more life in them at the beginning of the second half.

Stephen Thompson had a close-range effort saved, Nathan Cartman was off-target with the follow-up, Terry Galbraith dragged a long-range strike wide and substitute Amar Purewal blazed over from a good position.

That was as good as it got for the title winners, their season fizzling out meekly.

It could be worse, however. At least they do not have the play-offs to prepare for.

Instead, the champions can relax while Salford, Ashton, Workington and Blyth battle it out to join them in the National League North.