ONE step forward, two steps back. Just when Darlington look to be turning a corner and hauling themselves towards mid-table security in National League North, their frailties return to check their momentum.

Cruise past Kidderminster at the start of the year, fail to see off Alfreton and lose to Spennymoor. Secure a morale-boosting win over Blyth, fail to score in successive home games against Southport and Brackley. The only consistent thing about the Quakers at the moment is their chronically inconsistent record.

Last night’s 2-0 defeat to Brackley, which came courtesy of a first-half own goal from Will Smith and a close-range finish from substitute Daniel Nti, summed up recent frustrations. Darlington were far from outclassed, hitting the crossbar through Jordan Nicholson and seeing what should have been a stonewall first-half penalty turned down, but Brackley were always that bit too streetwise and strong for them.

With a nine-point gap separating them from the relegation zone, Tommy Wright’s side should not go down. But last night’s crowd of 916 – comfortably Darlington’s lowest home league gate of the season – was alarming, and could be a sign of things to come if interest continues to peter out in the remaining 11 matches. Disinterest is potentially even more worrying than the drop.

There was not a great deal to enthuse the diehards last night, with the changes of personnel that were forced on Wright in the wake of Saturday’s injuries not really working.

That said, however, Darlington fared reasonably well early on, with Tom Elliott pulling the strings at the heart of midfield and Alex Henshall causing problems down the left. Initially, at least, the hosts’ neat passing interplay enabling them to patiently build a series of attacks.

Carving out clear-cut chances proved something of a problem, although they should unquestionably have been awarded an 11th-minute penalty when Brackley full-back Ellis Myles completely misjudged the flight of a cross from Luke Trotman, allowing the ball to bounce up and strike his arm. Nothing was given, with referee Adam Herczeg following the officiating lead that was set at the weekend.

Trotman’s overlapping runs down the right were a feature of Darlington’s attacking play all night, and having surged past his opponent to break into the area shortly before the quarter-hour mark, his driven cross-cum-shot was hacked off the line by Gareth Dean.

A breakthrough felt imminent at that stage, but the Quakers’ early momentum fizzled out, partly through an increased degree of sloppiness, and partly thanks to an improved showing from the Brackley midfield, with Shane Byrne wresting control with his box-to-box running.

Darlington went into last night’s game having kept four clean sheets in their previous six matches, but Brackley’s aerial threat caused them problems, and the home goal led something of a charmed life on two separate occasions before the interval.

Gareth Dean was the visiting player found wanting in both incidents, heading wide midway through the first half after Matt Lowe’s deflected cross looped invitingly towards him before planting another header against the crossbar when he should really have scored from six yards out.

That was a let off, but Darlington would not survive again when their backline was placed under more pressure on the stroke of half-time.

Byrne drilled a fiercely-hit free-kick into the area, and in attempting to deal with the danger, Smith only succeeded in glancing a header into the roof of his own net. Jonny Maddison, unsighted behind him, had no chance of keeping the ball out.

Darlington needed a spark to get them going again, and it almost came courtesy of their skipper, Stephen Thompson, at the start of the second half. An impeccable piece of chest control enabled Thompson to turn neatly 25 yards out, but his driven shot whistled the wrong side of the post.

Having been unable to pass their way through the Brackley defence in the first half, the Quakers became more direct in the second period. A fair proportion of their long balls went astray, but they were occasionally able to turn their opponents’ defence and they came within inches of drawing level just before the hour mark.

Nicholson broke purposefully into the left side of the area, and his angled strike was acrobatically tipped onto the crossbar by Brackley goalkeeper Danny Lewis.

Ten minutes later, and the woodwork was rattling at the other end, with visiting forward Shaun Jeffers displaying a touch of impudence as he turned neatly on the edge of the area before lofting a chip over Maddison, who had left his line. The ball looped over the stranded Darlington goalkeeper, but dropped onto the crossbar rather than finding the net.

Brackley merited a second goal, and it arrived with 11 minutes left. Carl Baker headed a long ball across the face of goal, and unmarked substitute Nti was left with the simple task of tapping home.

Darlington (4-4-2): Maddison; Trotman, Smith, Hughes, O’Hanlon; Henshall (Kneeshaw 62), Elliott, Wheatley (Palmer 87), Nicholson; Thompson, Ainge (Saunders 62).

Subs (not used): Glover, Kokolo.

Brackley (4-4-2): Lewis; Myles, Hall, Dean, Walker; Lowe (Sterling-James 88), Byrne, Fairlamb, Walker; Jeffers (Nti 70), Baker.

Subs (not used): Armson, Murombedizi, Jackson.