MINUTES after the full-time whistle had blown on Darlington’s final pre-season friendly, Alun Armstrong’s players are going through various stretches while sat in the middle of the sodden Blackwell Meadows pitch, the supporters have already left the ground and a handful of chirpy ball boys are leaving too.

Enthused by having just watched Quakers beat Middlesbrough’s under-23s 3-0, they’re predicting promotion as they file past Armstrong on the touchline.

“No man! Next year, next year!” The genial Geordie’s accent is as broad as ever, 25 years after leaving Newcastle United, as he quells the youngsters’ enthusiasm.

It has almost become a mantra since he was appointed manager in May, a mission to dampen enthusiasm slightly, to gently remind people that this a rebuilding job.

He has certainly rebuilt the squad, bringing in 13 new players – six from his previous club Blyth Spartans – to a club that finished 16th last season and then parted ways with manager Tommy Wright.

“I want to be in the top half, it needs to be an improvement on last year,” admitted Armstrong.

“It’s a tough league and some of these club are really going for it, and there’s some quality players in this league.

“The top half is nearly as strong as teams in the league above – anyone who goes up would survive quite comfortably.

“It’s going to be a tough season. This is a rebuild job, and next season I want to have a good go.

“We’ve got to stick together. There’s going to be times when things don’t go right, we know that. We’ll lose games and we won’t always play well, but we’ve got to stick together, look at the long-term picture and make sure that we get there.”

There are those who will expect more of Darlington, who believe sights should be set higher, particularly after bearing in mind some of the signings made: Louis Laing, Will Hatfield, Jarrett Rivers and Jamie Holmes all look to be astute additions.

Yet, plenty of observers had lofty ambitions 12 months ago before a dreadful campaign followed. With that experience in mind, being cautiously optimistic might describe the mood this time around.

Armstrong said: “Nothing has changed from when I came into the club and I’ve told the chairman this and everyone else: mid-table is the reality.

“These lads are all new to the club. They’ve probably gelled a bit quicker than I thought they would’ve done, but that’s because they’re good footballers.

“But I’m wary of the physicality aspect, and if we brought in a big No. 9, which would be different to what I’ve got, to mix it up then I’d be saying lets have a push.

“But we’ve got to be realistic, we’ve got a new squad, a good blend of players here, we’ll play exciting football, but this is just the start.”

Exciting football has been present throughout pre-season, particularly in the aforementioned win over Middlesbrough.

Armstrong encourages his players to use their imagination, to play with freedom, with instinct.

“There’s been little bits of improvement in every game. You can see messages from training are getting through,” he says.

“The movement when Jarrett and Jamie are coming inside, that’s the creativity I’m looking for, I don’t want lads to be rigid and easy to mark. As they come in and combine like that it causes all kinds of problems.

“They all know where each other is meant to be, so if someone comes inside someone else has to go outside, and that has been getting better and better.

“When they’ve got the ball they’ve got freedom to express themselves, it’s about natural ability and it’s not for me to ever stop that.

“I love it when players run at defenders, that’s what gets bums on seats, that’s why people come to watch football.”