TYRONE O’NEILL’s surprise exit has reopened the door to Darlington’s team for Stephen Thompson and manager Alun Armstrong thinks the forward could be a secret weapon at Walsall.

Thompson has been on the bench in recent weeks after sustaining a muscle injury, and in the meantime Quakers put together a run of seven unbeaten matches.

Six of those were successive wins, with Walsall conducting their spying missions at recent matches when Armstrong’s front-three were O’Neill, Jarrett Rivers and Adam Campell.

However, injury-hit Middlesbrough sprung a surprise by recalling 20-year-old O’Neill to bolster their ranks for Saturday’s trip to QPR, but Armstrong has no worries about recalling Quakers’ longest-serving player.

“The replacement is Thommo and it’s not a bad one!” said the manager ahead of this weekend’s first-round tie.

“The flip side of Ty going is that I’ve got someone there with 98 goals for the club.

“If Boro had recalled Tyrone a month ago when Thommo wasn’t fit that would’ve been a much worse scenario, because we would not have reached this stage of the competition.

“They’ll not have seen Thommo play as he’s not started for a good month and I thought he was red hot when he came on against Hereford and looked back to his old self.”

Although frustrated to lose O’Neill, a player who scored seven times in Quakers colours, he has no qualms with Middlesbrough activating a release clause in the player’s loan.

“They’ve got massive injury problems, we had them at the start of the season, it happens and you’ve got to do what’s best for your football club,” said Darlington’s manager.

“I would imagine we would’ve done the same, any club would, but the timing is absolutely awful. January I would’ve accepted, this month is a right kick in the balls.

“Of course we’re gutted, but we cannot point the finger at blame at Boro - he’s their player and they already did us a favour by letting us have him in the first place.

“This is the main reason I don’t like loans. Loans are not the way forward if you want to progress, they’re a quick fix.”

Quakers can take consolation in knowing they have again proven their value to Middlesbrough, which, despite Armstrong's reservations about temporary transfers, can only help their cause next time they’re looking to recruit a player on loan.

Goalkeeper Aynsley Pears made his league debut for Boro recently 18 months after a loan spell with Quakers, while Armstrong has a track record for helping developing talent.

He said: “I worked with my son Luke at Blyth and he’s at Salford now, Dan Maguire as well and he got a move to full-time football at York.

“What we do as a management team has worked with the forwards, other clubs might take notice of that and it should bode well for us.”

On O’Neill's sudden elevation to Jonathan Woodgate’s first-team ranks, Armstrong added: “It’s great for lad, I’m chuffed to bits for the kid. We’ve seen how much he’s come on since he’s been working with us, he fits into how we play and we let him express himself.

“I’ve known the lad since he was 13 and even though he’s skinny I knew he was ruthless and nasty and would mix it in this league no problem. To see his development has been great.

“Is he ready for the Championship? That’s the next question. I hope he grasps the opportunity and I hope he hasn’t gone back just to sit on the bench.

“Tyrone did ever so well and I’m really pleased for him but massively disappointed for us. He was part of the jigsaw and made the team click.

“It’s not just about Tyrone, it’s about how the team has been playing, but what a player Thommo is to bring in.”