NOW ninth after winning five of their last six league games and with an almost fully fit squad available, Darlington go into 2020 with far brighter prospects than they did 2019.

Game 24 of last season was a 4-0 humiliation at York City that left Quakers concerned about relegation.

Game 24 this year was a 2-1 win against Gloucester City on Saturday, and even manager Alun Armstrong has finally admitted that the play-offs are a possibility.

He remains adamant this is a transition season, a period during which to put some foundations in place after two ruinous years, yet his team are now only a point off seventh and firmly in the reckoning.

“The play-offs have never been our target, but I have brought players in that are good enough to get us there,” admitted Armstrong.

“We’ve played almost everyone in this league now and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be up there.

“We’ve dropped ten points in the first part of the season, so if we can avoid doing that in the second half of the season then happy days.”

Right now, whether Darlington reach the play-offs is almost immaterial. That Armstrong and his assistant Darren Holloway, after inheriting the remains of the Tommy Wright era, have given supporters something to believe in, a team worth watching, and been able to mould a competitive side is a triumph.

They were almost starting from scratch and an overhaul was required. Like working on a classic car that had been mistreated, a new engine was needed so they turned to Will Hatfield, a man already assured to be Darlington’s player of the year.

His energy in midfield, the driving runs, breaking up play and canny knack of winning free-kicks – all qualities Quakers lacked last season - make him hugely important and a fans’ favourite.

Scoring goals is not his forte, however, but new signing Sean Reid has brought with him a goal threat and on Saturday scored his second goal in his fifth appearance, giving Quakers an early lead.

He tapped in after the recalled Jarrett Rivers dribbled beyond a handful of defenders and played the ball across goal, giving Darlington the lead in a half they controlled but did not score the goals their possession merited.

The failing has been an issue this season, perhaps one new loan signing Gary Martin can help resolve.

The striker was unable to play on Saturday – issues with paperwork the explanation – so Adam Campbell maintained his 100 per cent starting record and midway through the half scored his tenth goal of the season, a penalty after Reid was tripped.

“We had patches in the first half when they couldn’t live with us, the intensity and the football was good, we just didn’t score enough because it should’ve been four or 5-0 and done and dusted,” said Armstrong, who watched his team play passively for too long in the second 45 minutes.

“In the first 45 we were playing in their half of the pitch. Second half, the game was played from one 18-yard box to the other because we dropped off too deep and it left Cams literally by himself.”

It has become a recurring theme, Darlington doing their best work in the first half before allowing standards to drop in the second 45 minutes.

It happened last week away to both Blyth Spartans and Spennymoor Town, winning one and losing the other, the best example being the capitulation to Telford United, the November day when Darlington lost 3-2 at home despite leading 2-0.

So there were understandable were concerns when Gloucester pulled a goal back on the hour after a contentiously awarded corner, Zack Kotwica scoring close-range after goalkeeper Liam Connell had fumbled.

“The referee knew he had made a mistake,” said Armstrong. “The linesman flagged for a Gloucester handball so it should’ve been a free-kick to us, but the referee played on, they get a corner that they score from.

“But we needed to be better than that in the second half. It’s a mental issue with the lads, a bit of nervousness kicks in at the minute and I’ve got to find out why.”

Fans were understandably anxious, there were moans and groans, and during one break in play a concerned supporters spoke for everyone when bellowed across the pitch: “Come on Darlo, step it up!”

Darlington listened and Armstrong acted, sending on substitute Terry Galbraith and switching to five at the back, enough to snuff out Gloucester, something he now admits he should have done on New Year’s Day at Spennymoor.

He said: “I look at myself – you do, you analyse your own decisions – and should I have gone into a back five and taken a point?

“I don’t like settling for a point. But in hindsight you look at things and I could have put Jordan Watson on, soaked things up and got a draw, so I take a bit of the responsibility on that one, but I want to win every game that’s the problem!”

Darlington hope for another ‘problem’ on Wednesday at home to Solihull Moors in the FA Trophy.