After two postponements in five days, Darlington are in the midst of an enforced winter break, making it an ideal time to take stock. Deputy Sports Editor Craig Stoddart looks ahead to Quakers’ run-in

AS high as sixth just a few weeks ago, Darlington have reverted to mid-table and five points adrift of a play-off position, leaving fans wondering how their campaign will finish.

With around a third of the season to go, 13 fixtures, it is all to play for. Ample time yet to build a head of steam and reclaim a place in the upper echelons of the division, or end up ensconced in mid-table.

Put simply, Quakers are at a crossroads, with manager Alun Armstrong last week summing their situation, saying: “The season could be effectively finished in the next couple of weeks, or we could do what we want to do and that’s get into the play-offs, and this group want it.”

Impressive form in recent months, including wins in the league against York City, Spennymoor Town and Guiseley, plus some eye-catching cup results, have encouraged belief in Armstrong’s group and fans feel he is on the right track in his team building.

He has recruited well, certainly so in comparison to his predecessor. Adam Campbell is top scorer with 13, marauding left-back Michael Liddle and centre-back Alex Storey have caught the eye, as did loan striker Tyrone O’Neill, scoring seven times in 17 appearances and getting better all the time until Middlesbrough inexplicably recalled him. The striker is now wasting away in Boro’s under-23s, where he will develop no further.

Armstrong and Darren Holloway are coaching Justin Donawa to the get best out of the nine-goal flying winger, but easily the stand-out signing has been dynamic midfielder Will Hatfield. The end of season awards will be the Will Hatfield Show.

It took time for the new-look team to bed in, plus injuries hit hard in the opening weeks of the season, and better results in August would have put Darlington on a better footing now than tenth.

That said, the sixth position reached in January is not the norm, and nor was it the target last summer.

For the bulk of the campaign they have hovered between ninth and 15th, and that is fine given expectations in what is a transition season under Armstrong.

The former Blyth Spartans boss has overseen sweeping changes since replacing Tommy Wright, and, like a bricklayer surveying the damage after Storm Dennis, has repeatedly said: “This is a rebuild job.”

There is only a hint of tempering expectations in what has become his mantra. He commendably speaks with honesty, fans discovering he is not one to put spin on his comments.

Armstrong took over at a club that finished 16th last season, the remit being to rebuild the squad with one eye on season 2020-21 and “have a proper go then,” which is another of his soundbites.

So far, so good. Breaking into the play-off places in January, while exciting for the fleeting moment it lasted, was merely a brief rise above their usual standing. In fact, it was the highest Darlington had been in the National League North since August 2017 and the final Martin Gray days.

Nonetheless, top-seven is a realistic target. All clubs should show ambition, to strive for better, otherwise what would be point in playing at all?

Having not won in three games, if Darlington are to achieve a top-seven finish they need a swift upturn in results, starting with Saturday’s trek to Hereford, which is also an opportunity to buck the trend of failing to win long-distance away games.

Of the furthest venues Darlington’s best result is a draw at Kidderminster, losing at Brackley, King’s Lynn, Gloucester and Leamington (all of which make a mockery of the division supposedly being the National League North).

Those were miserable journeys home, so positive results are required at Hereford, Telford, Kettering and Boston to bolster play-off hopes. Other away games to come are at Gateshead and Southport.

But the bedrock of any successful season is always home form, where Darlington have been reasonable this season, winning nine of their 15 league games (currently the eighth best home record in the table), but they have some challenging matches ahead.

Of the six remaining Blackwell opponents, Leamington and Curzon Ashton stand out as being most winnable, with the other four being trickier.

Farsley, currently 11th, beat Quakers convincingly on the opening day of the season, while also to come are: Brackley (sixth), Altrincham (fifth) and King’s Lynn (first), though the latter could be bleary-eyed and having a title party on April 25.

By then we will know if Darlington are to edge into the top seven, as Armstrong’s Blyth did last season, finishing sixth.

Bradford PA took seventh spot in in each of the last two seasons with 63 and 65 points respectively, a not intimidating total given Quakers are currently on 43, which is more than they had at this stage last season (35) or the year before (33).

They will be involved in the play-off hunt for a good while yet, even Wright’s men had a sniff, if only nominally, a year ago until the final three or four games.

His team finished 16th, so bettering that with a top-half position in the first year of the Armstrong era would constitute relative success, a building block on which to “have a proper go” in 2020-21.