CLOSE, but not quite close enough. If that proves to be the summary of Darlington’s season come its conclusion then Saturday typified their campaign.

They have been on the fringes of play-off contention for the most part, and remain seven points adrift of the top seven.

It is a not insurmountable but ambitious gap with 11 games to go, though one which really should be smaller after a weekend in which they almost beat Brackley Town.

Almost, that is. The team with the best defence in the league left Blackwell Meadows pleased with a point, which speaks volumes for the balance of play.

Darlington showed more attacking intent, did not give Brackley much of a sniff at goal and held the lead for a lengthy spell after Adam Campbell’s penalty just before half-time.

Nonetheless, the point and the display against a team in play-off contention all season is encouraging for the remainder of this season and beyond.

The display reinforced Alun Armstrong’s belief in his players and he has challenged them to remain unbeaten for the remainder of the campaign.

He said: “The first half was probably one of the most composed and controlled performances we’ve had all season.

“The lads are absolutely gutted because they know they did enough to win the game, they’re fuming with themselves.

“I’m delighted with the lads as a group, I’m just disappointed for them and the fans with not getting the points.

“We’ve played a top team here and we’re just as good as them. It’s fine margins – if Justin had scored his chance it’s 2-0, a few seconds later, a ricochet and it’s 1-1.

“It’s up to me to keep them going, and I’ve said to them after the game, ‘can you go unbeaten for the rest of the season?’ There’s no reason why we can’t, we’ve played Brackley who are a good side, they’ve got the best defence in the league.”

Neither defence ceded much territory, particularly in the first half when Darlington’s most dangerous player was Jarrett Rivers, one run and shot bringing a good save out of Danny Lewis.

It was one of the few occasions either goalkeeper was seriously tested, Darlington unable to break down a team who have conceded just 21 times in 31 games.

Goal 21 came after Rivers was tripped to earn Quakers a spot-kick, Campbell converting for his 14th goal of the season.

Darlington did not build on the lead, however, but did miss a good chance for 2-0, Campbell flighting a cross to the far post where Justin Donawa, usually a threat in the air, headed downwards and into the goalkeeper’s hands.

Quakers soon rued that miss.

Brackley’s Matt Lowe made a good run, after a tackle the ball fell kindly to substitute Simeon Maye and he hammered home for 1-1.

In injury time Darlington had a strong penalty shout for handball, one ignored by referee Richard Aspinall, and it is now five matches without a win for Darlington, the last three being draws.

“The positive is it’s three unbeaten and looking at the performance overall we were in full control of that game,” added Armstrong. “Chris Elliott didn’t have a save to make and they score from a ricochet.

“I think we were in a comfortable position, we didn’t look under pressure, they didn’t look like they were going to score and then the goal came from nothing.

“We tried to clear, it hits one of our own players and it ricochets to their player, and last week, their kid went to cross it and the ball went in the top corner. You accept good goals, but little ones like that are horrible.”

Stephen Thompson and Sean Reid were both used as substitutes, an indication of Darlington’s depth now.

“I was looking at the bench thinking how do I get these lads on,” said the manager.

“There’s no reason why this group can’t stay unbeaten when you look at the strength of the squad. I had Thommo, Gaz Martin and Sean Reid on the bench, Terry Galbraith was not in the 16, Omar Holness came in and did brilliantly.

“If you look and compare it to the start of the season, that’s a good squad and I want to add to it in the summer and hopefully we can push forward next season.”

Armstrong hopes Tyrone O’Neill will rejoin soon. The Middlesbrough striker made an impact when on loan to Quakers before being recalled early by Jonathan Woodgate, and he was at Blackwell Meadows on Saturday.