ON resumption of the season, if it happens, Darlington will have nine games in which to achieve a position in the play-off.

Should they fall short, which at this point appears more than likely given they are six points adrift and 11th in the table, in no way would that represent failure in what is Alun Armstrong’s first season as the club’s manager.

A top-seven position was never the specific aim. As he said last week: “We’ve achieved what we said we wanted to do, and that’s to have a cup run to get people excited and start sniffing around the play-offs. If we can overachieve then great. Hopefully we’ve got people dreaming again of us challenging.”

Darlington threatened to challenge. Aside from a brief sojourn in sixth in January, they have generally on the periphery of the play-offs, hovering between ninth and 15th for the most part which is as an improvement on last season under Tommy Wright when Quakers spent the entirety of the campaign in the bottom half and finished 16th.

Bettering that ‘achievement’ was the bare minimum for former Blyth boss Armstrong, who has overhauled the squad, clearing the decks and generally recruiting well.

Seven of his signings are ex-Blyth players, among them left-back Michael Liddle who has been one of the team’s better performers, and winger Jarrett Rivers has had bright moments too.

Former Sunderland youngster Alex Storey has caught the eye after being plucked from Sunderland RCA in the Northern League, Bermuda international Justin Donawa has married electric pace with impressive aerial ability to score nine goals in his debut season in the UK.

But the stand-out signings have been top scorer Adam Campbell and midfield dynamo Will Hatfield.

Campbell has scored 16 goals with some eye-catching strikes among them, particularly efforts away to Altrincham and York City, but nobody in a Darlington shirt this season will better the long-range blockbuster Hatfield hit away to Kidderminster Harriers.

Both are out of contract in the summer, and there must be some concern Quakers will not hang onto them.

Less impressive was defender Josh Heaton – who left soon after returning – and before next season it would be a surprise if Armstrong was not looking for a goalkeeper to replace Chris Elliott.

Signings unable to make an impact have been David Atkinson and Jamie Holmes, both suffering long-term injuries early in the season and the same happened to Luke Trotman.

The attack-minded right-back was a major part of the team last season and as a consequence earned a call-up to the England C squad, but ruptured an Achilles tendon in the second match. At least his lengthy rehab gave him time to star on reality TV, last month finishing second on ITV2’s Love Island.

The impact of injuries sustained in the early part of the season combined with taking time to bed in a newly-assembled team meant results suffered, Darlington down in 17th after 11 matches.

In this period they won only three matches while losing to Curzon Ashton, Bradford PA and Gloucester City, results which look worse over time as all three are now in the bottom five.

A better start and one can assume Darlington would be on a better footing now, instead it will be a factor in Quakers finishing outside the top seven, and so too will their lack of firepower. They have scored 43 goals, fewer than any other in the top half of the National League North.

Had striker Tyrone O’Neill remained on loan with the club then the picture may well have been different.

He had scored seven times in 17 appearances and was getting better all the time until Jonathan Woodgate, in his wisdom, recalled him early. O’Neill was last seen wasting away in Middlesbrough under-23s, a kick in the teeth for Darlington and Armstrong who has rated the player since coaching him at Boro.

Nonetheless, Darlington have the makings of a good team. Armstrong espouses a passing game and his side has played some excellent football at times, certainly something to build on.

Highlights have included wins over promotion hopefuls Chester, York and Spennymoor Town, the latter seeing Stephen Thompson score a landmark goal in a 2-1 victory at Blackwell Meadows on Boxing Day.

It was the club legend’s 100th goal for Quakers, a match-winning penalty hit with as much power as he could muster and rammed home at the Tin Shed end – the perfect scenario – and drew him level with all-time top scorer Alan Walsh.

Thompson turns 31 next month and has been on the bench more this season than in any other since joining in 2012, so faces a fight to become a fixture again in the starting XI.

Those three wins against Chester, York and Spennymoor came in December when Darlington put together a good run of form, and then won at Guiseley in January to go sixth, but Quakers are also capable of having a bad day too.

There was a 5-1 loss at Brackley, a 3-0 midweek defeat at Leamington when it looked like the team did not want to be there, a 3-2 defeat to Telford despite leading 2-0 at half-time, plus back-to-back 3-0 losses to Chester and Guiseley when Quakers were a long second best.

Left-back Michael Liddle recently admitted: “There’ve been games when we’ve not played well and over the season that has been our downfall - we’ve had games where if we’ve not been at it then we’ve really not been at it. But those games are untypical of the team because when we’re good we’re really good.”

Darlington were certainly really good in the FA Cup. Finally. Having previously repeatedly failed to have any joy, for the first time in 30 years (thirty) fans enjoyed three wins in a single season in the competition - at Trafford, Leamington and Tamworth - the latter seeing on-loan Liam Connell pull off a penalty save.

He was at fault for a goal when Darlington went to Walsall in the first round – the first time at that stage as a fan-owned club – but Quakers earned a replay thanks to Joe Wheatley’s memorable equaliser deep into stoppage time.

It was only his third goal for the club in three seasons, a tap in after an Osagi Bascome free-kick, and it provided one of the highlights of recent years as 1,229 fans went berserk behind the goal.

Darlington lost the replay, but made a bit of much-needed cash due it being televised on BT, plus prize money from the cup run to tick another box on the ‘to do’ list that Armstrong drew up when he got the job last May.

He has laid the foundations in 2019-20 by doing better than Darlington did last year, the ambition now must be to improve again in 2020-21.

HITS AND MISSES

BEST GAME

THE 1-0 win at York City stands out as being Darlington’s best game of 2019-20. The first 45 minutes were outstanding, meriting a scoreline way higher than 1-0 which came after Adam Campbell opened the scoring with a fine curling strike that dipped into Peter Jameson’s top right corner.

It was the only goal as Darlington won away to a team who were then second in the table.

BEST GOAL

ALL four of Will Hatfield’s goals for Darlington have come in away games, none more special than the one at Kidderminster Harriers in February.

Jarrett Rivers fed him possession, the midfielder took advantage of the space afford him in a central position and whack, he thunderously struck the ball high into the net from 30 yards.

It deserved to win the game, but just four minutes later Quakers conceded an equaliser. Sadly, only 161 Darlington supporters were in attendance to see Hatfield’s howitzer.

HIT OF THE SEASON

WITHOUT Adam Campbell’s goals Darlington would be in a pickle, 16 times he has hit the net, but undoubtedly the player of the season has been Will Hatfield.

Leeds-based and formerly with York City and Guiseley, the Yorkshire terrier has provided an energy and bite that was sorely lacking last season and immediately has become a fans’ favourite.

MISS OF THE SEASON

THE literal miss of the season would be Kidderminster’s Ed Williams clumsily missing an open goal ten yards in the game Hatfield scored his aforementioned screamer, but from a Darlington point of view the attendances have been disappointing.

Alun Armstrong’s team is clearly a step up in entertainment value, but the average gate of 1,471 represents only a slight increase on the 1,367 who watched the omnishambles under Tommy Wright.