DEFLATED and defeated, Darlington’s FA Cup run is over, battered by Bristol Rovers 6-0.

They had done admirably to reach the second round for the first time as a fan-owned club and there is no shame in being outclassed by a full-time team. But the harsh scoreline does not tell the full story.

The signs were promising when Quakers were the better team for the first half an hour, not looking in trouble and a few times threatening to open the scoring.

But then Alun Armstrong’s side crumbled, the pivotal moment being conceding the first goal after a defensive lapse.

From nowhere, Bristol Rovers took the lead and then rattled in a further three in a little over 15 minutes to lead 4-0 at half-time, Darlington demolished and their dreams of a plumb third-round tie evaporating.

Armstrong said: “I’m really disappointed. It was always going to be a big ask. We were all dreaming, we’d done it once and we were hoping to do it again. It’s the performance that disappoints me, we never reached the levels we’ve been playing at, and that’s the biggest disappointment for me.

“We created the better chances in the first half an hour, and then there was one mistake. They weren’t playing through us, it was one long ball over the top, no communication and it’s ended up costing us a goal. At this level you cannot do that.

“It gave them a massive lift, it hit us negatively, we weren’t as sharp as we had been, we lost our discipline and shape a bit and you get punished if you do that.”

A couple of times Nicky Hunt took the ball off James Daly’s toes as Darlington dealt with Rovers’ early possession, the League One club keeping the ball but unable to penetrate a Quakers team that showed five changes from the side beaten in midweek. Hunt, Will Hatfield, Jarrett Rivers, Luke Charman and Tony McMahon all came into the starting XI.

Playing against League One opposition, the three-division gap meant it was always going to be a tough ask, though beating Swindon Town at the last stage instilled belief.

Successfully winning four ties to reach the second round had excited fans and players alike, and belief grew when Darlington had two early opportunities with Rivers creating both.

His ball across the penalty area from the left was just behind Charman, and then after a corner was cleared Rivers’ cross to the far post saw David Atkinson muscled away from the ball.

A loose pass by Joe Wheatley played Hatfield into trouble, but Wheatley soon rectified the problem of his own making by snapping into a tackle and winning back the ball, typical of the desire required. It was a moment reminiscent of Darlington’s drive to succeed in last year’s epic tie at Walsall, a team two divisions higher, when Armstrong’s men took a grip on the game from an early stage.

Yesterday’s brief was tougher, but there was little between the teams early on, the League One strugglers looking no better than their National League North visitors, who played some good stuff and carved open opportunities.

Wheatley dragged a shot wide from 20 yards after a fine passing move, and Campbell cut inside from the left with his rising shot easily dealt with by Finnish goalkeeper Anssi Jaakola.

With almost half an hour gone Darlington had looked more likely to score, but then contrived to go 1-0 down to a soft goal.

A simple long-pass from the back by Rovers towards the centre of Darlington’s defence was not dealt with, communication an issue as David Atkinson’s header beat indecisive goalkeeper Johnny Saltmer and in nipped James Daly to tap in.

It was schoolboy stuff. Quakers may have been the better team until this stage, but that first strike changed the complexion of the encounter and before half-time Rovers rattled in another three goals.

It was 2-0 when Josh Hare finished after receiving a pass on the right from Luke McCormick, and the third was a penalty conceded by Atkinson.

He knocked down Daly, referee Brett Huxtable correct in his decision, with Luke Leahy converting from the spot, and it was 4-0 and game over by the break. Erhun Oztumer exchanged passes with Sam Nicholson on the edge of the penalty area before beating Saltmer.

Rovers, who gave a first start to Ben Liddle - son of Craig - outpassed Darlington, who were never going to recover from 4-0 down, and their spirits were further dampened when it became 5-0 early in the second half with another penalty.

Tony McMahon shoved Daly, another correct decision by the referee, and Leahy scored his second spot-kick of the day.

It was just not Darlington’s day, as typified moments later when good play by Campbell teed up McMahon, but his strike was tipped onto the post by Jaakkola.

Bristol Rovers added the sixth after a corner on 59 minutes, Sam Nicholson with the final touch after Max Ehmer was left free at a corner.

And that proved to be the end of the scoring with the outcome decided.