LOSING to Leek Town is still regarded as an ‘if only’ moment for Darlington supporters old enough to remember what was a bitterly disappointing defeat.

It was in March 1990, the quarter-final of the FA Trophy, with Brian Little’s Quakers expected to progress past a team from a lower division, yet they suffered a shock 1-0 loss and the road to Wembley came to an abrupt halt.

The missed opportunity rankles still, and Saturday’s defeat to Hornchurch will be filed in the same category, forever a source of regret.

The difference in 1989-90 was that Quakers quickly healed those wounds by going on to win the much more significant Conference title, whereas in 2021 the Trophy was all Alun Armstrong’s team had to play for.

There is now nothing until 2021-22, aside from nursing a sore ego having been humbled 2-1 by an Isthmian League side, one division below, who were the lowest-ranked team left in the competition.

Darlington could not have asked for a better chance of reaching the semis but they blew it.

They were too passive and made errors, the nature of the defeat angering Armstrong and he promised changes. He said: “I’m absolutely gutted, but if you don’t take your chances you’re not going to win.

“I feel like a broken record when it comes to putting the ball in the net. We were having three or four touches instead of one or two, or passing in the box when we were in a good position to shoot.

“I looked at how deep we were defending, and their number nine was bossing the game for them. Our centre-halves were allowing that to happen and I told them that at half-time.

“Now, I’ve got to decide who I want to keep and who hasn’t made the cut. To be honest, after today’s performance it’s thrown a few things up in the air.

“I’ll have to relax first and have a think about it and see where we are, but overall I’m massively disappointed because it’s a huge opportunity missed.”

Not clinical enough in attack and weak in defence, Darlington helped Hornchurch score their goals by giving the ball away cheaply.

It was 1-0 to the Essex outfit after 26 minutes when Erico Sousa’s wayward pass was cut out by Remi Sutton on halfway, Hornchurch countered, the defender squaring to Liam Nash to side-foot home for 1-0.

Armstrong said: “The first goal came from a sloppy, square pass across the field. You cannot do that, and that’s the most disappointing thing. We gave them the goals, they haven’t worked for them.

“Their goals came from us being in comfortable possession. We never switched on quickly enough, we stood and watched. You cannot defend like that at any level.”

Darlington gradually improved, Sousa drawing a save out of Joe Wright and Adam Campbell going close before Quakers equalised in added time before the interval.

Campbell dribbled forward, passing to the better-placed Sousa – had the roles been reversed it is unlikely the single-minded winger would’ve done the same – and he atoned for his earlier error by lashing across Joe Wright for 1-1.

The ideal time to score, setting Darlington up for a second half in which they would take hold of the game, right?

Wrong. Nine minutes after the restart and they trailed once more. And again it came after a sloppy pass, Michael Liddle at fault this time leading to goalkeeper Sol Brynn conceding a penalty by tripping Nash.

Making his debut having signed on loan from Middlesbrough on Friday, the 20-year-old had no protests when referee Martin Woods pointed to the spot, with striker Sam Higgins scoring from 12 yards.

The heavyweight Hornchurch forward does not have an athletic build, yet he bullied Darlington’s defenders, and by comparison highlighted how much Luke Charman’s physicality was missed in Quakers’ attack.

Charman would have gone for goal more often too, unlike Darlington’s shot-shy players; too scared to have a pop, too keen to pass the buck.

For all the team’s possession, and there was no lacking their desire, they tried to walk the ball in, their numerous shots blocked by a determined Hornchurch with Wright rarely troubled.

The referee failed to spot Campbell having a shot blocked in the penalty area by a Hornchurch hand, so the luck was on the underdog's side in that instant, while Will Hatfield was harshly dismissed late on for colliding with Rickie Hayles.

But the officials were not to blame for Quakers’ sorry exit. Armstrong concluded: “It was a massive opportunity for us and they’ve blown it, it’s as simple as that. I don’t think you’re going to get a better opportunity than we had to go to the final.

“Even though I don’t know who we would’ve had in the semis, this was a huge opportunity for the football club. You don’t get that many at this level and the lads have absolutely blown it.”

He added: “Something needs to change and this long wait before we start again will give me plenty of chance to think, that’s a certainty and things will change.”