Darlington 2 Lincoln City 0

SATURDAY’S win was the 50th of Dave Penney’s tenure as Darlington manager and it was perhaps the most impressive.

Their undefeated run appeared under threat once the normally dependable Steve Foster was sent-off with only 14 minutes gone.

After winning a free-kick the captain had uncharacteristically kicked out at Lincoln’s Adrian Patulea, leaving Quakers down to ten men.

They were already without top scorer Billy Clarke through injury while striker Liam Hatch was making his comeback from injury.

This against an in-form side that had won their previous three away league games, losing only one of their previous nine matches.

Then, shortly after Foster’s departure, Franz Burgmeier was withdrawn in favour of defender Tim Ryan, a surprising move as the Liechtenstein international has been a pivotal figure.

But it proved to be a masterstroke by Dave Penney.

The substitution and subsequent tactical tinkering helped turn what could have become a battle to salvage a draw, into a three-point haul that keeps Quakers top of the league.

Other reasons for being top include being undefeated in eight league games, conceding just once in six matches and winning five consecutive league games. Win at Brentford on Saturday and they would equal the club record.

Not good enough for some fans though.

At the final whistle most took part in a well-deserved standing ovation, but a small minority spent the afternoon voicing their displeasure, particularly when Burgmeier was subbed.

They probably were not quite as critical once Liam Hatch scored the first just after the restart, and will have been turning red with embarrassment as Richie Foran made it 2-0 in the final minute.

Ordinarily their displeasure would not be noteworthy, but it became an issue once Penney chose not to speak to the media because he was so angry with the dis-satisfied ‘supporters’.

In the circumstances, he was entitled to gloat, to brag about having the last laugh while his detractors tucked into their humble pie.

Instead, the normally thickskinned manager, usually unaffected by criticism or praise, was so furious he asked his assistant, Martin Gray, to conduct the post-match interviews.

Gray explained: “He’s very disappointed and frustrated with a very small minority, and I mean small minority, because 99 per cent of the fans are with us.

“But there’s a small minority that do frustrate you.

That’s one thing at this stadium, you do hear comments.

“The comments were when Franz came off. The team is about everybody, not just one individual.

“A lot of fans were disappointed when Franz came off which disappoints us because tactically the formation worked and that’s why we won the game.

“Franz is more attackedminded and he has great delivery.

But it didn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that we were going to have to defend for long periods.”

Despite Foster’s early exit, Darlington’s determination and tireless running meant their one-man deficit was rarely evident.

Hugely significant was Penney’s role and his constant reshaping of the team. He put Ryan in the heart of defence and the sub didn’t let the manager down, while the threeman midfield provided excellent protection for the defence.

Neither side threatened to score before the break, but two minutes after the restart Hatch netted following a swift counter-attack that culminated in Foran putting a goal on a plate for his strike-partner.

Gradually Lincoln increased the pressure and Quakers’ formation became a more defensive 4-4-1; Hatch on his own up front, later Foran led the line.

Gray added: “We went 4-3-2 to begin with and we had to make the midfield very solid and in Rob Purdie, Jason Kennedy and Ricky Ravenhill we had three players with lots of energy who could play a part defensively.

“We had to keep changing formations. I thought the timing of the formation changes by the manager was very good.

“You had to be on your toes on that touchline. You had to make sure the players knew exactly what their job was when we changed formations and tactics.

“I’m mentally tired. I remember speaking to Roy Keane on a coaching course and asked him how do you feel after a game and he said absolutely knackered. You don’t realise until you do it how much of a drain it can be. But there’s no better place to be when you win.”

Quakers keeper Simon Brown was called into action more frequently in the second half, making good saves from Aaron Brown and Adrian Patulea.

But Darlington’s goal was well protected and in the final minute they grabbed a second on the break.

Gregg Blundell’s searching pass found Foran whose cool finish secured victory in a performance reminiscent of a game at Lincoln in December 2005. That day Quakers fought back to secure a draw despite being 2-0 behind and a man down at the break.

Whereas that season ended in disappointment, Penney and his squad are on course for much greater things and Saturday illustrated why the manager is destined to rise through the leagues, with or without Darlington.