At 4.45pm a week last Saturday, Darlington were – seemingly – home and hosed at Bath City, 2-0 up and cruising towards three points. This week, at the same time, against part-timers Southport, they were edging closer to a dour 0-0 – a draw that would have been unjust considering the amount of chances Quakers had.

But in football it is the fine margins that decide games, a simple case of staying switched on for the full 90 – plus whatever the referee deems necessary as stoppage time.

Last week, Darlington switched off and were punished.

But on Saturday, it was Southport who took the sucker punch when substitute John McReady slotted home in the 93rd minute to win it for Darlington.

It was McReady’s first goal in senior football, right at the death, after Chris Senior – who had missed an 80th minute penalty – burst into the box and cut back for the South Shields 18-year-old.

As Curtis Main promptly scooped McReady up and carted him about the pitch, Cooper – and the rest of the Darlington supporters – could breathe a massive sigh of relief.

It was a special moment for McReady, who said afterwards: “It just dropped down, I was in the right place at the right time and I just slotted it away. If I blasted it from there it would have gone over, so I just side-footed it and it went in the bottom corner.

“I was buzzing at first, but Curtis picked me up on his back and I can’t remember much after that.

“I’ll never forget it, but hopefully I can score a few more for Darlington this season.”

And Cooper said afterwards: “I felt if we hadn’t have won, it would have been a little bit unjust with the amount of pressure we had in the second half, missing the penalty.

We had to wait until the death but I feel it was a deserved win.”

After a dismal first half devoid of chances, quality and atmosphere in a windy Northern Echo Darlington Arena, Quakers came out fighting in the second half.

Cooper said: “We were poor first half, we didn’t have any tempo. There was a lack of atmosphere but the boys in the corner tried their best. Because the stadium’s so big it is difficult to get an atmosphere, but I said to the players to create their own atmosphere, and we failed to do that in the first half. I had to have words with them at half-time and there was a bit of reaction in the second half.”

Clearly, Southport would have been delighted with a point. But referee Richard Clark seemingly had other ideas. Regardless of allegiance, the average spectator would have thought the sending off of the Sandgrounders’ Kevin Lee on 75 minutes was harsh. Sliding in for a 50-50 ball with Gary Smith, neither player came out on top, yet Clark opted to send Lee off.

If that was baffling, the Southport supporters were simply apoplectic when, five minutes later, the Morpeth official pointed to the spot when Liam Hatch’s speculative effort apparently struck the hand of Southport defender Adam Flynn.

Justice was seemingly done when Senior’s trundling spotkick almost gave Southport goalkeeper time to have a cup of tea before he dived low to his right.

Cooper said: “I told Chris not to worry about it, but next time you do take one, make sure you reach the goalline with it. He knows it wasn’t the best penalty but he kept going, and he’s done okay today.

“The most important thing was that we got the three points.

“The referee did his best to spoil the game for both sides.

I thought he was comical at times, but you have to deal with it.

Of the sending off, Cooper said: “It was harsh, they both slid in and it looked to be an honest tackle, but the referee gave a straight red, which was particularly harsh for the lad.”

The Sandgrounders had few opportunities to make an impression. Their best chance of the game came courtesy of a suicidal backpass from Danny Hone, but Sam Russell dealt well with the ball under pressure from the onrushing Steve Daly.

As first halves go, it was one of the poorer ones Quakers fans will see this season, and the home players were booed off at the interval.

Cooper said: “[The booing] was deserved. They’ve had a lot of bad results, I can understand that, but hopefully some of them can see what we’re trying to do.”

Cooper acted quickly to rectify his disjointed charges, reverting to 4-3-3 at the break with Main replacing Michael Smith. It was a change which almost brought immediate benefits when Main jabbed wide after Hatch’s knockdown just 30 seconds after the restart.

Main’s long-range effort seconds later, which whistled over McMillan’s crossbar, ensured that in the space of two minutes, the crowd had witnessed three clear-cut chances before most had the chance to sit down.


1-0: McReady (90, slotted home from 15 yards after Senior had cut back from the left)
Booking: Arnison (4, foul); Hatch (62, foul); Williams (71, foul); McGinn (79, foul).
Sending-off: Lee (75, foul)
Referee: Richard Clark (Morpeth)  Not much for Darlington fans to complain about, but the sending-off and penalty were both very harsh decisions indeed 4
Attendance: 1633
Entertainment: *

7 Russell: Did well with the limited chances Southport had, marshalled his defence well;
6 Clarke: Quiet game, did everything that was asked of him, but unspectacular
5 Hone: Didnt have much to do, and made a terrible backpass to Russell in the first half;
6 Austin: Kept Southports strikers quiet and was generally solid;
6 Brown: Not a bad performance, crossed well, was a threat from throw-ins, though needs to attack the ball when on the back foot;
6 Arnison: Lucky to stay on the pitch after two fouls in the first half, but put some decent balls into the box;
6 G. Smith: Kept the midfield ticking along well, was better in the second half when part of a midfield three
6 Terry: Good eye for a pass, fairly solid performance
5 M. Smith: Subbed at half-time, looked to be ring-rusty and created very little in his time on the pitch
7 SENIOR: Thorn in Southports side throughout, kept running, passed well and set up McReady for the winning goal. 
5 Hatch: Gave Southports defenders an easy ride. Needs to be hustling and bustling but was neither. Squandered an easy chance in first half.
Main (for M Smith 46) Was a breath of fresh air. Looked lively, ran well and had a decent chance 7
McReady (for Clarke, 90)
(not used): Jack (gk), Chandler, P. Gray.

SOUTHPORT (4-4-2): McMillan 7; Williams 5, Flynn 5, Davis 6, S. Gray 5; Winn 6, Lee 6, Powell 5, Barratt 6 (Moogan 82); Daly 6, T. Gray 5 (McGinn 68). Subs (not used): Dickinson, Blakeman, Collins.

CHRIS Senior - should have scored from the spot, but did more than enough overall