DARLINGTON ended 2017 with renewed optimism, but have begun 2018 back in the doldrums due to a deserved New Year’s Day defeat at Harrogate Town, after which Tommy Wright was critical of his players.

They have now conceded 20 times in his eight matches, six of them defeats.

He had seen his team overcome Harrogate 3-1 on Boxing Day with a promising showing that suggested they were back on track, but yesterday they were put in their place by the North Yorkshire promotion-chasers.

It was one-way traffic for the most part, the full-time outfit keeping Quakers pegged back, though Darlington defended stoically.

But the turning point was a goal early in the second period, Harrogate then going on to complete a comfortable 3-0 win which leaves Darlington 18th, two points above the relegation places ahead of this weekend’s home game with York City.

Manager Wright had praise for his players’ first-half showing but was frustrated at the manner of the goals.

He said: “I said to the boys that we’re going two steps forward, and three back. We’re revisiting places I don’t want to be.

“The lads have got to take that on the chin, they’ve got to learn and learn quickly because I don’t want to be saying the same things week in, week out.

“Ultimately it’s me that’s got to defend them, so the lads have got to start pulling away from what we are currently in and be better.

“The second two goals we conceded were preventable, I don’t think that’s anything to do with being full-time or part-time, it’s basics that you learn in academies aged ten.

“The lads know that, but we keep making a ten-year-old’s mistakes.”

Harrogate are now four points off the top after leaders Salford again drooped points, and Wright added: “Harrogate win games, that’s why they’re second in the league and have scored the most goals.

“They play good football and when you give chances away you’re going to get punished.

“Simon Weaver’s boys came out today determined to put right what happened on Boxing Day and they got what they deserved.”

Although Harrogate bossed the possession in the first half, by the break they had nothing to show for their superiority, with Darlington keeping their shape and defending stubbornly.

Quakers keeper James Talbot was well protected. His first involvement saw him easily catch a header by former Darlington striker Mark Beck, who was one of four Harrogate changes since the teams met on Boxing Day.

With Beck waiting to pounce, the again impressive Josh Heaton intervened to get in a header in to cut out a right-wing cross, before Joe Leesley cut inside and fired in a shot, inadvertently blocked by Beck.

Josh Falkingham did not show an eye for goal during his time in Darlington’s midfield last season and at one point yesterday tried an uncharacteristic effort from distance. Although typically mishit, it turned into a fortunate through-ball, seized on by Jack Emmett, with Talbot alert enough to dash off his line to block.

Talbot, doing well during his loan from Sunderland, then showed quick reactions to save at his near-post from Emmett after a shot from a tight angle took a deflection off Dom Collins.

It came after a counter attack following a rare period of play at the other end of the pitch, Darlington mounting a challenge late in the first half.

They had their first shot on target, Joe Wheatley from around 20 yards, and goalkeeper James Belshaw was called into action again in added time to keep out a Dave Syers volley.

But just three minutes into the second half Quakers succumbed.

Right-back Warren Burrell outpaced stand-in left-back Leon Scott and from the byline pulled the ball back for Emmett to fire first-time into the roof of the net.

It was a well-worked goal executed impressively, but Quakers then crumbled. New year, same old defensive problems, and it infuriated Wright when Harrogate soon made it 2-0.

It came as Harrogate exploited space created by Darlington throwing bodies forward – Gary Brown had taken a throw and fellow centre-back Heaton was in the opposition half – and left Talbot one-on-one with Leesley, who regained possession and played in Jordan Thewlis, who made no mistake.

Wright said: “That second goal came when we had a throw-in. We had spoken about how we set up for our attacking throw-ins, but it wasn’t done and the ball ended up in the back of our net.

“It’s disappointing to think they’re an experienced bunch of players and they have let one slip there. That’s a goal we also conceded against Tamworth six or seven weeks ago.

“The message on the pitch was ‘let’s stay in the game’, and within five or six minutes it’s 2-0 and it’s from switching off, something so simple that shouldn’t have happened.”

It was now all to do for Darlington. Wright made a double substitution – Terry Galbraith and Harvey Saunders on for Scott and Phil Turnbull – and switched to three at the back.

There were glimpses of a Darlington fightback, but nothing more. Thompson got a volley on target from 20 yards, and he also saw a shot blocked by Terry Kennedy.

A final throw of the dice saw Gillies replaced by Greg Mills, but after initial promise he was unable to make a worthwhile contribution, and Darlington’s challenge fizzled out before Harrogate made it 3-0 in injury time.

After a short corner routine, Leesley blasted across Talbot and it left Wright aghast.

“The second goal is a sucker punch, the third one is disgusting.

“To have a three versus two situation in the corner and get waltzed through like that is bad.”