Darlington’s final game of the season was last Saturday, but a disappointing campaign was effectively over weeks ago.

Play-offs hopes evaporated long before Alun Armstrong’s side lost timidly 1-0 at Kidderminster Harriers, a result which meant Quakers closed out the campaign with a painful seven-match winless run.

The sequence started with a 0-0 draw at Alfreton on April 9, which proved to be pivotal. Darlington were seventh at that point, their highest position of the season, after one defeat in 11 games saw them surge from mid-table.

But two missed penalties that day by Jake Cassidy and Junior Mondal meant missing the chance for a fifth successive win.

Then came a bad Good Friday. A dismal performance in a 2-0 home defeat to Curzon Ashton sapped belief, results nosedived and Darlington dropped to their final position of 13th - they’d had a glimpse of the top seven and blown it.

The last completed National League North season, 2018-19, saw Darlington finish 16th with 50 points. That was not good enough and meant the end of Tommy Wright’s tenure.

This time around, 13th position and 53 points is only marginally better.

Covid was an issue – some pre-season friendlies were scrapped, and numerous players suffered with the virus at different spells during the campaign – and also factors were selling Luke Charman and patchy recruitment last summer.

Much like this season’s results, Armstrong had mixed fortunes last summer, with some canny signings as well as substandard players brought in.

Lexus Beeden, Brandon Taylor, James Beauchamp, Cassidy and Mondal were just not up to scratch.

Beeden’s appearance against Blyth Spartans in August stands out as the worst by anyone wearing a Darlington shirt since 2012. That the defender went onto spend most of the season with Billingham Town, bottom of Division One in the Northern League, says it all.

Managers stand or fall due to their results and recruitment, therefore Armstrong deserves credit for more successful summer signings Kevin Dos Santos and Tommy Taylor, who is Darlington’s best goalkeeper since Peter Jameson left in 2017.

Similarly, centre-backs Danny Ellis and Jake Lawlor were an upgrade. They joined a few months into the campaign with the first XI evolving as the season progressed due to regular additions, ditto David Wheater and Danny Rose.

Results were poor at the start of the season. There was one win in the first eight matches – a fine victory at Brackley – while Quakers fell at the first hurdle in both the FA Cup and FA Trophy, just as the team did in Wright’s only full season.

Darlington scrambled around in midtable for the most part, with Charman’s goals simultaneously attracting scouts and keeping Quakers competitive.

The striker was a class above during the first half of the season, scoring 13 times, with Rochdale winning the race for his signature in January.

Following Justin Donawa, Adam Campbell and Eric Sousa in the past couple of seasons, Darlington now have a reputation for providing a platform for players to shine, enabling them to secure a move into full-time football.

Dynamic midfielder Will Hatfield, the team captain and fans’ favourite, was also sold in the second half of the season, moving to Fylde.

Selling players helps balance the books of a club being ran parsimoniously, though flogging the family silver can be a source of frustration for fans, as well as Armstrong. Keep doing it and the club will never escape the National League North.

The latest one to attract onlookers is Jack Lambert, though the silky playmaker and the classy Rose cannot always shine on the rutted rugby pitch at Blackwell Meadows.

That Charman remained leading scorer says a lot about Darlington’s deficiencies. Just after he left, Quakers endured a four-match losing run without scoring, including a 5-0 drubbing at bottom-of-the-table AFC Telford.

These were dark days. Armstrong came close to leaving, and very few at this point would have predicted a revival – a goal seemed beyond reach, never mind a win.

He turned it around, however, with one defeat in 11 games lifting spirits and ensured the manager can look forward to 2022-23. Wheels are in motion to avoid a repeat of last summer’s patchy recruitment drive.

Armstrong says he does not wish for a major squad overhaul, he wants additions to a reasonably strong core group.

He knows mid-table mediocrity is not enough, though after a season of gradually adding to his squad there are now building blocks in place to be better in 2022-23.

Three players have signed new contracts – Taylor, Lawlor and Ben Hedley – Rose has joined permanently, while striker Jacob Hazel has joined from Whitby Town.

He scored 33 times in all competitions this season, and it is hoped he can continue to hit the net in the National League North – whatever happens, next season needs to be a big improvement for all concerned.

BEST PLAYER - BEN HEDLEY: Versatile and is many supporters’ pick for player of the year having transformed from a back-up midfield option to consistent performer in both full-back positions.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT - JOE WHEATLEY: Was once a first-choice midfielder and played 132 games for Quakers, but ended the season on loan two divisions below at Marske United as poor form saw him deservedly dropped in October and he never recovered.

BEST GAME - FARSLEY 0 DARLINGTON 6: While the opposition was weak – they finished second-bottom – Quakers had a poor record at Farsley until January when Jack Lambert ran the show in a thumping win.

BEST GOAL - KEVIN DOS SANTOS v AFC FYLDE: There were two candidates from Dos Santos as he also scored a beauty against Telford, but this long-range blast is favoured as it was from further out and was the winning goal.