Darlington 4, Fleetwood Town 0
Fleetwood suffered their heaviest defeat of the season as the Quakers severely dented Town’s play-off hopes and boosted their own.
After Saturday’s home defeat by bottom club Eastbourne, this was another match to forget for Town, who again failed to spark in front of goal.
Micky Mellon was not able to select eight-goal striker Gareth Seddon, following an early calf injury sustained on Saturday, which meant a recall for record signing George Donnelly up front.
Following Will Haining’s return to Morecambe after his loan spell, club captain Steve McNulty was reinstated at the back alongside Sean Gregan, who returned to the club where his career started in 1991. Fellow former Quakers player Lee Thorpe was named on the bench.
Town got off to the worst possible start, conceding twice in the first 12 minutes.
Jamie McGuire gave away a free-kick in the second minute. Aaron Brown curled the ball in from 25 yards and it was tapped in from close range by Ian Miller.
Ten minutes later, Shaun Beeley was adjudged to have brought down Darlington’s top scorer Liam Hatch on the right edge of the area and Marc Bridge-Wilkinson converted the kick.
Keeper Scott Davies almost kept the ball out with his leg but it was the former Carlisle player’s seventh league goal of the season.
Town tried to respond but the defence with the second-best home record in the Blue Square Bet Premier was proving typically difficult to penetrate.
Despite a promising build-up on occasions, with both full-backs pushing forward, the final touch was lacking, though Anthony Barry went close with a shot over the bar.
The game could have been out of Town’s reach moments later when Bridge-Wilkinson broke through and tried to chip Davies, who gratefully caught the ball.
Magno Vieira nearly stole in for his 19th of the season after good work on the left, but the defence cleared the danger before he had chance to capitalise from close range.
The 58 members of the Cod Army who had travelled to the North East valiantly urged their team on, but half-time came with their side two goals down.
Darlington struck early in the second half, as they had done in the first. Davies looked to have been impeded as he went for a high ball four minutes in but the referee waved play on and Bridge-Wilkinson fired in from a tight angle on the right.
The vociferous home crowd were less impressed with the referee when McNulty brought down Jamie Chandler in the 68th minute but avoided a booking. They were not complaining two minutes later, when Davies appeared to be bundled over and a corner was given. Both the keeper and McNulty were booked at this point.
To compound a miserable night for Beeley, one of Town’s most consistent players this season, he pulled up clutching his hamstring and his game was over.
Jamie Mullan came on for Keigan Parker and fed Pond, who had a rare shot on target for his side but Russell saved with some ease, diving to his left.
Things got even worse for Town with six minutes left, when substitute Tommy Wright fed John McReady and he stroked in the fourth despite suspicions of offside.
Town will be anxious for a significant improvement on Saturday at Newport County after missing this chance to return to the play-off zone with a victory.
They remain sixth, but Darlington are among half a dozen sides who are gaining momentum and could overtake Town by winning games in hand.