Darlington 0, Fleetwood Town 1. EVER the professionals, Fleetwood Town got the job done on Saturday, knowing that, whatever the outcome, this was never going to be anything other than Darlington’s day.
Danny Rose’s winning goal came in the 42nd minute and at almost 4pm – the kick-off, having been delayed 15 minutes due to turnstile congestion, as a bumper crowd of 5,638 turned up to witness Darlington’s phoenix-like rebirth.
Darlington manager Liddle had been informed by the administrator on Wednesday that the 128-year-old club had been liquidated, before the last-minute arrival of members of the Darlington Rescue Group, clutching £50,000, bought a fortnight’s respite.
Late on Thursday afternoon, Darlington did not have a single player eligible to take the field after all contracts were terminated at the start of the week.
But after a frantic round of re-registering, and the addition of Sunderland youth keeper Jordan Pickford on loan, Darlington were ready to test the second-placed club’s mettle on a day of exceptional emotion.
Town travelled to the North East without 20-goal marksman Jamie Vardy, who picked up a hamstring strain in Tuesday’s friendly at Motherwell.
Recent signing Lee Fowler made his full debut in an attacking Town line-up, while there was a first appearance off the bench for Richie Allen following his return from AFC Fylde.
It was seven minutes before the first real chance of the game, which fell to the midfielder Peter Cavanagh, whose left-footed, curling effort sailed over the bar after he found himself with space on the edge of the box.
Four minutes later, Darlington’s Ryan Bowman header went close after a whipped Aaron Brown free-kick to the back post found him unmarked.
It looked like it was going to be a game of few chances before the impressive Rose crossed for the returning Richard Brodie, who could only head wide of the right post after out-jumping his man.
Fleetwood’s pressure grew as they started to dictate the game with their fluent passing style, and 12-goal striker Andy Mangan attempted to catch keeper Pickford out with a fierce 30-yard strike that flew over the bar.
The game started to open up as Town created more chances and enjoyed longer spells of possession.
Another chance was created by Rose, whose left-footed corner found centre-half Nathan Pond and his header dipped over the beaten Pickford, but also over the crossbar.
The Cod Army breakthrough came on the 42nd minute when Graeme Lee flicked the ball into the feet of Mangan, whose shot hit the post, but Rose had the awareness to react, and slotted in the rebound.
The second half started slowly, but one patient Fleetwood build-up ended with Mangan shooting off-target. Town were playing well, but couldn’t give themselves more breathing space.
Rose’s corners caused problems all afternoon for the home side, and two inswingers found Pond, only to be cleared off the line.
Fowler made a darting run and beat several players, only to direct his dipping drive into the keeper’s arms.
Darlington were struggling for ideas when going forward, and didn’t show much attacking threat, until they had two chances in the space of four minutes.
First Adam Rundle sliced a volley, which trickled wide after Bowman found space on the right to deliver a good ball in, and then Gray failed to make a clean contact and he dragged his shot wide of Scott Davies’ right post.
At the other end, Mangan blasted a free-kick over as the second half proved more exciting than the first.
But still Town’s failure to add the second goal kept them on edge, and left-back Alan Goodall was forced into a crucial double block in the closing minutes.
The final chance of the game went to Darlington’s Rundle, whose left-footed shot proved no match for Davies.
On a huge day for Darlington, Town managed to overcome the occasion to record their 12th away win of the season, stretching their unbeaten run in the Blue Square Bet Premier to 13.
But still they cannot make inroads on Wrexham, who maintained their two-point lead and improved their goal difference advantage with a 4-1 home win over Kettering.
Both title rivals are in action tomorrow, when Braintree are the visitors to Highbury and Wrexham head to Forest Green.
Darlington may yet have a massive part to play in the destiny of the title, if the club is unable to battle on beyond the long midweek trip to Hayes and Yearding and Saturday’s home game against York.
Unless more money arrives in the hands of the administrator, those games will be the club’s last, and their records will be wiped out.
In that event, this victory could count against Fleetwood, who have taken four points from the Quakers this season. Wrexham have taken three, but are not due to face Darlington again until next month, when the North East club may be history.
Darlington: Pickford, Arnison, Brown, Lee, Taylor, McReady (Harrison 65), Rundle (Ramshaw 90), Hopson, Bridge-Wilkinson, Bowman, Gray (Barton 82); not used: Nixon, Gray.
Fleetwood: Davies, Beeley, McNulty, Pond, Goodall, Mangan, Seddon (Allen 59), Cavanagh, Rose, Fowler (McGuire 82), Brodie; not used: Clancy, Vieira, Stevenson.
Ref: R Clark