Darlington 1, Newton Aycliffe 0
By Martin Walker
Newton Aycliffe produced a five-star away performance at Bishop Auckland on Wednesday night – but were undone by a late Darlo goal.
David Dowson seized on a moment of indecision by stand-in goalkeeper Steve Richardson to head home a 78th-minute clincher at Heritage Park.
But Aycliffe had four killer chances to score – one in the last minute – which would have rounded off an impressive away display.
The win took title favourites Darlo back to the top of the Northern League first division as 1,389 watched their promotion bandwagon roll on.
Although it was in danger of faltering slightly after a hardworking Aycliffe side frustrated Quakers for much of the game – and created more chances than their hosts.
As seasoned title-winners Spennymoor will testify, winning leagues is as much about grinding out slender wins like this, as it is about turning teams over, so Martin Gray can be happy his side earned three points from this scrappy derby.
But Aycliffe could also take great heart from a gutsy performance which arguably deserved a point.
They went into the game as massive underdogs, with their expensively-assembled opponents – managed by a four-man coaching dream team – getting five wins out of the first six games, so the form guide was suggesting a goal-glut in favour of Quakers.
And while Darlington dominated for large parts, and always looked a threat going forward, Richardson had little to do, thanks to an exceptional defensive performance by Aycliffe. That was led by man-of-the-match Darren Craddock, who was a Darlo target in the summer but opted to stick with his hometown club.
Dowson threatened early on when he went on a surging run in the seventh minute, but Richardson tipped his shot over the bar in a rare scoring chance for the home side.
Aycliffe should have taken the lead two minutes later. Stuart Owen floated over a great ball to the far post, but Craddock volleyed over with just the ‘keeper to beat.
Skipper Sean Tarling hit the crossbar when Jack Norton misjudged his 25-yard effort, and Joe Tait cleared the rebound.
Adam Nicholls shot just wide in the 27th minute and Amar Purwall looked for a penalty a minute later, going down too easily amid half-hearted penalty appeals which were ignored.
Aycliffe squandered their second golden chance of the game in the 38th minute. James Oliver looped a deep cross into the box, Fred Woodhouse ghosted in behind the back line but his timid shot was too easy for Norton.
Woodhouse missed another sitter seven minutes into the second half when Craddock rose high to meet Owen’s deep set-piece, brilliantly nodding into the winger’s path, but he smashed it over the bar from eight yards.
It was another let-off for Darlo, and acted as a wake-up call as they quickly took a hold of the game and peppered Aycliffe’s box with crosses, without penetrating Richardson’s goal.
But the winner came 12 minutes from the end. Richardson spoiled an otherwise steady display by the occasional stand-in ‘keeper when his error allowed Dowson to head into an empty net.
Yet Aycliffe still might have won a point when Craddock did well again to win a high ball into the box, cushioning down to Danny Earl who miss-queued his effort over with just a minute to go.
Aycliffe: Richardson, Oliver, Owen, Craddock, Peck, Tarling, Broom, Knox, Earl, Young (Butterworth, 67), Woodhouse (Coad, 67). Unused: Hughes, Wilson, Lockwood.