Saved By The Bell Again, As Nyal Leaves Quakers Shaking!
The Hatters returned to National League North action, and moved back up into the top 10, with a first win at – as well as against – Darlington in more than six years.
And for the second successive Saturday, following triumph at South Shields in the FA Cup seven days earlier, the decisive strike that ensured they returned home from the North East victorious was converted by Nyal Bell – albeit, on this occasion, as an only first-half goal of the game.
County took to the field against the ‘Quakers’ in a 4-2-3-1 formation, showing three changes from the initial Cup 11 a week previously, as Bell, Matty Warburton and – making the first start of his second County spell – Elliot Osborne replaced Adam Thomas, Connor Dimaio and the unwell Frank Mulhern. Newly-returning loanee Jamie Stott was included with Thomas and Dimaio among the substitutes.
On their second visit inside a year to Darlington’s latest home, Blackwell Meadows, the Hatters made the early running – earning four corners in the opening 10 minutes. The first two came following shots from Bell and Sam Walker that, respectively, were deflected past the left upright by Terry Galbraith and tipped over by goalkeeper Jonny Maddison.
But in the 11th, the Quakers should have taken the lead, following a break that saw captain Reece Styche one-on-one with Ben Hinchliffe. Thankfully, for Hinchliffe and the Hatters, Styche – who had netted twice against them at Tamworth in 2017/18 – executed a weak chip, which was comfortably, and gratefully, caught by County’s Number One.
Styche fired two subsequent opportunities high, and was dangerously close to applying a final touch to a header across the goalmouth from the left by Harvey Saunders. The home skipper’s misses were to prove all the more costly, when, with 29 minutes played, the Hatters went ahead.
Bell’s turn and low shot from 12 yards into the bottom-right corner ultimately did the trick, although Darren Stephenson also deserved great credit for his excellent work on, and cross from, the left that set up the former Gateshead striker for his third goal of the season in all competitions.
The Hatters went close to extending their advantage on two occasions before the interval – with Warburton half-volleying narrowly over and on to the top of the net, before Stephenson, having collected a knock-down from Bell, blasted wide of the right post.
HALF-TIME: Darlington 0, County 1 (Bell, 29).
County switched to a back three upon the resumption, as Stott replaced Jordan Keane, who, just ahead of half-time whilst on a yellow card, had been rather fortunate to escape further punishment for handball.
The Hatters continued to press, and were soon well into double figures with their corners (while Darlington would fail to win one at all until added time). The first after the break, delivered by Walker, was met by Bell who cleared the crossbar with his header.
The hosts, in their quest to get back on level terms, brought on defender-turned-striker Simon Ainge, who, like attacking partner Styche, had scored a brace against County during the previous campaign for his most recent former club (Harrogate Town, in Ainge’s case).
But neither erstwhile nemesis appeared to be firing on all cylinders. And after Bell skied a chance over, Styche did likewise with one opportunity, before shooting another into the right side-netting.
With four minutes remaining, the Quakers went closer – courtesy of Joe Wheatley’s free-kick from the left of County’s box that was parried away by Hinchliffe. But the Hatters deservedly held out for a first-ever success at Blackwell Meadows, as well as their second clean sheet and fourth league victory of the campaign.
FULL-TIME: Darlington 0, County 1 (Bell, 29).
Team: Hinchliffe, Minihan, Duxbury, Keane (Stott, 46), Palmer (Capt.), Cowan, Osborne, Walker, Bell, Warburton (Dimaio, 88), Stephenson (Thomas, 78).
Unused Subs: Ormson, Mantack.
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.