LEAGUE leaders Darlington 1883 took another step towards promotion on Saturday with an impressive victory in front of more than 1,000 fans at Hillheads.
It was expected to be one of the Quakers’ toughest games of the season, but a disappointing injury-hit Whitley Bay side never looked likely to end the visitors’ 100 per cent record since the turn of the year.
And the side reborn following the demise of the former Football League club recorded their 15th consecutive victory.
Whitley were without three key defenders as Brad Brooking joined Callum Anderson and Chris Reid on the sidelines, and while Darlington came into the game fresh after a free week, the home side were playing their third game in six days.
The visitors attacked straight from the kick-off and inside the first minute Stephen Harrison’s cross caused problems in the Whitley defence but Purewal failed to make the most of the situation.
With five minutes played, Whitley very nearly took the lead when Paul Robinson’s cross from the right beat the Quakers defence and Paul Chow only just failed to get the vital touch at the back post.
It turned out to be a rare opportunity for Bay, possibly their best of the game.
David Dowson threatened in the 16th minute but Craig McFarlane’s pace proved crucial as he got back to clear the ball.
A minute later, Craig Gott brought a fine save from Kyle Hayes with a volley from distance that the Bay keeper pushed over the bar.
The large crowd was creating an excellent atmosphere and the massed ranks of travelling fans were celebrating after 28 minutes when Darlington took the lead.
The goal came just a minute after an offside flag had denied Chow as he lobbed the ball over Bell into the net.
As play switched to the other end, a Darlington free kick floated into the goalmouth by Gott hit the hand of Chow, now helping out in defence.
Whether there was any intent to handle the ball was questionable but the referee immediately awarded a penalty, which was converted with ease by Stephen Thompson.
If there were doubts in Bay minds about the decision to award the spot kick, there could be no complaint about the scoreline as the visitors controlled the game and Whitley struggled to contain them.
It was significant that Hayes was the busiest player on the pitch, firstly saving with his feet at the near post then denying Thompson shortly after.
Five minutes before the interval, Whitley might have levelled the score when Scott conceded possession and James Fairley had sight of goal but he hesitated rather than shooting and his eventual effort trickled wide of Bell’s near post.
The pace of the visitors was a constant threat to Whitley but Tomi Ameobi in particular was strong and quick to close down opponents. However, a minute before the break he was judged to have brought down Dowson as the Darlington man raced into the penalty area and referee Mr Gordon awarded a second penalty of the game.
This time Hayes dived the right way and got his fingers to Thompson’s spot kick but was unable to keep it out.
Bay were more competitive in the second half but a two-goal deficit was always going to be difficult to overcome.
After Emms had fired wide of an open goal for the Quakers, McFarlane broke forward with a surging run but his final shot let him down and flew high and wide.
James Novak then played the ball through to Chow whose shot was blocked and the ball flew behind for a corner.
An effort from Chris Fawcett was comfortably held by Bell but then midway through the half, Brian Smith was brought on in place of Fairley in an effort to unsettle the Darlington defence with his height and physical presence.
But before he had any time to make an impression, a third goal for the league leaders effectively ensured their victory.
The goal came from another set piece, a free kick from out on the left by the dangerous Thompson. His ball into the goalmouth ended up in the net, with the goal initially credited to Joseph Tait although it was later thought that the ball took a deflection off the head of a Whitley defender.
With 20 minutes to go, Robinson, who had been working hard in midfield without much luck, played the ball over the top to Smith whose attempt on goal was blocked.
Chow took a knock on the knee and tried to continue but eventually hobbled off, a worrying sight given Whitley’s current injury list.
Bell saved low down from Robinson as Whitley battled away in an effort to reduce the deficit. However, they were up against a strong defence in which captain Gary Brown was outstanding.
Five minutes from time, Bell had to be on his toes to push a powerful free kick from
Novak over the bar, but that was as good as it got for Whitley.
On a disappointing afternoon on the pitch for Whitley, the silver lining was the outstanding performance of Ameobi, whose quality in the Bay defence shone out like a beacon, and it is to be hoped that he will be staying at the club next season.
The current Darlington side were a much stronger outfit than the team that Whitley faced earlier in the season, and their performance demonstrated the gulf that now exists between the leaders and just about every other side in the league.
The sunny afternoon attracted a crowd of 1,146, Whitley’s biggest home league gate since way back in 1966, and it was a rare instance of the home fans being outnumbered by the visitors.
Darlington now look sure to be promoted to the Evo-Stik League, but their season in the Northern League has certainly boosted attendances wherever they have played, to the benefit of all their opponents.
Whitley Bay: Hayes, Fawcett, Novak, McFarlane, Ameobi, Scroggins, Pounder (Blake 73 mins), Fairley (B Smith 65), Kerr, Chow (C Smith 83), Robinson.