Issue Bazilliant

As told by Jason Mckeown

So this is where City need to be.

A trip to fourth placed Darlington, who harbour strong ambitions of automatic promotion, was an excellent opportunity for manager Stuart McCall to measure how much work is needed to improve his existing squad with the aim of being up there next year. At 3.45pm it looked as though City were someway off as they went in at half time fortunate to only be a goal behind, yet an hour later those players were heading to the changing rooms as deserved victors following an enthralling second half turnaround. It will have left Stuart with some unexpected questions to chew over, not least why aren’t City in Darlington’s position?

The closing stages of this superb win saw away fans chanting songs about going to Wembley. For the first time since September City are in the top half of the table and, with two games in hand on seventh placed Chesterfield, there’s suddenly renewed hope of making the Play Offs. This was City’s first league visit to Darlington’s impressive new stadium and the three points they’ve taken home from it mean there remains a slight chance we could be returning to it in May as part of an extended end to the season.

Not that this looked remotely possible at half time. Trailing automatic promotion rivals Hereford United, who weren’t playing this weekend, by a point; this was an important game for the home side who started the game brightly and took a tenth minute lead. A corner was swung into the City box and the ball seemed to strike Barry Conlon’s arm which prompted referee Darren Drysdale, he of chatting to Dean Windass in the car park fame, to point to the spot.

It appeared as though the Irish striker, recalled in place of Billy Topp who curiously didn’t even make the bench, had his arms by his side and contact seemed accidental at best. Clark Keltie sent Scott Loach the wrong way with the penalty to put Darlington into a lead that, against the best home record in the division, would be difficult for the visitors to turn around.

Conlon could feel hard done by but it didn’t stop a lot of City fans singing some less than complementary songs about him. For the rest of the half little went right for him as City struggled to forge any meaningful efforts on goal other than a bad miss from David Wetherall. The home side were in control and passed the ball around well on an awful playing surface. City largely defended reasonably and Loach saw most efforts on goal go wide of his post, although the on-loan keeper has begun displaying worryingly Donovan Ricketts-esqe difficulties with crosses which won’t impress the many rumoured Premiership scouts watching his every move.

Half time was a welcome relief and, after such a disappointing first half display, the future of many out of contract City players was looking more bleak. With a small minority of City fans seemingly having already written off Stuart’s abilities as a manager, no doubt there were mutterings of discontent around the watching City cyberworld and in the huge half time pie queue. Let’s give him credit where it’s due though, whatever he said to the players at half time to inspire such a turnaround must have being masterful.

City started the second half with much more urgency and began knocking the ball around better. Kyle Nix and Tom Penford, who both particularly struggled during the first half, began to have more of an influence. I discovered shortly after half time that Nix’s sister was apparently sat just behind me and I can only hope she didn’t hear my quiet mutterings of discontent regarding his first half efforts. I certainly enjoyed hearing her scream hysterically whenever Nix got a sight on goal!

The equaliser came within four minutes of the restart. A long ball was launched towards Conlon, who displayed some superb close control to bring the ball down and play it into the path of Peter Thorne on the edge of the box. City’s top scorer took it to the byline before crossing for Penford to coolly finish for his first ever City goal. Just eight days ago Penford’s name was surely pencilled in on the list of players to be released this summer; now, after three brilliant performances, Stuart will be reaching for the eraser and sanctioning a new contract.

The initiative was now with City and Thorne should have scored when presented with a one-on-one chance against home keeper David Stockdale, who saved well with his knees. It could have proved a costly miss, but soon after a deserved second goal followed. A free kick was floated into the box and Conlon rose at the back post to send a powerful looping header into the far corner. This was Conlon’s seventh goal of the season and he’s now scored more goals from open play than penalties. His detractors have so far being able to point to poor goalkeeping and a lack of the offside flag for his previous goals, but there should be no attempts to belittle this brilliant header. Chants aimed at Conlon continued, but they were now much more positive.

It must have been especially hard to take for the home fans to see their former player strike such a potent blow to their promotion prospects. What they needed was a strong response and manager Dave Penney brought on Michael Cummins who inspired a fight back. City were forced under some heavy pressure and Loach made a couple of decent saves. The most miraculous escape came when Penford sliced a clearance against the City bar.

There were over 10 minutes left to hold out so the delirium of another City goal eased the pressure. Conlon again played a significant role after another ball was launched up to him and his hold up play caused panic in the home defence. The loose ball fell to Joe Colbeck who ran through and coolly slotted home.

The young City winger spent six weeks on loan at Darlington earlier in the season, of course, and his spell away from the glare of Valley Parade was clearly beneficial. He’s returned a more confident and effective player but, back at the club who did so much for his career, the fear was the still relatively inexperienced winger might try too hard to impress and make bad decisions in possession. There was nothing to worry about as the 21-year-old performed with great composure; something lacking in Darlington striker Richie Foran when he produced a ridiculous two-footed lunge on him. A red card was the only option and the game was won.

Realistically City will need to win almost all seven remaining games if they are to gatecrash the Play Offs. Given we’ve so far failed to win more than two league games on the bounce it may prove beyond this current squad, but any player with ambitions to still be around next season should now view this as a great opportunity to show they can produce consistent, promotion standard form between now and the final game at Wycombe. If the team can keep up their recent improved efforts, who knows what it could lead to?

Tuesday night’s trip to Spotland certainly looks very interesting. Rochdale also have games in hand and look a better bet for the Play Offs. It’s another opportunity to measure where City need to be.