The club’s treatment table has barely been cold in the last week, with three players missing through injury, including both of the team’s naturally left-footed players. That situation prompted Cowan to add to his squad the day before this game, with the signing of vastly experienced midfielder Andy Bond and Stoke City academy prospect, left-back Edward Jones.
In addition, Cowan rewarded summer signing Jordan Davies with his first start, the diminutive striker having frequently impressed when introduced as a substitute. None of the trio let Cowan down, but then that applied broadly to the whole team, who put together one of their more complete displays of the season to date to secure a welcome three points.
Whilst the team delivered, it was Davies who really caught the eye. Cowan has spoken of the 24 years old, who was a prolific scorer in the second tier of Welsh football, as something of a ‘wild card’, but one whose natural ebullience makes the manager believe he could have unearthed a diamond.
Davies didn’t score, but he helped get the Bucks on the board early in this game. As early as the sixth minute on a damp County Durham afternoon the striker was involved, his approach bringing a low cross that the Quakers didn’t deal with; as keeper Jonny Saltmer and his defence hesitated, Davies’ strike partner Jason Oswell turned onto the loose ball in the six-yard box and fired it high into the net.
Cowan could be heard on the touchline urging his team to “get onto the front foot”, eager to apply more pressure, but the hosts response to their setback was a strong one. Goalkeeper Russ Griffiths was busy, saving from midfield fulcrum Will Hatfield’s shot, and then defender Alex Storey couldn’t keep his shot down when the ball fell nicely to him from a corner, clearing the crossbar. In the 20th minute, Griffiths made a terrific save to his right to turn striker Adam Campbell’s shot away from goal, the forward looking to score across him when found in space behind the defence.
Campbell was the man Darlington were eager to find around the edge of the penalty area, but when their equaliser arrived, in the 23rd minute, it came from a different source. Bucks defender Theo Streete played his side into trouble with a poor clearance and Portuguese winger Erico Sousa seized on the opportunity to outpace Streete on the outside before heading towards goal and scoring across Griffiths and into the far corner as the keeper narrowed the angle.
It was just reward for Darlington’s play after conceding so early; Bucks defender Shane Sutton then barely two minutes had to put his head in the way of a Sousa shot to stop it en route to goal. The Quakers push for a second continued, and after a Hatfield free-kick clipped the wall the resulting clearance was lashed just over the crossbar on the volley by Campbell.
The Bucks were staying afloat, trying to release pressure by looking for Oswell and Davies, but the flow towards Griffiths’ goal continued. Campbell shot wide but won a corner, referee James Bancroft adjudging that Griffiths got fingertips to the ball; the Bucks blocked all that Darlington could muster and slowly began to turn the tide.
Davies arrowed a shot towards the top corner from a free-kick but found Saltmer equal to it and then, with barely a minute left before half-time, Davies’ tenacity helped him force his way past a defender on the right before delivering a low cross that Oswell connected but not decisively, the ball screwing wide.
If the Bucks were rueing that missed opportunity over the half-time interval, they were soon able to forget about it. A bright start to the second half had already seen Davies denied by Saltmer when the ball ran nicely to the forward from McHale’s deflected effort, the keeper making ground to make the block, but in the 51st minute the Bucks went ahead for a second time. A cross from the left took a looping deflection towards Davies and when Darlington knocked the ball away from him McHale picked up possession, cut onto his left foot and his shot from 15 yards took a deflection to beat Saltmer.
The Bucks were in no mood to sit back, and Davies soon saw another shot deflected wide as he sought his first league goal for the club. New Bucks captain Adam Walker then burst into the penalty area on the left and after an initial effort was blocked his cross couldn’t locate Oswell at close range.
On 65 minutes a stoppage in play saw Sutton needing treatment. He continued, and soon conceded a foul that saw Quakers full-back Michael Liddle go for goal from 25 yards, Griffiths alert to push his effort wide of his left post. Sutton’s afternoon was soon to end, and the Bucks injury woes continue, as another stoppage saw him limp off with what transpired to be a broken little toe.
Ross White replaced him as the Bucks sought to hold onto their hard-earned advantage, and given the game situation a Quakers onslaught seemed likely, but as the rain that had threatened finally arrived the Darlington rally largely dissolved; the Bucks threatened on the counter-attack and the most concerning moment they had came when a Zak Lilly foul, which earned him the game’s only yellow card, gave Darlington a free-kick. Hatfield’s effort came back off the Bucks defensive wall and when it was returned towards the far post, Griffiths was there to drop onto and smother a firm, goal-bound downward header from Storey. One more similar moment in stoppage time saw the ball travel wide of the post as the Bucks kept the back door firmly shut to claim maximum reward from their long trip.
AFC Telford United: Griffiths, Vaughan, Jones, Lilly, Sutton, Streete, Walker (c), Bond, McHale, Davies, Oswell.
Unused substitutes: Rawlins (gk), Williams, Barnes-Homer.
Scorers: Oswell (6), McHale (51).
Darlington: Saltmer, Liddle, Laing, Hedley, Storey, Atkinson, Hatfield (c), Reid, Campbell, Rivers, Sousa.
Unused substitutes: Hudson, Minter, McMahon.
Scorer: Sousa (23).
Referee: James Bancroft.
Assistants: Kirk Freeth, Lewis Reynolds.