Since he arrived at the club, Carden has been vexed by his team’s inability to perform the basics consistently; however, in one afternoon they knitted together from front to back, and delivered a terrific performance, one which some fans might have doubted they were capable of.
They remain bottom of the Vanarama National League North table, but closed the gap to two points on those above them with this thumping victory.
Carden added to his squad with the arrival of Keaton Ward, and the 21 years old midfielder, on loan from Mansfield Town, enjoyed both an immediate and impressive debut. Ward, along with Liam Nolan and Mace Goodridge, gave the Bucks a midfield that provided more cover for the defence, but who also had the ability to press, win possession and then use the ball intelligently once it had been secured.
All of the above might make you feel that this was a hugely one-sided game, but that would be unfair on Alun Armstrong’s Quakers. They enjoyed more possession and the better scoring opportunities in the first half, but didn’t convert, and it proved costly.
Carden felt his team started the game tentatively, and the visitors looked the more enterprising side early on. Their midfield trio of captain Will Hatfield, Alex Purver and Danny Rose pieced together the better passing moves, and the Bucks suffered a setback when right-back Ross White, restored to the side, had to be substituted after being unable to run off a knock he sustained.
Purver had a shot from 20 yards deflected over the crossbar in between White’s injury and his substitution 10 minutes later, whilst at the other end, Bucks left-back Brad Bood saw his cross strike the outside of Tommy Taylor’s near post.
Former Wolves striker Jake Cassidy headed weakly at goal from a Darlo corner, but then White departed and was replaced by Theo Streete. Streete slotted into the middle with Zak Lilly and recent arrival Jordan Piggott switched to the right, a position in which he started his first Bucks game at Gateshead in midweek.
Kai Williams seemed to sense a vulnerability in Darlo’s left-back George Smith, and delivered a couple of crosses that were too close to Taylor. Hatfield had a shot blocked, whilst Ward also tried his luck from distance, placing an effort in Taylor’s hands.
The Quakers remained the more threatening, and home keeper Russ Griffiths, handed the Bucks captaincy, had to be alert to push away Jack Lambert’s swinging right-footer, aimed across Griffiths from the left side of the penalty area. Lambert then cleared the crossbar with an angled effort minutes later, as Darlo retained the upper hand.
Things weren’t clicking for them, but the hosts were showing signs of being more durable, of staying in the game when not at their best. Just at the point when you sensed they’d be content to go in level at half-time, the Bucks were given a golden opportunity.
Williams had been switching flanks with Brendon Daniels, and popped up on the left of the penalty area, before going on the outside of his marker and running towards goal, close to the goal-line. A Darlo defender was drawn in, made contact with Williams’ ankle, and he tumbled, referee Richard Holmes awarding a penalty with few complaints from Darlington. Daniels took responsibility for the kick and as Taylor dived to his left, Daniels sent the ball into the opposite corner to open the scoring.
Possessing the lead in a game is something that the Bucks haven’t enjoyed often this season, but they gave themselves some much-needed breathing space just 20 seconds or so into the second half. Jason Oswell, who worked hard all afternoon without much personal reward, flicked on a header for Williams to run onto inside the Darlo penalty area; Taylor was exposed and tried to narrow the angle but Williams was composed enough to hook the ball over and around him to find the far corner.
Darlington quickly replaced Purver with forward Tyrone O’Neill, having already brought on winger Kevin Dos Santos at half-time, but their attempts to retaliate were simply to no avail as the Bucks confidence visibly grew.
Williams miscued a shot wide after taking Ward’s pass on the edge of the box, but on 55 minutes the lead stretched further. Darlington’s left-back Smith was again all at sea as Daniels progressed into the box on that side, and as cover arrived, he slipped the ball inside for Goodridge to stylishly stroke the ball inside Taylor’s left post from 10 yards.
The home crowd were in dreamland, and things just continued to get better. Hatfield was booked for a fairly cynical trip on Daniels after the Bucks man turned past him on the edge of the penalty area, and salt was about to be liberally applied to the wound. Daniels took the free-kick, but instead of trying to beat the defensive wall with one of his trademark efforts, he laid the ball forward to the overlapping Goodridge. As Darlo tried to cover, Goodridge fired in a low cross-shot that was turned into the net at close range by a Quakers player, and the game was as good as over.
After a purple patch like that, it was inevitable that Darlington would mount some response; however, with the calm head provided by Noble in front of the back four, they didn’t really look like breaking through.
Goodridge fired a shot over the bar on a counter-attack when he perhaps saw a match ball waiting to be claimed, whilst Taylor took a dangerous corner delivery off the head of Streete. Ward looked to get in on the act, Taylor turning his low shot away for a corner, whilst Williams also had a shot saved by the overworked Quakers custodian.
As the game entered its dying minutes, Darlo substitute Joe Wheatley, who had already escaped censure for a kick at Daniels, at least made sure he’d get the hot water in the showers when his crude, late challenge on Goodridge earned him a straight red card.
That wasn’t to be the end of the excitement, however; with the very last kick of the game, Williams delivered the nap hand when he accelerated away through a gap in the beleaguered Darlo defence, beat a half-hearted challenge and then finished high over Taylor at his near post as the keeper tried to close the gap.
At half-time, the Bucks PA announcer had reminded fans that the club’s walk-in booster vaccine clinic was open, overlooking the pitch. It was, however, the Bucks themselves who self-administered a real shot in the arm, and who can look forward with a sense that their season might just, at last, be getting started.
Referee: Richard Holmes.
Assistants: Karl Buckley, Ben Robinson.
Telford (4-3-3): Griffiths, White (Streete 21), Bood, Piggott, Lilly, Nolan, Ward, Goodridge, Daniels (Shaw 70), Oswell (Wright 79), Williams.
Subs not used: Baker, Walker.
Scorers: Daniels (43 penalty), Williams (46, 90), Goodridge (55, 61).
Cautioned: Griffiths, Bood.
Darlington: Taylor, Smith, Lawlor, Hatfield (Wheatley 63), Rivers (Dos Santos 45), Ellis, Lambert, Cassidy, Purver (O’Neill 48), Griffiths, Rose.
Subs not used: Storey, Hedley.