Instead, Kevin Wilkin’s side responded to the setback with a battling display. It took a Jacob Hazel treble for the hosts to kill off the wounded Bucks, whose efforts arguably deserved better than to leave empty-handed.
It would be easy to focus on Flowers’ misdemeanour, and ultimately it did prove costly; however, the performance of the ten players that Flowers left behind was just as much of the story of the game as his red card.
The Bucks left pointless, which was perhaps to be expected, given that Flowers was dismissed for violent conduct with almost 75 minutes of the game to play, away from home to a team in third place in the table.
What may not have been expected was a display of tenacity, discipline and organisation that kept the result in doubt and had Quakers’ fans edgy and impatient until Hazel claimed his second goal of the game after 84 minutes.
Wilkin had to adjust his side after their defeat at Chorley on Tuesday. Josh O’Brien’s injury meant a return to the side for defender Jordan Piggott, and Luke Rowe, a quietly influential figure in the Bucks’ recent good form, stepped back into the side after a one-game absence. Wilkin also changed to a defensive unit of 4 to offer more threat further up the field, where Montel Gibson also started for the first time since a red card suspension.
Alun Armstrong’s Quakers had the better of the opening 10 minutes, with Hazel wasteful from a promising free-kick position after a foul 25 yards from goal by Bucks skipper Robbie Evans.
Jack Lambert and Nathan Newall were testing Piggott on the Bucks’ right-hand side, aided by midfielder Ben Liddle, but with two banks of four players to break down the home side looked prepared to be patient and wait for their opportunities.
Against that backdrop, Flowers’ dismissal came out of the blue.
The towering central defender has been one of the Bucks’ best performers of late but remains prone to taking his aggression beyond acceptable limits. Flowers won a header against Hazel but ended up riding on his opponent’s back before the two crashed to the turf. Hazel then took a blow to the head as the pair tangled, and referee Paul Cooper appeared to have few doubts, instantly showing Flowers a red card. The Bucks’ no.6 offered something in mitigation to the official, but the decision wasn’t going to change.
The Darlington fans seemed to settle in, ready for their team to start to run up a rugby score, but the Bucks hadn’t read the script. Piggott moved to the centre of defence to partner Liam Nolan and Jamie Allen dropped into the right-back position.
In the circumstances, you’d expect a reduction to the threat the Bucks would offer going forward; however, Gibson, with able support from Byron Moore, began to take the fight to the home side.
There seemed little danger when Gibson found himself 25 yards from goal in the 24th minute but the bellicose Brummie never lacks the confidence to shoot, and he swivelled to fire in a dipping shot that left home keeper Tommy Taylor groping at thin air as it beat him to his right, into the top corner.
The home crowd was stunned into silence, and although their side rallied a little, Gibson was soon at it again.
In the 33rd minute, the livewire forward was adjudged to be offside when he raced onto a through ball and lobbed the ball over Taylor to find the net. Many observers felt the Bucks may have been harshly done to by a marginal call; however, they shrugged it off and came knocking again. The Quakers quaked, and their fans were agitated by the ease with which the ten men were cutting through.
The silky Moore slipped a challenge on the left flank and headed towards goal, hoping to beat Taylor from a tight angle but seeing the keeper get his body in the way. The loose ball bounced kindly into Gibson’s path; however, his aim was less than true, and he snatched at the chance, clearing the crossbar when the goal appeared at his mercy.
It was against the run of play when Darlington levelled in the 39th minute. Bucks keeper Joe Young had been the hero at Chorley, defying the home side to keep his side in with a chance, but the 20-year-old Wolves loanee had a taste of the harsh side of the game when he appeared to misjudge the flight of Liddle’s cross from the left.
Instead of an easy catch, he palmed the ball upwards and fell backwards towards his net. The ball may have been going in without Hazel’s intervention, but the Quakers forward rushed in to make sure from close range.
That might have knocked the wind out of the Bucks, but they got back up and could have retaken the lead before half-time. Brendon Daniels fired a shot just wide of Taylor’s far post with the aid of a deflection. Then, from one of his free-kicks, Moore nodded the ball across the goal and Nolan stole in to convert, only to be denied by yet another offside flag.
Half Time: Darlington 1-1 AFC Telford United
The hosts could hardly claim to deserve to be on level terms but sought to extend their lead early in the second half.
Nolan headed a dangerous Lambert free-kick over his bar to concede a corner, and then Young twice denied Hazel, blocking his initial shot from an angle and grabbing the ball to safety when Hazel’s second effort struck bodies and landed dangerously close to the foot of the near post.
Gibson seemed intent on proving that the best form of defence was to attack. With his socks rolled down his shins, Jack Grealish-style, he already had the appearance of a man tiring in the latter stages of extra time; however, when the Bucks could get the ball to him Gibson was rejuvenated, a constant menace to the home defence.
Wilkin was spoken to by referee Cooper for expressing his views a little too strongly, and Gibson had to temporarily leave the field after landing awkwardly after winning a header at the top of a prodigious leap.
Hazel volleyed horribly wide when the ball sat up into his path, and the home fans’ agitation just increased, giving a sense that the party was there for the Bucks to spoil.
Hazel landed the ball on the top of Young’s net when he improvised well, hooking the ball over his shoulder and trying to catch the keeper out. He then got the better of Nolan to fire across the goal and wide, looking increasingly like the only man the Bucks couldn’t quite get to grips with.
In the 70th minute, Armstrong introduced a lively substitute in Theo Williams, on for Adriano Moke, and his eagerness to attack the space behind left-back Adam Livingstone was to swing the contest decisively Darlington’s way.
Ben Hedley fired a shot high and wide before Gibson responded with yet another solo burst, picking up Hazel’s misplaced pass and swaying this way and that, into the box, before being denied when Taylor saved his low shot through the legs of the defenders whom he’d drawn to him like moths to a flame.
Another Gibson effort was blocked soon afterwards before Young punched away a Liddle free-kick at the other end and Jassem Sukar’s shot from distance troubled no one but the fans behind the goal.
Just six minutes of normal time remained when the Bucks succumbed to the irresistible force of Hazel. After partially clearing a corner won by Williams, a ball back into the box was met by Hazel’s head and it dropped over Young’s despairing backpedal and into the net.
Relief and elation swept through the home fans, the Bucks looked beyond crestfallen.
Wilkin attempted to prompt an act of escapology, bringing on attacking substitutes Lewis Salmon and Kai Williams, but in the first of five additional minutes, another cross from the left picked out Hazel at the near post and he made no mistake, powering a header past Young to his right, with the aid of a slight deflection.
A valiant effort had gone unrewarded, and the Bucks’ performance spoke positively of the work that Wilkin and his coaching staff have done over the past few months; however, the manager knows that kind words aren’t worth any points and with a potentially pivotal meeting with Farsley Celtic ahead on Tuesday, the Bucks are entering do-or-die territory.
Referee: Paul Cooper.
Assistants: Paul Mosley, Iain Turner.
Telford: (4-4-2) Young, Livingstone (Williams 86), Piggott, Flowers, Evans, Nolan, Rowe, Daniels (Salmon 86), Moore, Allen, Gibson.
Subs not used: Ekpolo, Blissett, Reid.
Scorer(s): Gibson (24).
Darlington FC: Taylor, Newall, Lawlor, Sukar, Hedley, Liddle (Rose 90), Purver, Moke (c) (Williams 70), Lambert, Felix (Brookwell 86), Hazel.
Subs not used: Griffiths, Rivers.
Scorers: Hazel (39, 84, 90).