Fleetwood Town 0, Darlington 0
And so the wait goes on for the Highbury faithful who didn’t see a home goal in five pre-season matches, though there was nothing friendly about this blood-and-thunder Conference clash at Fleetwood’s resplendent home.
Referee Robert Merchant seemed to think he was still in charge of friendlies as he amazingly kept his cards close to his chest throughout the first half. He made up for it in the second with eight bookings – six to Quakers players – only to mislay his whistle again when Town wanted to hear it most.
Substitute Richard Brodie had his heels clipped in the box by Darlington skipper Ian Miller with 11 minutes left but no penalty was awarded.
As if Town had any doubt it wasn’t their night, Scott Brown’s 25-yard piledriver bounced down off the underside of the bar deep in stoppage time and the ball somehow ended up in the arms of keeper Sam Russell.
But it would be harsh to bedgrudge the visitors their share of the spoils. They outmuscled Town on occasions, creating plenty of their own chances, and in midfielder Kris Taylor they had the most influential player.
Perhaps it was unfair to expect too much fluency from a Town side in which eight players made a home debut, and manager Micky Mellon’s plans were hit by first-half injuries to Andy Mangan and Anthony Barry, who left the ground on crutches.
Town made two changes to the side which won at Grimsby on Saturday. George Donnelly was rewarded for his late goal off the bench with a place in the starting line-up, while boss Mellon showed his commitment to exciting wing play by giving a debut to new signing Stefan Cox.
Town keeper Scott Davies almost gifted Darlington an opener after ten minutes, miscuing a clearance straight at striker Liam Hatch, Saturday’s matchwinner against premier division newcomers Braintree.
When the striker drove the ball into the box first-time, right-back Matt Flynn could have started his Highbury career with an own goal had the keeper not regained his ground quickly to claim the ball.
Cox began to get into the game, giving visiting keeper Russell his first awkward moment with a low cross to the near post and then breaking clear only to shoot well wide on 18 minutes. Brown, another on his home debut, showed his eye for an opening four minutes later but Russell got behind his shot well. By this point Town had been forced into their first change, Saturday scorer Mangan straining a hamstring to be replaced by Brodie
The first clear-cut opportunity fell Darlington’s way on 22 minutes, when Taylor’s cross from the left reached an unmarked Ryan Bowman at the far post, but his header from six yards lacked power and was directed straight at Davies.
Darlington were a split-second quicker to the ball than Fleetwood and Taylor’s crossing from the left was posing problems. His 25th-minute shot could have troubled Davies had McNulty not deflected the ball wide.
Right-back Flynn was finding Darlington a handful in defence but still managed to break forward to head over another promising Cox cross in the 32nd minute.
James Walshaw blazed wastefully over ten minutes before the break, but for all the visitors’ pressure it was Town who came closest to a first-half goal on 44 minutes.
Barry’s exquisite pass put Brown clear on the right of the six-yard box. He couldn’t force a shot on goal but the ball broke for Donnelly, whose drive from the edge of the area was cleared off the line.
Barry picked up a knock on the ankle in the build-up and made way for Keith Briggs.
The second half began in the same uncompromising vain, though bookings outnumbered noteworthy efforts on goal for a while.
The hour mark arrived with only a Greg Taylor header to speak of, misdirected into the night from Taylor’s corner. From a Town free-kick, Donnelly roused the home side with a first-time drive which Russell blocked.
Davies topped that save on 69 minutes, diving to his left to get both hands to Jamie Chandler’s shot from the right of the box. The keeper was at full stretch seconds later but Taylor’s 25-yarder sailed wide.
The ‘penalty’ incident aside, the game petered out in the final 20 minutes until a last-minute scramble in the Quakers box paved the way for frantic activity during the five minutes of stoppage time.
Brodie did well down the left to tee up Brown’s drive which rattled the woodwork, and despite the best efforts of Darlington’s Ben Purkiss to run down the clock – he received the final caution of the evening for timewasting – Town were not to be denied two more chances.
But Brodie’s delicate chip flew just wide and then McGuire’s drive from 30 yards was well saved by Russell.