Venue: Feethams, Darlington
Score: Peterborough Utd 2 v Darlington 2
Referee: Phil Richards.
There must be a limit on the number of ‘get out of jail free’ cards allowed in a single FA Cup competition and it’s now a fair bet that Posh have used all theirs.
After managing the not inconsiderable feat of making Bedford look like Brazil in the first round and getting away with fielding a reserve side against Bournemouth in round two, Posh found themselves 2-0 down against a mid-table Third Division side with little over a quarter of the contest remaining.
In truth Darlington were cruising along, despite missing a twice taken first half penalty, and dreaming of a money spinning meeting with Premiership neighbours Newcastle Utd when Posh presumably remembered their own cash strapped status and produced a thrilling comeback to earn a fortunate draw and cap a quite breathtaking cup tie.
Indeed this match had it all (including quite possibly the worst referee in the Nationwide League in Phil Richards) and yet it ultimately boiled down to a tale of three penalties.
Simon Rea was harshly adjusted to have knocked Danny Mellanby over in the 40th minute when the match was still scoreless, but Posh keeper Mark Tyler brilliantly blocked Brian Atkinson’s spot kick and then somehow kept out Neil Wainwright’s follow up shot only for referee Richards (Posh fans will recall his performance in the Reading match earlier this season with little fondness) to order a retake.
This time up stepped Barry Conlon to hit the ball so high it not only cleared Tyler’s crossbar, but sailed out of the stadium as though attached to a couple of fireworks.
Retribution duly arrived eight minutes from time with Darlington clinging onto a 2-1 advantage when Leon McKenzie was clumsily tripped by David Brightwell as he charged through on goal enabling Jimmy Bullard to smash home a penalty which could yet be worth a cool half a million quid.
It was a great finale, although it’s unlikely that watching Newcastle manager Bobby Robson left Feethams quaking in his boots. On this evidence Shearer, Dyer, Bellamy and Solano could all be rested in the next round with little fear of an upset.
Posh boss Barry Fry sort of agreed. He said “All 22 players on the pitch could take Newcastle on and they’d probably get hammered, but this is the FA Cup and the greater the challenge, the greater the performance the smaller club tends to produce. I’m just happy to have another chance as we took ages to get going. I took two off at half time and I’d have took a few more off if I’d have been allowed.”
Darlington were on their feet as Posh pushed for a winner at the death, but it was a different story for the first hour as the home side defended with considerable skill and possessed the best two attackers on the pitch in Barry Conlon and Neil Wainwright.
Quite what galvanised an out of sorts home side into such dominance was unclear although filthy rich chairman George Reynolds (a sort of less threatening Sam Hammam type figurehead favouring walks around the grandstand rather than the pichside) was seen to call his players all together just before the start of the game.
He could well have been offering impromptu win bonuses such was Darlington’s impressive approach which caught a seemingly tense Posh side on the hop.
Conlon won every single aerial challenge while Wainwright teased and tormented Tom Williams. Danny Mellanby missed the first half chance on three minutes when shooting straight at Tyler from the edge of the penalty area and Conlon did likewise soon afterwards just before Mark Ford directed a header from a Wainwright cross perilously close to an upright.
A long range back header from Ciaran Toner from a Bullard free kick which had Darlington goalkeeper Andy Collett back pedalling frantically was the nearest Posh came to scoring and it came as no surprise when they fell behind.
Just two minutes after surviving the trauma of two penalties Tyler was beaten by Wainwright’s accurate shot from the edge of the penalty area which forced Fry into positive action.
Off went blameless Marc Joseph and the ailing Toner and on came Dean Hooper and Andy Clarke with McKenzie pushed out to the right wing and Farrell, critically as it turned out, moved over to the left flank.
There was an immediate improvement as Fenn curled a shot narrowly wide from 20 yards and Clarke went round Collett, but shot from an unlikely angle rather than cross to better placed team mates.
It was rather out of the blue when Collett’s enormous clearance on the hour was missed by Rea and Conlon just beat Andy Edwards to the ball before finishing expertly with a single flick of his left boot.
Midfielder Jon Cullen was immediately sent on in place of the disappointing Fenn and McKenzie gave Farrell the chance to pull a goal back from just inside the penalty area on 67 minutes and McKenzie finally got past his man to win the match saving penalty towards the end.
It was desperate stuff and Posh have plenty to thank the cool head of Bullard for, as well as the persistence of Farrell who after failing to get round the Darlington left back Simon Betts in the first half tortured right back Phil Brumwell for the final 45 minutes in a manner which would have pleased the Maquis De Sade.
Conlon did miss a headed chance straight after the equaliser and McKenzie’s excellent run and shot was well blocked by Brightwell before both sides settled for another meeting.
Posh will have to play well to win because they surely won’t receive any more good fortune.
The Posh: Mark Tyler, Marc Joseph (sub Dean Hooper), Simon Rea, Andy Edwards, David Farrell, David Oldfield, Tom Willaims, Jimmy Bullard, Leon McKenzie, Neale Fenn (sub Jon Cullen) and Ciaran Toner (sub Andy Clarke).
Unused subs: Dan Connor, Howard Forinton.
Darlington: Andy Collett, Phil Brumwell, Paul Heckingbottom, Mark Ford, Brian Akinson, David Brightwell, Barry Conlon, Danny Mellanby (sub Ian Clark), Richard Hodgson, Simon Betts and Neil Wainwright.
Subs: Neil Maddison and Mark Convery for Brian Atkinson and Neil Wainwright.
Unused subs: Paul Campbell, Keith Finch.
Goal scorers: The Posh – David Farrell 67 mins and Jimmy Bullard (pen) 82 mins. Darlington – Neil Wainwright 43 mins and Barry Conlon 59 mins.
Booking: Marc Joseph (the Posh)