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Football FA Cup: Darlington close to cracking the code

Aston Villa 2

Carbone 43, Dublin 63

Darlington 1

Heckingbottom 71

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 22,101

SO WHO was the lucky one? Darlington, the "lucky losers", given Manchester United's place in the FA Cup third round, or Villa, who in their current form would almost certainly have lost to United? Either way, Darlington took the opportunity hopefully and bravely to give Villa yet another fraught afternoon.

Quite why Darlington had been given this second chance as a result of United's opting out to play in the World Club Championship was baffling. They were called "lucky losers" because they had been beaten fair and square by Gillingham in the previous round but put back in the draw. Any reasonable person (which presumably eliminated most of the decision-makers at the FA) would offer the chance to an unlucky loser, such as those who at least made the second-round replays.

Nevertheless, Darlington are an optimistic club with a mega-rich chairman who has Premiership ambitions. George Reynolds, once a convicted safecracker, says he was "one of the best in Europe", but these days he thinks more of Darlington breaking into the big-time - even Europe. Certainly their 6,000 travelling fans noisily out-voiced a modest Villa crowd subdued by recent results. And even with their side lacking leading scorer, Marco Gabbiadini, they had much to cheer about early on.

The Third Division side elected to play a well-formed, possession game that kept Villa fumbling for the first 30 minutes - and saw Darlington threatened only spasmodically. The returning Ugo Ehiogu might have changed all that but failed to make good contact in front of goal. A header from Gareth Barry was blocked on the line and Dion Dublin headed close. Darlington deserved their escapes.

Withdrawing players effectively from midfield to defence, they coped well with the running of Paul Merson and strength of Dublin but rarely had more than nominal numbers in the Villa half. However, after 29 minutes a searching drive from Neil Heaney forced James to abandon thoughts of catching the ball. As he palmed it to the ground, Peter Duffield came at him. The ball was loose. Duffield hit it firmly but this time James proved a more formidable obstacle and the ball spun off him harmlessly. Villa's frowns matched those of their jittery manager, John Gregory.

Relief for Villa came two minutes from half time when Benito Carbone, hovering outside the area, saw Mark Samways off his line and penalised him with a crashing shot high beyond the goalkeeper.

The danger of giving Carbone space had already been pointed out to Darlington, yet at the opening of the second half they were still allowing him to roam. Admittedly, even top Premiership defences have the same problem. The goal was his first for Villa and encouraged him to search for more. Indeed he missed a second by the length of his small boots when he attempted to stretch for a low cross by Mark Delaney in front of a sparsely defended goal.

The tie should have been closed by Villa 10 minutes into the second half when Merson curled the ball into the penalty area only to have Ian Taylor head wide. Taylor failed to make his apologies when Merson again put him in a goalscoring situation, this time cleverly slipping a short pass between Darlington defenders. Taylor snatched at his shot which clipped the foot of the post. But Villa were at last keeping their sturdy and not unskilful opponents on the back foot.

The concentration of attacks led almost inevitably to Villa adding to their lead. A corner from Alan Thompson was powerfully met by Dublin who headed directly into goal. And had it not been for a sensational diving touch of Merson's drive by Samways, Darlington would have had no chance of making their spirited revival.

The opportunity to haul themselves back came when Barry rashly pulled down Duffield. It was an obvious penalty which Duffield cracked hard but directly at James. The ball rebounded and Paul Heckingbottom sent it back where it should have gone originally.

The chance of a replay had the Darlington chairman dancing in the aisles, scarf raised above his head, encouraging the fans and his team to greater efforts. You would not believe him when he said later that he was more concerned about beating Chester this week.