Darlington left it late before securing a victory that gives them a crucial edge over Rochdale as they attempt to reach the League Two play-off final at Wembley. Ian Miller, a Darlington substitute, had been on for only five minutes when he headed the winner in stoppage time from Neil Wainwright's free-kick.
It could prove a priceless goal against a Rochdale team whose build-up was disrupted when the reserve striker Lee Thorpe suffered a broken arm while arm-wrestling on the coach on the way to the game.
Keith Hill, the Rochdale manager, remains optimistic about the prospects of a club who have spent only five seasons outside the bottom tier of League football during their history. But he may not have felt so confident after a first-half when much of the action was compressed into the opening 10 minutes.
Darlington's Scott Wiseman almost came up with a classic goal. The full-back broke from deep inside his own half and just kept running as Rochdale's defence waited for a pass that never came. He eventually found himself in the Rochdale area and unleashed a shot that was blocked by the goalkeeper Tommy Lee.
Lee also reacted well in the 10th minute to a shot from Micky Cummins after the forward met a cross from Rob Purdie. Sandwiched between those opportunities was one for Rochdale's Chris Dagnall, who stole the ball away from a hesitant Alan White before steering a shot against the crossbar.
But Darlington, with Julian Joachim boosting the attack, were the more imaginative side and led from the 28th minute when Jason Kennedy's excellent control set up a shot and he curled the ball inside the far post.
Hill said: "We have young lads in our team and the occasion got to some of them in the first half, but we are encouraged because of our second-half performance."
They did improve and Dagnall claimed the equaliser when his long-range effort was deflected off Steve Foster in the 70th minute to leave goalkeeper David Stockdale stranded. But Miller had the last word with his winner in stoppage time as Lee failed to deal with Wainwright's free-kick.
"It was very frustrating to concede so late," Hill said. "Tommy Lee has done exceptionally well since he came on loan, but has held his hand up to the fact he made a mistake for the winner."
Darlington's manager, Dave Penney, said: "I thought we deserved to win. We could have scored more in the first-half before Jason got a great goal. It was a great finish. We knew set-pieces would be important and Ian Miller came up with the winner. There is still a long way to go and they will fancy their chances, but this gives us something to build on."