When the 14 Eastbourne Borough fans who made the trip north stopped at service stations along the A1(M) on Saturday it wasn’t unleaded they were filling up on; it was hope.
The expectation pumps have long since run dry, but there was just enough hope left to power them to the Darlington Arena.
By the time they were heading back down south 90 minutes and six goals later, those engines were spluttering.
They, like the Sports players, were running on empty. After 11 consecutive league defeats only blind faith got them home.
Boro’ had stayed overnight in the area, avoiding an early start on Saturday, and for the first few minutes they were able to find a foothold.
With Richard Pacquette only fit enough for a place on the bench and Aldershot loanee Damian Spencer out of the 16 altogether, Jamie Taylor took on the lone striking role, in front of a midfield five.
But after 19 minutes Tommy Forecast in the Sports goal horribly misjudged a Marc Bridge-Wilkinson free-kick which flew threw his hands and into the net.
For a team at the foot of the table, those moments serve to dispirit. Ten minutes later their task was made harder when Matt Crabb upended Bridge-Wilkinson in the area, who made it two from the spot.
It went from bad to worse when Matt Smart gave away another penalty. Bridge-Wilkinson duly completed his hat-trick. Two minutes later it was four as Boro’ threatened to cave in entirely.
Striker Liam Hatch nodded past Forecast from close range, and eight minutes before the break Forecast was flailing again when he allowed John Campell’s weak shot to creep past him.
For boss Garry Wilson and head coach Nick Greenwood, 15 minutes was not nearly enough time to right the wrongs of the first half. If Darlington wanted revenge for their draw against nine-man Boro’ at Priory Lane in September, they had it with interest.
The only crumb of comfort for the management team was that it didn’t get significantly worse after the interval. Aman Verma shot past Forecast from 20 yards shortly before the hour mark, but thereafter a combination of the home side easing off the pedal and Boro’ scrapping for some pride brought a marginally improved showing from the visitors.
Neil Jenkins tapped home from a corner with five minutes remaining to add the tiniest speck of respectability to a humiliating scoreline – one of the worst of Wilson and Greenwood’s long tenure.
Darlington: Russell, Arnison, Miller, Hatch (Senior 60 mins), Burn, Verma, Bridge-Wilkinson, Campbell (Modest 46 mins), Gary Smith, Brown, Chandler (Taylor 56 mins).
Subs Not Used: St Louis-Hamilton, Quinn. Goals: Bridge-Wilkinson 19, 29 pen, 33 pen, Hatch 34, Campbell 37, Verma 58.
Eastbourne Borough: Forecast 4, Baker 5, Hutchinson 5, Elphick 5, Jenkins 5, Smart 5, Weatherstone 5 (N. Crabb, 60), M. Crabb 5 (Purcell, 76 mins), Brinkhurst 5, Johnson 6, Taylor 5 (Pacquette, 55 mins).
Subs not used: Banks, Demetriou.Booked: Johnson. Goal: Jenkins 85.
Ref: Paul Hodkinson 6