1 Martin Gray faces the biggest-ever test of his managerial mettle

Other than attracting some criticism following his attempts to bring Raj Singh back to Darlington after he had previously placed the club into administration, Gray experienced nothing like the abuse he was subjected to at Gainsborough in his first managerial job. His relationship with the Quakers was not always the perfect marriage, as witnessed by the reaction on his return to the club with the Minstermen in January but, football-wise, Darlington were always on an upward trajectory under the ex-Sunderland midfielder, with three promotions in five years and an attempt to secure a fourth only denied when stadium facilities were deemed inadequate to contest the play-offs they had qualified for last term.

Winning games will always be the key to getting fans onside of course and, emerging victorious in every three out of four games with Darlo according to Gray’s calculations, guaranteed he enjoyed far more cheers than jeers in the north-east. It is, therefore, hard to imagine a more miserable existence for any football manager than hearing loud chants for your dismissal, especially for a boss who has been used to acclaim.

Family members often witness all the highs and lows and Gray was clearly affected by the ferocity of City fans’ feelings at Gainsborough over the weekend. He freely admitted subsequently sounding out close associates with former England boss Steve McClaren, who once incurred the wrath of a whole footballing nation, likely to be high on that list.

The City boss has emerged from those discussions just as determined to succeed at the club he chose to leave Darlington for – if not this season, then next – despite rumours linking him to Singh’s Hartlepool in the division above. Whether he gets that chance could rest on Gray escaping unscathed from the club’s next three matches because, if off-pitch unrest such as that evidenced in Lincolnshire grows, positions can quickly become untenable.

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2 City players cannot currently justify claims they are working their hardest

It is probably too late for redemption unless, against the odds, the Minstermen can somehow salvage something from a wretched campaign by snatching a play-off place and, then, having a whole-hearted stab at winning promotion. But, at the very least, if the players want to avoid a repeat and escalation of the scenes at Gainsborough, then their standards must be much higher in the remaining three fixtures.

The time has passed for players to reason that they are trying their hardest, as 90 minutes without a shot on target at Nuneaton and defeat to ten-man Gainsborough just doesn’t support such claims. On both occasions, it could not be disputed that the effort and commitment shown by the part-time opposition was greater than those in City shirts.

Perhaps the commonest phrase of the season, meanwhile, has been “I understand the fans’ frustration but…” No more buts can be offered, though, as the players must provide some cause for that exasperation to ease against FC United of Manchester, Leamington and Brackley.

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3 Vinnie Steels’ performance highlighted the season-long absence of wing play

Despite Aidan Connolly’s ability to go past players and deliver a telling cross and Connor Smith’s direct running style, City have rarely opted to field out-and-out wingers this season. Steels’ second-half threat, though, reminded those present of the occasional merits of old-fashioned flank play.

Beating his man regularly as his confidence grew, 16-year-old Steels put in several inviting crosses to the far post. The likes of David Ferguson, Josh Law, Alex Pattison, Adriano Moke and Connor Brown have all been tasked with providing attacking width at different points of the season, but none could be described as wingers by trade.

Conversely, throwback pair Robbie Dale and Jarrett Rivers caused City all sorts of problems when Blyth Spartans won at Bootham Crescent just before Christmas. As the Minstermen continue to look for inspiration in the final third of the pitch, following Jon Parkin’s injury and a run of three games without a goal, changing the focal point for attacking moves might be worth a try.

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4 Connor Brown’s biggest asset is also his greatest flaw

This City squad are not blessed with thunderous tacklers and ex-Guiseley full-back Brown is perhaps the best ball winner at Gray’s disposal. Channelling that aggression, though, has proved problematic for the 25-year-old defender, who has been cautioned more than 15 times this season.

At Gainsborough, Gray opted to substitute Brown before he was ordered off following his late challenge on home sub Tom Davie. The City player had earlier guaranteed he would be a marked man for the rest of the game when he and the hosts’ left-back Brandon Fleming jumped in for a challenge in front of the dugouts.

Brown’s crunching challenge meant there was no room for error in terms of his timing, but he did win the ball, while Fleming caught the ankle of City’s player, who drew more attention to himself when, after writhing around in agony, he appeared to make a rapid recovery. There is a really fine line in football between a will to win and undue aggression and gamesmanship, with Brown needing to stay on the right side of it.

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5 Defender Hamza Bencherif was City’s best forward

It is often seen as an act of desperation when a centre back is thrown up front, much like the over-reliance on Sam Muggleton’s long throw was perceived during Gary Mills’ final weeks as City chief, but sometimes needs must and teams can be unsettled by an unexpected tactical switch. Employing Bencherif as a makeshift striker was a final throw of the dice but, during his half-hour in attack, the visitors did begin to compete in the final third and more than half of the team’s goal attempts – seven from 13 – came during that period of the game.

If City are chasing more games in Parkin’s absence, it will be no surprise, given the alternatives, if Gray turns to Bencherif again.