YORK City sporting director Dave Penney has told the club’s players to ignore any off-field hostility as Martin Gray returns to former team Darlington on Saturday.

Gray guided ex-Football League outfit Darlington to three promotions during his five-year tenure, but this weekend’s hosts have introduced a sterile area around the visitors’ dugout to try and avoid any unsavoury scenes involving home supporters still unhappy following his decision to succeed Gary Mills at Bootham Crescent in October.

Two players – Adam Bartlett and David Ferguson – have also followed Gray from County Durham to North Yorkshire, but Penney insisted that the team must focus solely on securing a third consecutive victory following the festive double-header against North Ferriby.

He said: “Darlington are a big, strong side with history and pedigree and they’re looking to get back to where they came from. Martin started that journey with them and got them where they are now and what he did there with Sean (Gregan), Brian (Atkinson) and Harry (Dunn) was fantastic.

“He got three promotions and reached the play-offs twice in five years. With him then leaving the club, there are a lot of side issues around this game apart from the three points, but the game is the main thing.

“Tommy Wright (Gray’s successor) is one of my former players and he’s trying to stamp his own authority on the club, so we must make sure we are ready for the battle. But the stuff about Martin is nothing to do with the players and we’ll be deflecting that away from them to make sure they get on with playing the game.”

Having witnessed City’s first clean sheet in 17 games following the 2-0 New Year’s Day home triumph over bottom-of-the-table Ferriby, Penney is hoping a different team approach to defending will now reap its reward with further shut-outs in coming weeks.

“That clean sheet might give us a bit of belief that we don’t have to score two or three goals to win a game,” he reasoned. “You have to get the right balance between attacking and defending and I don’t think that was quite right before.”

The Minstermen are set to name the same side for a third consecutive fixture, but added that the presence of club stalwart and two-time Press Player of the Year Dan Parslow on the bench means defensive standards must continue to be met to avoid future line-up changes.

“There’s a bit more stability at the back now,” Penney pointed out. “We’ve had the same back four for the last two games and the players are getting to know each other a bit better.

“If the team keeps playing well and winning games, then it’s hard to leave people out, but we’ve also got a strong bench now. When we came here, the starting XI was strong, but the substitutes were not good enough.

“Now, you have people like Dan Parslow, who was a regular before, keeping the team on their toes.”

Alex Whittle, meanwhile, wasn’t even commanding a place on the bench prior to his departure for League Two Forest Green this week and Penney argued that meant his exit would not be keenly felt.

“It wasn’t too disappointing to see him go because he wasn’t playing,” Penney pointed out. “Teams have been looking at him this season and last and he’s now got a great opportunity to see if he’s good enough to play in the Football League.”

Skipper Sean Newton has a chance of being involved at Blackwell Meadows after returning to training following the ankle injury that has seen him miss the last three matches.