IT might be a little premature to be talking about epiphanies at Bootham Crescent but, on January 6, York City’s players could not have picked a more appropriate date to suggest they have acquired a sudden understanding of manager Martin Gray’s methods.

The ex-Darlington chief has been working tirelessly on the training field since his October appointment to instil his footballing philosophy into a squad of inherited players, bolstered by regular additions.

In the meantime, the former Sunderland midfielder has stressed that such a process will take time – a commodity few are spared in the modern game, let alone somebody at the helm of a club carrying City’s status in English football’s sixth tier and a top-three budget, while slipping away from the play-off pace.

But, even though completing a festive double over bottom-of-the-table North Ferriby was always going to draw scepticism regarding on-pitch improvements, this 2-1 triumph at Gray’s former club provided genuine optimism that progress is starting to be made during the fourth month of his tenure.

The Quakers’ players, management staff and supporters were determined to prevail against Gray, following his perceived defection to North Yorkshire and their first-half fight and endeavour secured a 1-0 half-time advantage, courtesy of the combative Reece Styche’s third goal against the Minstermen this term after his match-winning brace for Tamworth.

But City, who always looked the better footballing side, hit back through Sean Newton and Jon Parkin efforts within seven minutes of the restart and, but for later profligacy, should have run out more comfortable winners.

The manner of the visitors’ attacking surges, disregarding the standard of finishing, made for as entertaining a contest has been witnessed during Gray’s tenure with the forward charges of Amari Morgan-Smith and Alex Pattison, allied with Aidan Connolly’s skilful probing, regularly stretching the home back-line.

City have, at times, looked disjointed in recent months, but this entertaining performance provided evidence that Gray is settling on a pattern of play that best suits his players and is one they are comfortable implementing.

Consistency in selection is obviously helping that process with skipper Newton’s return from injury and preference to Sean McAllister the only change in Gray’s starting XI during the Minstermen’s first three-game winning run since April 2014.

Darlington, meanwhile, wasted no time in stating their intention to rise to arguably the biggest occasion at their Blackwell Meadows home.

David Syers blazed over from a narrow angle with less than two minutes on the clock and, moments later, Terry Galbraith went close with a fizzing edge-of-the-box half-volley after Jonny Burn and Hamza Bencherif had both struggled to clear their lines.

City responded with a brave Morgan-Smith header at the far post that was blocked by home keeper James Talbot, leading to a collision that saw both players requiring treatment.

Josef Wheatley then curled a free kick just wide after Greg Mills had teased a foul out of Burn.

Both teams went on to have a goal ruled out for offside in quick succession.

Parkin was first to be denied after beating Talbot with a first-time finish from Connolly’s excellent left-wing cross and Styche was similarly thwarted after following up an Adam Bartlett save from Syers’ firm drive.

Play continued to swing from one end to the other, with Morgan-Smith going close from a deflected header after Newton’s left-wing cross and Mills just wide from the edge of the box for Tommy Wright’s team.

Pattison also skied well off target after good play from Connolly and Styche’s low drive was punched to safety by Bartlett.

Centre-back Gary Brown, meanwhile, headed over from an inviting, inswinging Galbraith cross, with Parkin doing the same after a delivery by Pattison, who went on to fire over after a purposeful burst to the edge of the home box.

But, after Harvey Saunders shot over when Bencherif blocked his initial effort, Darlington opened the scoring on 43 minutes in rudimentary fashion.

Styche, who had bullied Burn out of the game, powered past his replacement Dan Parslow to latch on to a long ball through the left channel and then crashed an emphatic ten-yard shot in off the underside of Bartlett’s bar.

City, though, showed great character in front of a buoyant home crowd to go for the jugular after the restart.

Within a minute, the scores were level when a Connolly shot was blocked and, after the ball ballooned up, Newton beat Talbot with a low edge-of-the-box volley that took a heavy deflection off Josh Heaton.

Darlington were then undone by the next attack when they were caught undermanned three against two on the counter and Morgan-Smith’s smart ball through the left channel released Connolly for a clear run on goal.

The Scotsman nicked the ball past Talbot and, having to hurdle to avoid the sliding net-minder, lost his balance as he crashed back to earth.

Referee Adam Herczeg correctly pointed to the spot despite Darlington protests and Parkin beat Talbot high to his left with his lethally converted 52nd-minute spot kick.

To their credit, Gray’s old team did not fold after the consecutive blows with Bartlett pushing away a Stephen Thompson strike before safely gathering a Heaton attempt.

Parkin, however, should have perhaps taken his tally to a quarter-of-a-century for the season moments later, clearing the crossbar from eight yards with a half-volley.

A 15-yard opportunity for Connolly was also too high, while Morgan-Smith’s deflected effort spun wide following a clever flick by Pattison, whose 72nd-minute shot was kept out at his near post by Talbot after Parkin spotted his run through the right channel.

Newton, meanwhile, travelled half the length of the pitch with the ball before his eventual, right-footed attempt was too tame to trouble Talbot.

The hosts refused to surrender with Thompson trying his luck three times from distance to no avail and Galbraith curling over from one of a number of free kicks conceded late on by City.

But the outcome should have twice been put beyond all doubt during stoppage time.

First, sub James Gray sent Pattison clear through the right channel but he blasted straight at Talbot.

Then, the roles were reversed as Pattison delivered a cross that Gray volleyed over in front of goal with just Talbot to beat.

Fortunately, for both players, it mattered little as City completed a long overdue hat-trick of victories.

Nobody with a Minstermen allegiance, though, could ever have anticipated when Nigel Worthington last achieved that modest feat on the way to contesting promotion to League One that it would only be matched three levels lower down the football pyramid and after four managerial changes.

City ratings

Adam Bartlett 8

Josh Law 7

Hamza Bencherif 7

Jonny Burn 6

David Ferguson 7

Adriano Moke 7

Alex Pattison 8

Sean Newton 7

Aidan Connolly 8

Amari Morgan-Smith 8

Jon Parkin 8

Substitutes: Dan Parslow 7 (for Burn, 20), Daniel Rowe (for Connolly,78), James Gray (for Morgan-Smith, 88).

Subs not used: Sean McAllister, Luke Simpson.

Star man: Connolly – claimed two assists and was a genuine creative spark for the team

Darlington: James Talbot, Dom Collins (Tom Portas, 71), Josh Heaton, Gary Brown, Stephen Thompson, David Syers, Josef Wheatley, Greg Mills, Terry Galbraith, Reece Styche, Harvey Saunders. Substitutes: Leon Scott, James Caton, Phil Turnbull, Josh Gillies.

Darlington star man: Styche – troubled City for a second time this season

Referee: Adam Herczeg rating: 7/10 – sensible amid derby atmosphere

Booked: Talbot 52, Wheatley 65, Bencherif 73, Connolly 76, Thompson 79, Rowe 83

Sent off: None

Attendance: 2,500 (780 from City)

Shots on target: Darlington 5, City 6

Shots off target: Darlington 8, City 7

Corners: Darlington 6, City 6

Fouls conceded: Darlington 11, City 12

Offside: Darlington 2, City 4