Daisy Hill’s hope of making a winning start to 2024 in the North West Counties League First Division North were dashed when they fell to a 1-0 defeat at home to Darwen at the Plumb Factory Stadium on Monday night.

In an evenly-matched game, a goal from Darwen substitute Sam Holt 14 minutes from time proved to be the match winner, and although it was always a close-fought affair, Daisy manager Lee Hill felt his side had not maintained the same level of performance they showed before Christmas.

“I didn’t think we were really at it tonight, and I don’t think we played as well as we did in our last two games against Atherton LR and Ilkley Town,” said Hill post-match.

“What we have been doing in the last five or six weeks, we didn’t really put into practice tonight, which was disappointing.

“We were forced into three changes, with Ryan Talbot having picked up a niggle and he didn’t start, and we were missing Glenn Matthews and Jack Iley, too.

“That meant we had to shuffle things around a bit, and move players into positions they hadn’t played in recent weeks, which has probably unsettled the momentum we had.

“Darwen were definitely the better side in the first half, although I felt we were the better side after the break.

“It was a poor free-kick to give away that cost us the goal, one poor decision has changed the game, although I felt it was a soft one and I didn’t think it was a free-kick personally.

“But we should have dealt with it better when it came into the box.

“We had some chances, Dean (Singleton) had a header just wide, and we had crosses that bounced around in the box that we just couldn’t convert.

“But they had some good chances, too, and (goalkeeper) Morgan Newns made some really good saves in the first half.

“They have got good players, and we knew they were going to test us. They have got experienced players, and players who have played at a higher level, they play in their own style which is effective, but I didn’t feel they looked any better than us.

“I’m disappointed, but not too disheartened, it’s not like they came here and rolled us over. We still managed to mix it with a team that has one of the best squads in the league.

“They were just a bit more clinical than us at one vital moment and that’s what separated the sides.”

The game was a lively affair from the start with both sides creating chances in the opening minutes.

Daisy’s first opening arrived on six minutes when Ben Unsworth headed wide from Jake O’Brien’s corner, and a minute later home keeper Morgan Newns made the first of several good saves on the night when he reacted quickly to block Leon Creech’s close-range shot.

At the midway point of the half, Lucas Schofield almost marked his first appearance since early August with a goal, but his shot from Sam Twist’s cross was cleared off the line by covering defender Charlie Lloyd.

After Newns was called upon to make good saves from a Creech shot and a Lloyd header, Daisy were unlucky again when Twist raced through on goal and fired in a shot which was blocked on the line by Darwen central defender Finley Devenney.

The end-to-end nature of the game continued after the break, although it was Daisy who created the best chance in the opening stages.

On the hour mark, Malick Tanou and Jamie Ramwell combined well to set up a shooting chance for Twist, but his effort flew wide from the edge of the box, and a few minutes later Dean Singleton was unlucky when his powerful header from O’Brien’s free-kick just edged past the far post.

But it was the visitors who struck the decisive blow with the only goal of the game 14 minutes from time.

After conceding a soft free-kick wide on the left, the Daisy defence was slow to react when the ball was swung in to the far post, and Charlie Lloyd’s cushioned header fell nicely into the path of Darwen substitute Holt, who smashed the ball home from close range to seal victory.

Daisy now face a double header of games in the North West Counties League First Division North, with a trip to Runcorn Town on Saturday being followed by a home game on Monday evening against AFC Blackpool.