Cavalier attacking football with scant thought towards defending carried St Albans City to one of the most thrilling and potentially crucial victories in the clubs history on Saturday as Bedford Town, in the face of a second half onslaught by the ebullient Saints, blew not only a two-goal interval lead but also a place in the Conference Division One South.
City players celebrate the play-off win
With both defences ravaged by injury and suspension this match always suggested it could be a high scoring affair but no one could have predicted such a topsy-turvy encounter as City made light of having lost the last four Ryman League meetings with the Eagles to end what had been a thoroughly miserable season on an unbelievable high.
With Chris Zoricich and Derek Brown added to the list of absentees, City started with Chris Seeby, surprisingly, switched to right back and Richard Thomas moving inside to partner Miguel De Souza, and Greg Deacon going to the right of midfield and Scott Oakes on the left. Bedford were minus the highly influential trio of defenders Lee Howarth and Eddie Lawley and striker Chris Dillon.
St Albans were positive from the off and home supporters nerve ends were soon twitching as keeper Ian Brown spilled a cross from Oakes before the ball was hacked away. Within six minutes though City were ahead as Steve Watts, seemingly hemmed in by the corner flag, whipped over a cross to the back post where Deacon did not make the best of contacts but with the aid of a deflection saw the ball fly back across the goal and inside Brownâ€™s right hand post.
Already City looked the superior outfit with Bedfordâ€™s threat coming on the counter-attack, something they achieved with great success. On eight minutes a swift Eagles attack ended with Daniel French shooting straight at George Clark. Two minutes later Bedfordâ€™s leading scorer Drew Roberts went through but saw his low shot blocked by Clark who was up quickly to safely gather Craig Rydeheardâ€™s follow up.
Chances flowed at either end but City should have moved two ahead on 15 minutes when Adam Parker needed to apply, but just failed, the merest touch with his head to an Oakes free kick that Brown unconvincingly helped around the post. With a curling effort Watts also went close before Bedford turned the game on its head on 20 minutes with Liam Folds rising unchallenged to powerfully head home the equaliser from a French corner. Although stunned St Albans remained on the offensive with a clever back header by Watts from another Oakes free kick virtually brushing the woodwork.
The ball remained in the Eagles half as City sought to regain their lead but on 32 minutes a good through ball by Rene Howe exposed Cityâ€™s obvious defensive frailties and after neatly sidestepping Clark Julian Capone swept in his first league goal for the club.
Five minutes later Bedford appeared to be Conference bound when Folds added his second and Bedfordâ€™s third with a diving header from a French free kick. City were now very much on the racks as both French and Rydeheard went close to surely putting the result beyond any reasonable doubt and it was with some relief that City trudged off to the dressing room just two goals in arrears.
Having battled through extra time in midweek it seemed that tired limbs would condemn Cityâ€™s belated bid to join the Conference to end in failure but instead it was Bedford who came out for the second half looking happy to settle with what they had while St Albans, to their immense credit, attacked with panache and confidence. Brown made a superb save low to his right to deny Watts but with manager Steve Castle bringing himself on giving an excellent display in the middle of the park with calm precise passing City were again in control.
On 59 minutes it was Castle who began the recovery as his free kick into the goalmouth was helped on by Miguel De Souza for Adam Parker to score his fourth play-off goal with a simple header at the back post. Bedford still threatened on the counter attack but Roberts, who got clear four times, was outmanoeuvred each time by Clark in the City goal. A clear chance went begging on 65 minutes when Roberts squared to French whose delayed shot gave Thomas just sufficient time to slide in and divert the ball back to Clark.
The anticipated City equaliser arrived on 68 minutes when Parkerâ€™s ball into the box was handled by Folds with the resulting penalty driven into the centre of the goal by Clarke, his 10th goal of the season, as Brown dived to his right. Six minutes later Clarke slipped the ball through Folds legs and got goalside of the defender who tipped him from behind but astonishingly no penalty was forthcoming.
Undeterred, City kept up the pressure and on 75 minutes scored a dramatic fourth as Parker missed a Castle free kick only for De Souza to swoop at the back post and scoop the ball high to Brownâ€™s left. Bedford were down but received a lifeline ten minutes from time when Roberts once again got behind the City defence and won a penalty when brought down from behind by De Souza. As if to make amends for not despatching Folds referee Mr Lodge only cautioned the City defender while the Eagles notched their final goal of the season, and Roberts his 28th, with a spot kick high to Clarkâ€™s right.
But there was to be one final twist in this extraordinary tale and it deservedly went the way of the Saints who continued to play an excellent passing game that has been alien to them for much of the season and was visibly wearing down the tiring Eagles. Brown stood between St Albans and the Conference as he made a tremendous save from Watts and then a more routine one from a dipping effort by Deacon.
But as the clock ticked towards the end of the first of almost nine minutes of added time the Saints finally grounded the Eagles. Gary Wraight played a long ball down the City left to Watts who, standing just inside the apex of the penalty area, chested the ball down and turned to face goal before curling an exquisite angled shot beyond Brownâ€™s groping left hand fingertips and high into the top corner of the goal.
Report by Dave Tavener