St Albans City shook off the first half dismissal of Gary Cohen to collect a fully merited point from a 2-2 draw in a lively Boxing Day encounter at Clarence Park with Blue Square South promotion hopefuls Hampton & Richmond Borough.
Cohen was dismissed for just the second time in his career when referee Ian Rathbone deemed the strikers 39th minute challenge on Francis Quarm to have been too high, but City were none too happy with the hysterical reaction of the visitors and believed this contributed to his early bath.
At this stage of the game there seemed a genuine possibility that more indiscipline could follow, indeed City had four other players booked, but instead the second half was an enthralling battle as the ten-man Saints, with a frequently changing formation, twice took the lead.
Saints manager Steve Castle rang the changes after three successive defeats. Scott Cousins returned at left back while Chris Seeby made a surprise appearance on the opposite flank for his first league game since September last year following a knee ligament injury.
In the middle of the park Castle played Cohen on the right with James Fisher moving into the centre from right back to cover for the flu-stricken James Quilter. Lee Clarke retained his place alongside Fisher but midway through the second half Clarke and Paul Hakim resumed their once-prolific striking partnership following a lengthy spell apart.
Hampton had won on just one of their previous nine most recent visits to St Albans and despite having an attacked led by the in-form Ben Wright, seven goals in his previous nine league games, there looked little chance of that statistic being improved upon during the early stages as accurate finishing eluded both sides.
The opening half was also littered by petty free kicks for virtually non-stop pushing with both teams being equally guilty. Had Mr Rathbone blown for every infringement he would have, without question, been harangued from all directions. Instead he let a number of clear fouls go unpunished and was still lambasted.
City, without a Blue Square goal for 283 minutes, started brightly and on four minutes the somewhat large Hampton keeper Matt Lovett was relieved to see Ben Martin just fail to reach a Jonathan Hunt free kick at the back post.
The Beavers reply was swift with Lawrence Yaku spinning swiftly on the edge of the box and clipping a fine effort just over the home goal.
Good individual performances were to be found all over the pitch with Seeby and Hakim being amongst the best. The duo combined on seven minutes to win the first corner of the afternoon but Hunt’s dead ball cross fell lamely into the side netting.
A spell of play where the ball spent far too long up in the chill winter air contributed to the high number of pushing incidents but a good City move on 20 minutes ended with Simon Martin looping a header well off target following a Cousins cross.
When the ball was on the deck City showed just what they are capable of. Seeby surged forward and took a clever return back-heeled pass from Fisher – the match sponsors man of the match – before drilling in a low shot that Lovett took cleanly.
Hakim, sent clear by Clarke’s through ball, looked to have found a way through until Beavers skipper Dean Wells produced an exquisitely timed sliding tackle inside the penalty area.
And on 33 minutes Wells again came to Hampton’s rescue after Ben Martin and Lovett crashed to the ground when challenging for a Hunt corner, as the duo tumbled over Simon Martin stretched to stab the ball goalwards only for Wells to block and then clear.
A minute later Wright put an excellent ball through the City defence for Yaku to latch onto but just as the striker was about to put the ball into the net linesman Andy Aylott flagged for a possibly dubious offside.
Six minutes later Festive Cheer was difficult to spot as the players assembled en masse to discuss the merits of Cohen’s challenge on Quarm. It looked ugly but was more mistimed than malicious. Quarm went down, got up to join in the melee then went down again as Cohen was called to one side to receive his red card. During the rumpus City captain Ben Martin and Hampton’s Stuart Lake received yellow cards, Lake’s fortunes hardly improved later in the game either.
Going a man down against a side defeated just twice in its previous 14 games was far from ideal but City responded magnificently and played their part to the full during an absorbing second half. Hampton, particularly during the latter stages, racked up the chances but St Albans still came close to snatching an unlikely three points.
Just three minutes after swapping ends City finally found the back of the net with Hakim getting goalside of the static Beavers defenders to bundle into the York Road goal a Hunt cross from the left for his tenth league goal of the season. He becomes the first City player since the 2005-06 season to get into double figures in league matches alone.
In a bid to preserve the lead City left Simon Martin as a lone striker with Hakim moving to the right of the midfield.
City survived a scare on 50 minutes when Stuart Lake’s shot appeared harmless but bounced lower off the turn than expected causing Bastock not to grab the ball but be thankful just to get an accidental touch and hand the visitors their only corner of the game.
But City’s reprieve was short lived as Hampton broke at speed on 53 minutes with a slick move sending Yaku into the penalty area. Bastock spread himself well to block the first attempt but could do nothing to stop Yaku from slamming the rebound into the Hatfield Road goal off the underside of the crossbar.
For a while things looked ominous for City. Marcello Fernandes blocked an attempted clearance by Hunt only to see his shot thud into team-mate Barrie Matthews who then shot straight at Bastock.
The City keeper was none too pleased at Matthews not being given offside and ran wide in his penalty area to suggest to linesman Gareth Viccars that he may have made an error. The next time the ball went out of play Bastock was duly cautioned.
Despite their numerical shortfall St Albans played plenty of good passing football during the second half and were almost rewarded when Cousins neatly controlled the falling ball and ran on to test Lovett from 20 yards.
And Cousins marked his return to the side most emphatically on 63 minutes. After exchanging passes with Hunt down the Saints left Cousins crossed towards the near post but Lake intervened to send a glancing header, from wide of the six yard box, just inside Lovett’s right hand upright for City’s fourth own goal of the season.
Hampton’s promotion bid was starting to falter in front the highest Clarence Park attendance of the season and Castle was prepared to make bold changes to force a victory. Simon Martin was hauled off on 65 minutes with Jon Monday sent on to bolster the midfield. Castle bravely went for a three-man midfield as he pushed both Hakim and Clarke into forward positions.
St Albans did indeed look capable of poaching a third goal but Hampton were creating an increasing number of chances of their own with Wells scooping a good chance over the top.
Lovett, a far from agile looking keeper, miscued when running wide to clear the ball, and sent the sphere straight to Seeby who tried an audacious first time effort from 35 yards. The shot did not go far off target with Hakim retrieving the ball and winning a corner.
But 12 minutes from time Hampton plundered an equaliser that, at the time, was a touch out of the blue. A long ball sent Yaku away down the Beavers left and from his low cross the ball appeared to run through several legs before substitute Ian Hodges stabbed home his third league goal of the season.
During the remaining time Alan Devonshire’s side pushed hard to gain the extra two points. Quarm fired just wide from 25 yards, Wright clipped a shot just too high and Bastock was out smartly to save at the feet of Hodges.
Just prior to the start of added time Bastock dived to his left to parry a shot from Quarm and when Hampton quickly regained possession the City keeper watched anxiously as Hodges’, from out on the Hampton right, looped the ball towards but just beyond the back post.
City refused to buckle but when a Hakim cross was blocked the visitors surged forward once more with Shaun McAuley looking odds on to score until Cousins dived in with a thrilling block.
Deep into added time Hampton seemed to have finally found a way through when Bastock once more thwarted Wright with Yaku faced with the simple task of sliding the loose ball into the open goal. But Yaku opted to go for power and appeared stunned when his fierce drive crashed against the crossbar, his embarrassment was saved, to a degree, by a raised flag for offside.