St Albans City supposedly in freefall. Leamington unbeaten and certainties for the Southern League championship. Not so. Cityâ€™s 3-0 triumph at Clarence Park on Saturday could so easily have been a six-goal rout as the Saints rediscovered their early season form to reignite their promotion push with an outstanding victory.
Leamington were well below their best but credit has to go to Cityâ€™s caretaker managers Jimmy Gray and Graham Golds as some gentle tinkering with regards to the same players that had picked up just four points from the previous eight league games played with an assurance missing for many weeks.
During the midweek county cup win over Watford St Albans pulled Richard Graham in from the wing and from a central position the Irishman dictated the play; against stronger opposition on Saturday he performed with even greater devastating effect.
While Graham, well supported in midfield by David Ijaha and young Matt Taylor, dictated the play the most eye-catching display came from Chris Henry whose runs at the Brakes defence drew frequent gasps of anticipation.
Henryâ€™s devastating speed may have been beyond experienced strikers Barry Hayles and Simon Martin â€“ combined ages 73 â€“ but they used their know how to good effect with Martin prodding in his 90th goal for the club.
At the back Nick Jupp pulled off a couple of outstanding saves and the backline was certainly none the poorer for Moussa Diarra coming in for the Arlesey Town-bound Danny Gordon.
Diarra and Curtis Ujah formed a formidable central partnership while full backs Chris Seeby and Ryan Watts, in addition to limiting Leamingtonâ€™s threat from the flanks, both moved forward with confidence and Seeby sent over two crosses that somehow Hayles and Henry missed with the goal at their mercy.
As for Leamington, they never seemed to get out of first gear. Given their unbeaten start to the season, spanning 14 Premier Division games, a lot was expected of them but other than for starting the second half in positive mood Paul Holleranâ€™s side was very much off colour.
Henry gave an early warning of his threat down the left with Brakes keeper Niall Cooper cutting out his low ball into the goalmouth.
The visitors, who had scored in all 22 competitive matches they had played in this season prior to arriving at Clarence Park, went close when a Jimmy Husband cross was headed into the goalmouth by Ricky Johnson. Ujah blocked the ball before it could reach Lee Chilton but then overran the ball and was relieved to see Craig Owen drill a shot narrowly wide.
St Albans opened the scoring on 16 minutes with their first league goal in 288 minutes.
Henry cut in from the right touchline and from wide of the penalty area drove the ball goalwards. Cooper stooped to collect only for Martin to nip in front of defender Liam Daly and with his outstretched left leg deflected the ball inside the keeperâ€™s near post.
Although City were looking comfortable playing a controlled passing game it was Leamington who created a succession of half chances but accuracy was lacking. The Brakes hopes were further hit when Johnson picked up an injury to his left leg as he and James Mace challenged for a cross by Chilton.
Johnson departed to be replaced by leading goal scorer Tom Berwick.
The fluency of St Albans play was never better illustrated than in the 38th minute when Graham and Ijaha worked the ball across the pitch to Seeby who then played it up the touchline Henry.
For once Henry opted to play the ball quickly and fed Hayles whose excellent through ball sent Taylor clear of a square Brakes backline.
The 17-year-old kept his composure as Cooper advanced and slid the ball to the left of the keeper only to see it roll agonisingly within a whisker wide of the upright.
That miss almost proved costly when Brakes skipper Stephan Morley curled a free kick to Juppâ€™s left only for the City custodian to pull off a spectacular one-handed save.
The feeling prevailed that City really needed to bolster their lead before the interval and on 44 minutes the second goal arrived.
Graham lifted a free kick into the penalty area that Daly headed away only for it to rebound off teammate Husband. Ujah pounced on the loose ball but his shot was blocked and ricocheted to the edge of the penalty area where Ijaha sent a low shot screaming through a crowd of players for his first goal since January.
Two minutes into added time Jupp pulled off another outstanding save from Berwick following Chiltonâ€™s well flighted chipped pass.
Leamington began the second period in more determined mood but were denied when Taylor, on the goal line, blocked a header by Matt Dodd, while a downward Daly header from another corner bounced up and onto the face of the crossbar.
Henry, enjoying his best 90 minutes in a City shirt, set up Martin for a header that went wide and then provided an exquisite ball in from the right that sliced the Brakes defence wide open and picked out Taylorâ€™s perfectly timed run.
Keeper Cooper rushed out to narrow the angle but only succeeded in getting in a tangle with his own defender, Martyn Naylor, and left Taylor to push the ball wide before guiding it into the vacant Hatfield Road net.
At three goals to the good in 64 minutes, courtesy of all three of their on-target efforts resulting in goals, City were home and dry.
Another flowing move ended with Hayles missing the ball from a Seeby cross as he confused himself with thinking about either heading or kicking the ball by his waist.
Late in the day Henry set off on his longest run of the afternoon, from deep inside his own half, before seeing his near post effort saved by Cooper.
Leamington closed with an attacking flurry that saw Alex Taylor scoop a shot wide from Owenâ€™s cross while Berwick suffered a glaring miss when shooting straight at Jupp after being teed up by Chilton.
Henry ought to have crowned his day with a goal after Ijaha laid a pass out to Seeby whose tempting cross begged to be put away but the ball flew across the face of the goal untouched as Henry stuck out a tentative leg.
It mattered not a jot as Cityâ€™s losing league run was over and they climbed back up to seventh in the table.
The City side was pretty much the one assembled by former manager Howell but Gray and Golds face testing times to keep the squad together over the coming days.
Defender Danny Gordon has already signed for Southern League rivals Arlesey Town while at least four players are believed to have been the target of seven-day approaches from other clubs.
An announcement is also expected shortly regarding the appointment of a new manager with Gray and Golds possibly having pushed their way into contention with the wins over Watford and Leamington.