Two Craig Hammond goals late in the day presented Cambridge City manager Gary Roberts with the perfect gift with which to celebrate ten years in charge at Milton Road on Saturday and condemned his former club, St Albans City, to a bitter 2-1 Southern League defeat.
Given the amount of possession Cambridge enjoyed over the 90 minutes the outcome was probably a just one but there were moments when the game, which saw St Albans lead until the 74th minute, could have twisted in favour of the Saints.
Cambridge drew level with a possibly harsh penalty and before the Whites clinched victory City struck the woodwork and were denied regaining the lead by an excellent save by home keeper Zac Barratt following James Comley’s well-placed shot.
Roberts, a former St Albans player and manager, received several presentations prior to the kick off, but as his side struggled to breakdown a resolute Saints defence the ultimate prize of three points looked to be slipping from his grasp.
City made two changes from the side beaten in midweek by Chesham with David Keenleyside and Fabio Bufano coming in for their first starts at the expense of Chris Henry and Matt Taylor.
Bufano attempted to the fill the void left by David Ijaha’s defection to Tonbridge Angels while Keenleyside looked to be having some success on the right wing before being switched across to the left flank.
St Albans started brightly with Layne Eadie fizzing the ball across the face of the home goal. Keenleyside retrieved the ball and fed Chris Seeby who low pass found Lewis Toomey who was shut by the combined efforts of Lee Chaffey and former Saint Dave Theobald.
Cambridge had early penalty appeals rejected following a sliding tackle by Moussa Diarra on Adam Marriott while Toomey needed treatment to his neck and shoulder after landing heavily following a clash with Barratt.
Saints keeper Nick Jupp made the first save of the day when scooping around the post a shot by the attack-minded Cambridge right-back Jackson Ramm and the closest the home side came to an early goal was when James Brighton curled a free kick just wide of the Saints goal.
St Albans opened the scoring on 24 minutes with a goal that was unexpected but not lacking in quality following an eight-man build up.
After building patiently the home defence was cut open when Comley switched play out to Eadie whose deep cross from the left was collected beyond the far post by Seeby. With a cleverly clipped ball towards the near post Seeby found Greg Ngoyi who, from the edge of the six-yard box, sent a flying header across the static Barratt.
Ngoyi was not far away from adding a second when winning the ball back and firing over after Keenleyside opted to cross low rather than shoot from a possibly tight angle.
And right on half time Cambridge had another scare when Richard Graham, who had another excellent game, floated a free kick into the penalty area and Barratt scampered across frantically to tip the ball around the post after it bounced up and threatened to drift inside the upright.
After the interval Cambridge were a different proposition but they still struggled to prise open the visitor’s defence.
Just 30 seconds after the restart the grounded Marriott almost equalised when his shot struck the inner thigh of the lunging Diarra and bounced across the diving Jupp and just beyond the far post.
From the ensuing corner Theobald headed goalwards but Saints captain Curtis Ujah was well positioned to chest the ball down and clear.
As the pressure was maintained Ramm cut the ball back to Marriott whose low shot was beaten down by Jupp and hacked away by Diarra and following a couple of ricochet’s another attack ended with Brighton blazing over.
Cambridge were fortunate not to go down to ten men when Mitchell Bryant, moments after being booked for kicking the ball away, was called over, along with captain Robbie Nightingale, by referee Rob Smith following some unwise words.
Quite bizarrely Bryant was not dismissed but Cambridge immediately substituted their petulant striker – who kicked out at the dug-out and threw his shirt to the ground once off the pitch – and sent on Hammond in what proved to be a match-winning move.
Midway through the half the game could have shifted strongly in St Albans favour when Graham slipped a pass inside to Comley whose shot from 25 yards was helped on by the head of Ngoyi past Barratt and into the face of the crossbar before being cleared.
At the same time City withdrew Keenleyside and gave a debut to former Reserve team player Josh Urquhart who has rejoined the club from Potters Bar Town.
Henry had two unconvincing penalty appeals rejected as St Albans enjoyed a purple patch before Nightingale, on 74 minutes, exchanged passes with Marriott and went down in the penalty area as Seeby moved across to challenge.
Referee Smith, whose performance was the subject of much discussion, pointed to the spot and Hammond drove the resulting penalty with some force through the hands of the diving Jupp.
Cambridge now pushed forward with greater conviction and went close with Marriott curling a free kick just wide of the target.
Toomey, freed by Diarra’s long clearance, could have turned the game back in City’s favour but only succeeded in hammering the ball high and out of the ground.
Four minutes from time a Seeby cross was headed away only as far as Comley whose right-footed drive was destined for the top corner until Barratt pulled off a spectacular save high to his right at the cost of a corner.
And the reward for that save came on 89 minutes when Marriott, unmarked at the back post, met a Nightingale cross from the Whites right and headed back across the goal for Hammond to head home his second of the day and 20th of the season.