St Albans City’s third run of three successive victories over the course of the past dozen Conference South matches came to a not overly surprising end on Saturday when Sutton United gained revenge for the Saints win by the same score at Gander Green Lane on the opening day of the season.
John Rains side were good value in chalking up their first win at Clarence Park in four years but the Saints will feel that this was not their day for a number of reasons. To the outside world this should have been a home win but it is doubtful if many of the home supporters really thought that even Colin Lippiatt could pull this one off. City were missing five first team regulars, including Lee Clarke whose brace of goals settled the first meeting back in August, and showed four changes to the starting line-up from the previous game at Lewes. Four players made their debut and such sweeping changes would be too much for practically any side to carry. A point apiece would have been satisfactory to most City supporters. The Sutton eleven on the pitch at the kick-off contained just five members of the side from the first meeting whilst the Saints side had just two survivors from that earlier game.
Sadly the ill-discipline that caused Saturday’s problems – Clarke, Ram Marwa and Scott Cousins missed the game through suspension while Matt Hann was suffering from a hamstring injury and Gary Elphick was recalled by Brighton & Hove Albion – came to the fore again when Dean Hooper collected two more yellow cards to pick up his third dismissal of the season. Prior to the kick off Hooper collected his Player of the Month award for March; whilst he has unquestionably been one of the Saints most outstanding performers this season his dire disciplinary record and frequent suspensions have also hit the side hard.
The match, played in welcome spring sunshine although there was a chill breeze in the air, got off to a most promising start with both sides looking to get forward in numbers. Two of the three new boys in the starting City line up, Gavin Tomlin and Kezie Ibe both made encouraging starts although visiting keeper Phil Wilson was able to soak up the sun for much of the afternoon with little fear of interruption. But the City player to really catch the eye early on was Tom Davis who was on top form until the second half when he was somewhat quiet.
Despite the entertaining football served up by both sides during the opening half-hour actual goal attempts were scarce although City had a let off in the 17th minute when the third of the new boys to start the game, Chris Wild, had his attempted clearance charged down with the ball rolling conveniently for Eddie Akuamoah to burst through the middle. Chris Seeby gave chase and did just enough to force the striker to hurry his shot and fire well wide. As Sutton began to take charge both Lewis Gonsalves and Chris Nurse just failed to turn in a Gray free kick while Paul Honey was only denied by an upright.
Akuamoah’s reactions suggested he felt he should have had a penalty when challenged by Seeby earlier on and maybe referee Chris Jones, whose performance was, er, well, at best disappointing, put the visitors in better mood on the half hour when he accepted a linesman’s amazing assumption that Ben Walshe had impeded Scott Corbett and awarded a spot kick from which Gray duly opened the scoring.
City’s promise of early on was fast diminishing and the imbalance of the hastily arranged XI was clearly to Sutton’s advantage. The match was effectively put out of City’s reach during first half added time when an excellent move involving Honey and the completely unattended Akuamoah ended with Corbett powering a close range header past Paul Bastock.
City removed Tom Beech at the interval to make Lee Fieldwick our fourth debutant of the day and the former Brentford, Swansea City, Lewes and Maidenhead United player showed up as well as any of the new quartet. His arrival, however, necessitated the changing of positions for several personnel which again hindered City’s rhythm. St. Albans posed more of an attacking threat during the second period but other than for an effort wide by Ibe and off-target headers from Wild and Ben Martin little on consequence was created. Sutton, however, was looking increasingly dangerous on the break but their best openings were squandered by Craig Watkins and Tony Quinton while Watkins was also unfortunately when he did well to beat Bastock to Martin’s headed back pass only to clip his shot marginally wide.
City, looking for a sixth successive home win in all competitions against a side with just one victory from it’s previous eight league matches, found a way back into contention on 78 minutes when a Saints attack ended with Seeby, now moved into the right of midfield, playing the ball square across the edge of the penalty area to Fieldwick whose crisp drive left Wilson without a prayer. Was history to repeat itself? Attacking the Hatfield Road end in 1970 City overturned a two-goal deficit at home to Sutton with four goals in the final six minutes securing a 4-2 victory, but no it wasn’t to be despite Fieldwick, this time following a pass by Nick Roddis, forcing Wilson into a save with another crisp drive.
Whilst Sutton had been the better side on the day City certainly had not enjoyed the rub of the green with regards to refereeing decisions and three bookings for dissent highlighted the Saints frustration at Mr Jones curious interpretation of the Laws of the Game. That frustration became too much for Hooper when he was adjudged to have fouled Nigel Brake in the closing stages to receiving his marching orders. Brake’s recovery once Hooper was red carded defied medical science. Quite how Corbett not only avoided joining Hooper in an early bath after appearing to elbow Davis in the final minute but have the free kick awarded in his favour is something only the match officials can explain.
Report by David Tavener