Contrasting goalkeeping fortunes at Westleigh Park on Saturday contrived to keep St Albans City in the hunt for the Conference South championship – or at least until the league decide the fate of Weymouth following the disclosure of the season-long title favourites having fielded a possibly ineligible player for two games back in the autumn.
The goal that settled a truly dreadful encounter down in Hampshire at the weekend came courtesy of an embarrassing blunder by the Hawks former City keeper Gareth Howells while his opposite number, Paul Bastock, added three more entries to his already bulging scrapbook of outstanding saves this season.
Howells howler came on 20 minutes when he raced to the touchline attempting to escort out of play a long ball down the right by Chris Seeby. A complete misjudgement by Howells allowed the alert Paul Hakim to whip the ball from his toes by the corner flag and dart along the goalline before cutting a low pass into the path of Lee Clarke who, despite Tom Jordan’s desperate lunge, slotted home his 25th goal of the season.
Given what was to come, the game enjoyed a lively start with both sides on the offensive, the first clear opening went the way of the Hawks with Brett Poate’s cross to the far post wastefully headed wide by the towering Carl Wilson-Denis.
Eight minutes later City struck the decisive blow and shortly after another good run by the again impressive Hakim almost created a second opening. Bastock made a routine stop from the Conference South’s leading scorer, Ricky Baptise, before being forced into pulling off an excellent save to his right as Baptiste cut inside two players and drilled a powerful shot towards the near post.
Bastock topped that save on the stroke of half time as he tipped away, high to his right, a crisply struck rising Poate free kick. Five minutes after the restart, with Wessex League player Tom Taylor replacing the injured Howells, Havant were again denied by Bastock as he and Baptiste met a high ball at the same time with Bastock pouncing on the loose ball as it bounced close to goal.
Matt Hann, playing for 70 minutes on the left to accommodate the erratic Amos Foyewa on the right, was sent clear by Hakim on 62 minutes but shot a touch too early and allowed Taylor to save low to his right. Six minutes later Clarke, also set up by Hakim, underhit a free shot when a goal beckoned before Bastock pulled off one of his most spectacular saves to date.
Luke Byles struck a free kick from just inside the City half that bounced up for Baptiste to plant a clever header to the keepers left. Believing the ball to be going wide Bastock initially hesitated before seeing it bounce back towards goal and with remarkable reflexes the 35-year old keeper swooped low to somehow scoop the ball up and over the bar.
A typically swift City break saw Hakim tee up Clarke whose shot was blocked with the Saints captain booked for dissent as he complained, with some justification, that he was held as he attempted to latch onto the rebound.
The finale may have lacked quality but was not short on incident as Bastock comfortably saved from Tony Taggart, Tom Jordan escaped with just a yellow card despite appearing to be the last defender as he hauled down Foyewa and Baptiste went down in dramatic fashion as Gary Elphick dealt with a bouncing ball in the penalty area.