Although some way below their best St Albans City overcame a bitterly cold day in Essex and sodden pitch on Saturday to move through to the FA Trophy 1st Round courtesy of an early strike by midfielder Dean Cracknell. But the Saints third successive win at Scraley Road came at some cost with both Patrick Ada and Paul Hakim suffering foot injuries as City saw off the Ryman League Premier Division club.
Fortunately neither injury appears serious and the early retirement of Ada, on 19 minutes, did pave the way for the debut of 30-year old central defender Nick Burton who gave a commanding performance as he dominated in the air and nullified Heybridge Swifts long ball game.
Indeed it was Burton, along with the rest of the City defence, who took all the accolades in a disappointing Saints performance. After controlling the opening half City conceded possession with far too much ease after the break and found themselves on the back foot for long stretches.
Swifts, however, found their attack – which had scored in its previous 11 home matches – blunted with the only serious threat to the visitors goal coming five minutes into added time when goalkeeper Paul Nicholls moved forward for a corner to power a header on to Paul Bastock’s crossbar.
With Scott Cousins, Lee Clarke and Mark Graham restored to the side, City lined up with a 4-4-2 formation and enjoyed a promising opening spell although an effort way over the target by Clarke was the sole threat until the deciding goal came on ten minutes.
Cracknell and Cousins were involved in the build up which led to Graham crossing from the City left. Clarke headed the ball down for the offside looking Paul Hakim to square it for Cracknell to stab home as both sides appeared to wait for a flag or whistle to sound to save Heybridge, neither was forthcoming.
City had one other decent chance prior to half time when Bastock, recovering a dreadful Tom Davis back pass, hacked a long ball down that pitch that sent Hakim clear but the striker wasted the opening with a low cross was that was easily gathered by Nicholls.
By then Heybridge had made a few inroads with Bastock doing well to smother the ball as a mass of players went for a knock down by Kris Lee and the same player was thwarted again when Bastock saved superbly to his right as the Swifts striker twisted and shot quickly following a Neil Cousins pass.
City started the second half poorly and were relieved to see a snap shot by the impressive Ian Wiles flash across the goal and Neil Cousins waste a free header. Just after the hour Paul Abbott broke from a City corner but Bastock, diving to his right, cleanly clung onto the ball in the wetter of the two goalmouths.
The Saints almost settled the tie on 71 minutes when Chris Seeby launched a counter attack and got the ball up to Clarke who, via Martin, worked it wide to Graham. The Irishman’s left-wing cross beat everyone except Clarke but the high bounce on the slippery surface proved too difficult for Clarke to end his 13-match goalless run.
Shots over the Swifts bar by Martin and Davis suggested City would see out the final minutes of a desperately poor half in comfort only for Marks to go close with one effort before, right at the death, Nicholls ran into the penalty area unnoticed to head Abbott’s corner against the crossbar with the ball falling tantalisingly by the foot of the post before Seeby could poke it to safety as Heybridge sought, unsuccessfully, to bundle home the equaliser.
Match report by Dave Tavener. Kindly supplied by The St Albans Observer.