Being three goals in arrears by the interval on Tuesday evening, and with two more additions to an already hideous injury list, it was not beyond the bounds of reason to expect to see Colin Lippiatt walking onto the Victoria Road pitch waving a white flag - so helpless did the Saints position appear to be. But football can be a funny ol' game, and forty-five minutes later the cries of surrender were drowned out by a massive sigh of relief sounded by John Still's troops after St Albans City demonstrated immense depths of resilience to launch a truly stirring, though ultimately unsuccessful, fightback against the title-chasing Daggers.
Paul Hakim scores from close range to make the score 3-2
Even allowing for the injuries sustained by Lee Flynn, playing against his former club, and Magnus Okuonghae, City were simply torn apart as Dagenham sought to match the five-goal rout of Northwich achieved three days earlier.
Former Saint Craig Mackail-Smith, playing against his old club for the first time in a competitive match, was determined to remind them of what they let go. England semi-pro international Mackail-Smith has the pace of a gazelle and during his fleeting time in the City first team often, frustratingly, displayed the finishing of one, three years on he is now hot property and rightly so. He simply tore City apart at times during the first half and his two goals were rich reward for a dazzling display, yet Mackail-Smith also epitomised everything that was good in City's second half performance. A team mate of Chris Seeby's he may have been back in the days when City had a midweek Youth side, he toyed with his old buddy for forty-five minutes until Seeby, along with the rest of the Saints, snapped a lot more swiftly into the tackle after the break and turned the tables to set up a fascinating final twenty minutes. Seeby's second half display was one of many high points as the Saints went down with all guns blazing.
Both sides were unchanged from their weekend fixtures but City made several positional changes during the first half to cover for the injuries to Flynn and Okuonghae. Dagenham, certainly the fastest and possibly the fittest side City have faced so far this season, wasted no time in exerting pressure on their lowly visitors. Mackail-Smith had already created one chance when, on nine minutes, he robbed Okuonghae as the giant defender attempted to patrol the ball out for a throw. Dagenham ignored claims that the ball was out and from the low cross Glen Southam had a shot blocked, Paul Bastock superbly palmed Sam Sloma's powerful follow up but the City keeper could do nothing to stop Paul Benson from putting the ball away at the third attempt for his 10th goal of the season.
It was the first goal City had conceded in the opening ten minutes of a game this season and only the second in the opening 42 minutes, there was little danger of that statistic remaining unchanged as Dagenham seemed to be winning every ball. For a while though City stemmed the flow and had the temerity to threaten a goal with Seeby shooting well wide before Simon Martin fed Tom Davis who sent a long angled ball out to the right that Damian Batt not only did well to keep in play and beat his marker but also put in a low cross that Lee Clarke struck well only for the shot to be deflected over by the lunging Daggers skipper Anwar Uddin.
Dagenham quickly regained the initiative with Mackail-Smith setting up Benson for a drive over the City goal, moments later, in the 26th minute, and the visitors were not so fortunate. Southam won the ball off Davis and passed to Mackail-Smith who scored the most spectacular goal of the night with a fabulous effort to Bastock's left from close on 30 yards.
Straight from the kick off and Dagenham went for a third as Benson shrugged of Okuonghae - no mean feat - and shot low for Bastock to save. Both players took a knock in that incident, Benson was able to continue but Okuonghae was forced to retire four minutes from the interval with a knee injury. By that time Flynn, after suffering a hamstring pull, had already been replaced by Nathan Simpson.
Whilst it would be easy to wallow in City's ill luck with the injuries and wonder why we seemed to be second to every ball it was also an opportunity to savour an attack-minded side in full flight, from a neutrals perspective it must have been rich entertainment, less so for anyone with an AL postcode. Mackail-Smith, receiving a good ball on the right from Benson, cut inside and beat Bastock with what looked a well-placed effort only for the ball to roll narrowly wide, a goal feast beckoned.
Paul Hakim, who toiled away manfully with little reward for an hour, caused one-time City keeper Tony Roberts to fumble when collecting a through ball but it was of little surprise when, in the third minute of added time, Dagenham struck for the third time. Sloma crossed from the right to Dave Rainford, one of at least five former Bishop's Stortford players on the pitch, who brought the ball down and unleashed a marvellous shot across Bastock that came to rest inside the keepers left hand post.
Having already equalled their highest score against St Albans in 26 previous meetings, Dagenham, attacking the home end for the second period, must have had their sights on at least doubling their tally. Instead, the opening exchanges were a touch untidy and, gradually, the tide was turning with City at last imposing themselves on the game. No longer were Dagenham winning all the tackles as City went in a lot earlier than they did before the break, and, although there was no real doubt as to the final outcome, the game was now a genuine contest.
Alexis Nicolas, one of several City players to enjoy an increased profile as the game wore on, exchanged passes with Davis before firing in a shot that deflected over Roberts's goal via Dean Cracknell's head. It was almost against the run of play when a long punt by Roberts was flicked on to Sam Saunders whose clever overhead kick put Mackail-Smith away but again Bastock was quickly down to pull off an excellent save. The brilliant Bostonian had hardly finished admiring his handiwork with that effort before he was again in the thick of things to deny Cliff Akurang after Rainford had dispossessed Nicolas.
City had only failed to score in two of their previous 12 trips to Victoria Road and with a stunning strike on 66 minutes Batt ensured that that statistic did not become three. Nicolas started the move on the halfway line before Seeby played the ball out to the right to Cracknell who in turn passed to Batt. The former Barnet player appeared to be going nowhere until drawing back his left leg and sending a screaming low drive from around 30 yards inside the foot of Roberts left hand upright for his second goal in as many games.
Chants from the City faithful of ‘we're gonna win 4-3' may have erred slightly on the optimistic side but the Saints built on that goal to make a previously infallible looking Daggers side somewhat jittery. City forced Dagenham to defend deep and as sliced clearances and misplaced headers became more commonplace throughout the home side so the visitors self-belief grew. On 74 minutes, with Cracknell battling for possession, Batt charged in to get the ball and whipped in a low cross that went through a crowd of players in front of Roberts's goal before Hakim sent an audacious flick with the heel of his boot just wide of the target.
Dagenham relieved the pressure with a Saunders free kick that Akurang headed just over the Saints goal and on 80 minutes the net was bulging once more, and to the stunned silence of the home fans it was Roberts goal that welcomed the ball. After Rainford conceded a free kick for a foul on Davis, and was then cautioned for kicking the ball away, Nicolas swung a free kick into the penalty area from wide on the left, ten yards into the Daggers half. Duane Jackman, whose tremendous speed rattled the Daggers, leapt majestically to head high to Roberts right only for the Welshman to excel and push the ball onto the bar. Hakim wasted no time in pouncing to score a classic strikers goal by forcing the ball into a small gap between Roberts and the post for his sixth goal of the season.
With ten minutes remaining could City salvage the most unlikely draw the Conference will see all season, unfortunately not as tired limbs were cruelly made to feel like lead weights as Dagenham rallied late in the day. Saunders curled a free kick just wide and Bastock made another excellent save from Southam before Mackail-Smith, on 85 minutes, claimed his second goal of the night with a perfect header to Bastock's right from Paul Bruce's inviting left-sided cross.