Just three extra points could see St Albans City rise a welcome six places in the Nationwide Conference but Saturday's reversal at the Broadfield Stadium has sent Colin Lippiatt's side plummeting to the foot of the table for the first time this season and with just five points gained from the last 33 available City are looking not only a touch humble but also very vulnerable. Next weekends trip to Forest Green Rovers is, with less than half the season played, starting to look a highly significant fixture and one that the Saints need to use as a platform for better days to come.
St Albans made four changes to the side that started for the FA Cup defeat at Yeading the previous week with Ricky Perks, 20 months after making his first team debut, finally getting to don the goalkeepers jersey in a league match. Somewhat newer to the Saints was Damian Batt's brother Shaun who made his debut at the start of a one-month loan period with the club. Perks can certainly feel satisfied with his contribution as his handling was clean and he was not at fault for either of the goals but twice he was caught out when delaying his clearances with the ball on the ground as Crawley players zipped in to charge the ball down.
Batt began the afternoon like an express train, running fast with determination and no lack of skill or penetration. Crawley found the Dagenham & Redbridge loanee a tall and tricky package although the 19-year old appeared low on stamina after the break. One change forced upon the Saints saw Magnus Okuonghae return after six matches out when Gary Elphick failed a late fitness test.
Following the incomprehensible dismissal of manager John Hollins earlier in the week the Crawley Town side is said to have virtually picked itself with the club working on a miniscule squad, a number of teenagers were used to pack the bench. But missing from the Red Devils attack was one-time City striker Ben Strevens (6app 3gls) who is currently troubled by a fractured cheekbone.
The match was almost a tale of two halves and the pitch, at kick off, most definitely was as the cold shadow cast by the impressive main stand covered more than half the playing surface on a crisp and crystal clear winters day. While those in the shadow shivered the fortunate souls being blinded by a setting sun were able to savour a surprising amount of warmth.
Batt, the younger, took just 107 seconds to make his mark as he arrived late when Scott Hiley cleared downfield and was duly given a finger wagging by referee Simon Hooper who saw City lose for the second time in the five matches of theirs he has refereed. City ought to have taken the lead as early as the fourth minute when a dead straight long punt downfield by Perks was completely mucked up by three confused Crawley defenders who merely helped the ball onto Paul Hakim. With Ram Marwa and Shaun Batt in support Hakim, standing inside the penalty area, appeared certain to score but uncharacteristically sent a tame right-footed shot gently through to a grateful Ben Hamer in the Town goal.
The manner in which that chance was created and lost typified an opening half low on decent quality football; errors were far too frequent on both sides. City, however, were making the better inroads against a Crawley side looking bereft of confidence and given all of their upheavals this season and the obvious ill-feeling towards their chairman by the clubs supporters then the attitude was understandable.
St Albans continued to make the early running, mainly through the pace of Shaun Batt down the City right. A good ball by Matt Hann, playing his 100th game for the Saints, down the right almost got Batt in only for Dave Woozley to make a timely interception and pass back to Hamer. Dave Theobald mounted another City attack with a ball to Batt, the elder, who in turn fed Hann. The ball returned to Hann via Hakim and Damian Batt and from his tempting cross Shaun Batt just failed to apply the telling touch right in front of the home goal.
Moments later City attacked again as Chris Seeby gathered a Damian Batt free kick that sailed the width of the pitch and went on a run down the left before supplying a cross that Hamer just collected ahead of Hakim. Crawley could make little headway at this stage of the game with Perks dealing comfortably with a header from Jake Edwards before Shaun Batt, from the halfway line, went on a thrilling run past four players before over running the ball through to the keeper.
Gradually Crawley were creeping their way into contention with leading scorer Scott Rendell having a shot charged down and Okuonghae blocking an effort from Lee Blackburn. Woozley, currently sharing the player/manager position with Ben Judge, squandered a good chance after Rendell glanced on a Blackburn free kick before City went ahead on 27 minutes with a fine goal.
Shaun Batt, in a central position, played the ball wide to Ben Walshe who showed no shortage of speed as he went wide of Judge and crossed from the goalline, the ball just clipped the head of a defender but did not put off Hakim who sent the ball back in the direction it had just come and inside Hamer's right hand post for his eighth goal of the season.
That goal seemed to kick into life Crawley's Tony Scully who dominated the rest of the game and despite the close attention of Damian Batt - even when switching from one wing to the other - gave a virtuoso display that was a joy to behold. It was a cross from Scully that won Crawley the first corner of the match on the half hour mark while his half volley from 23 yards after Theobald headed away a Blackburn corner forced Perks into his first real save of the day. Scully followed this with a tremendous surge down the Red Devils left before exchanging passes with Edwards and cutting inside to send a curling effort just wide of Perks far, left, hand post. The well-travelled Scully then created a chance for Rendell and combined with Dannie Bulman and Blackburn to free Edwards only for Theobald to intervene with an excellent tackle. The transformation one player could make to an entire match was simply staggering and City's lead was starting to look far from secure.
Three minutes from the break Scully took a return ball from Hiley and saw his angled drive parried by Perks with Seeby, possibly City's best player on the day, blocking Rendell's follow up. The half ended with a touch of farce, Crawley waited to take a throw deep in the City half and as the ball was knocked out to the Crawley player waiting to take the throw in it struck Hann on the head and the midfielder was promptly booked for persistent misconduct. Bizarre.
City began the second period encouragingly with Tom Davis and Shaun Batt working the ball wide to Damian Batt only for his low cross to be cleared. Moments later Damian Batt switched from right back to left back - with Seeby heading in the opposite direction - as Scully and Blackburn swapped wings; the move was reversed midway through the half.
Whilst in his unaccustomed left back position Batt (D) attempted to outmanoeuvre Scully inside the City penalty area but was dispossessed by the Crawley wizard who clipped the ball across the face of the visitors goal. Judge retrieved the ball but his cross was well punched clear by Perks. As the pressure mounted Edwards out-jumped Okuonghae to Hamer's long kick with Rendell firing the loose ball into the side netting.
A brief respite came City's way when Hann won a free kick wide on the City right, Ben Walshe struck the ball towards the near post where Bulman returned it to him. A lay off allowed Hann to shoot only for the ball to be deflected wide. The respite was indeed brief with Crawley dominating the midfield it was only a matter of time before a hardworking defence would crack, that moment came on 57 minutes with, needless to say, Scully the instigator. Now wide on the right Scully played the ball inside to Edwards and receiving a return pass struck a first time ball into the heart of the City defence that Bulman swept on the half volley beyond the exposed Perks for his third goal of the season.
A minute later Damian Batt shot a country mile wide for City before Perks had an anxious moment when his clearance from the ground brushed off the advancing Edwards and was collected by Scully whose shot from just outside the box went a couple of yards wide. Despite Crawley's second half dominance it was the away fans making most of the noise and they had something worth cheering on the hour when Walshe and Hakim set up Hann for a shot from 20 yards that Hamer dived to save in some comfort.
A good period for City continued as Hakim won a free kick from which Walshe curled the ball wide of the defensive wall but straight through to the well-positioned Hamer. With Shaun Batt off the pace and the midfield struggling a lack of activity regarding substitutions was something of a surprise but on 65 minutes City did seem to be on the verge of re-establishing a grip on the game as their first corner of the game was followed immediately by two more. From the third one, swung in right-footed by Hann, Hamer struggled to palm the ball away but it was hacked clear before City could pounce.
As the two wide Crawley players and two City full backs did their synchronised switching of flanks act once more on 67 minutes so the balance of the game returned in favour of the home side; according to the gentleman from the Press Association the play was 60/40 in Crawley's favour.
Perks saved easily from a Rendell header while a long raking run by Seeby eventually fizzled out tamely before the unmarked Rendell shot wide from close in after a cross from Blackburn. Crawley smelt blood and City were in full retreat as Scully played the ball wide to Hiley whose attempted cross went untouched through a crowded penalty area before striking the far post and bouncing conveniently into the embarrassed Perks arms. Another calamity almost before the Saints shortly after when Perks, after controlling an Okuonghae back pass, saw his clearance blocked by Rendell. The ball ricocheted across the penalty area and was retrieved by Edwards whose pass went via Scully to Mills whose low shot was saved by Perks.
Okuonghae did well to deflect wide a shot from Blackburn before a counterattack saw Davis and Shaun Batt free Hann who went wide of the sprawling Hamer only to see his low shot cleared off the line by Woozley. Hamer made a hash of dealing with Walshe's deep corner and was fortunate to see Theobald's effort at the back post blocked for another corner. This time Hann swung the ball towards the near post where a strong appeal for handball was rejected in favour of City's sixth corner of the half.
Six minutes from time and Crawley were back onto the offensive with a corner being won on the Red Devils left. Before it could be taken City ignored one of the golden rules of football and made a triple substitution while defending a set piece. The move probably did not lead directly to the winning goal but maybe City's concentration had been broken as Scully crossed for Edwards to head his second goal of the season firmly into the City goal. A claim by Theobald that Edwards had impeded him fell on deaf ears. The home fans were no longer silent.
One can only speculate as to whether the addition of fresh legs earlier in the day would have saved the Saints but there can be no denying the fighting spirit of Elliot Benyon as he took exception to Crawley's excruciating time wasting tactics at a corner during added time and shoved Scully and the corner flag into nearby Gatwick Airport. By demonstrating his frustration further at referee Hooper's decision to award Town a free kick the City sub threw the ball down and duly claimed the Saints 40th yellow card of the season.