An afternoon that began with the travelling City support singing happy birthday to Colin Lippiatt ended with the manager getting a present even more precious than his newly acquired free bus pass - three Nationwide Conference points that lift the Saints out of the bottom four and provide the perfect fillip at the start of 2007.
Dean Cracknell played a powerhouse role in midfield
As the birthday boy himself later admitted, the side may have looked a touch unbalanced as he brought Ram Marwa back into the team on the left of the midfield, in place of Rob Norris, and switched Chris Seeby to his preferred right back slot and Damian Batt to left back. But against an attack that included the lively Jamie Taylor, the reorganised City backline performed well although top billing went to the central midfield duo of Dean Cracknell and Tom Davis, it is hard to recall Cracknell having a better game for Saints.
Even so, the afternoon could hardly have got off to a worse start for the Saints as, on three minutes, Chris Sharpling broke through the middle but was denied a clear opportunity by Damian Batt's superbly timed tackle on the edge of the penalty area. But two minutes later and there was no escape for City when Woking counter-attacked at speed. As Davis struggled to control a Seeby pass, Steve Evans nipped in to dispossess the City midfielder and sent a fine ball up to Taylor who, after racing clear of the defence, sent a crisp low drive across Paul Bastock that the City keeper palmed away only for Sharpling to steady himself and tuck the loose ball into the vacant goal. Five minutes on the clock and goal number 52 in the back of the City net, not quite the Happy New Year the City faithful were looking for.
But, as the storm clouds began to gather overhead, there were rays of sunlight to be seen on the pitch as City took the game to their hosts and found Glenn Cockerill's side to be surprisingly lacking in confidence, a draw at Oxford United in front of more than 11,000 spectators followed by a good win at York City clearly had not completely washed away the memory of some indifferent results earlier in the month.
City could have been level on ten minutes when Lee Clarke helped a Matt Hann free kick find its way through to Elliot Benyon, although he was swiftly tackled the ball ran on to Marwa who shot wildly over. Minutes later Hann collected a Seeby throw and crossed into the penalty area where Marwa to fired wastefully wide, although in his defence the conditions at that end of the pitch were far from good as he attempted to keep his footing on what looked like Woking beach. Woking may have already lost their early grip on proceedings but were not without chances and only the combined presence of Bastock and Magnus Okuonghae denied Sharpling a second goal.
It was, however, nothing more than a little breather for the home defence as midway through the half City upped the pressure with Cracknell having a shot charged down and a Hann cross flying just too high in a crowded goalmouth before Benyon and Clarke combined for the latter to win a corner off the outstanding Cards defender Tom Hutchinson.
On 28 minutes the home goal survived its biggest scare so far as Cracknell, with the ball seemingly stuck to his foot and no defender able to wrestle it from him, sent Hann free along the goalline. This time neither Clarke no Marwa could force the ball over the line from close in. Cracknell, in between winning the ball with monotonous regularity and using it well, also caught the eye with two mazy runs although sadly neither brought about a goalscoring opportunity.
After a rare quiet spell the game came alive again when Benyon, intercepting Hutchinson's headed clearance, nodded the ball onto Clarke whose crisp low drive had to be closely watched by Woking keeper Shwan Jalal as it zipped towards him through the mud and sand. A quick break by the Surrey side saw Taylor get goalside of Gary Elphick but the City defender, along with the rest of his back four, typified their performance with a fine recovering tackle. With a swift passing move right on half time Woking created another decent opening with Matt Ruby slipping a pass inside to Shola Oyedele whose shot from 20 yards was well held low down by the diving Bastock. The unfortunate Oyedele later suffered an injury and was seen leaving Kingfield on crutches.
Woking, now attacking towards the magnificent stand that seats the majority of the home support, began the second half as they did the first with pressure on the St Albans goal and on 51 minutes almost scored a freakish second goal. Taylor twisted inside Seeby on the Leisure Centre side of the ground and from maybe ten yards in from the touchline sent in what at first appeared a low cross but may well have been a shot as it evaded everyone, including the static Bastock, before striking the keepers left hand upright. It was a piece of good fortune that City have been lacking for some weeks and its importance was emphasised just five minutes as the Saints drew level.
Needlessly to say, it was Cracknell who started the move when winning the ball inside the Cardinals half, moving forward and with no defenders closing him down the midfielder found three options opening up for him. Just when it seemed he would accept the invite to slip the ball out to either of the flanks he, quite brilliantly, slid a stunning ball through the middle for the advancing Marwa to latch onto and this time get his bearings right as he drilled a clinical right-footed strike from 18 yards low to Jalal's right for his third goal of the season.
A minute later Hann, a thorn in Woking's side that was only occasionally blunted, tested Jalal with an audacious volley from wide on the right but Woking were not fully resigned to letting their former boss start the party early with Giuseppe Sole waking the home support with a long range effort that drifted comfortably over Bastock's goal.
Two minutes later, the 68th, the Woking goal had a let off that takes some believing even several hours after the game. Cracknell threaded a ball through the middle that Clarke and Jalal met at the same time with the sphere shunted to the left of the Cards goal, City were first to react with Hann seizing possession and whipping the ball across the face of the goal to the unmarked Benyon who looked more certain to score than England to lose The Ashes. Unfortunately for the again impressive teenager the ball bounced up towards his midriff making it impossible to either get a let a leg on it or stoop to head it, instead the ball just thudded into his body and before it could trickle over the line Jalal was able to pounce and the chance was gone.
That miss looked costly when Woking won a free kick that was touched short to Karl Murray whose fierce drive was blocked by Bastock and then smothered by the City custodian as a cluster of players dived into his sandpit. Back came City again and the locals from Surrey surrounding us in the press area in the old stand were clearly worried that St Albans City were going to win a league match at Kingfield for the first time since 1985 (there have only been two league encounters there in the intervening years), at least this time the result is unlikely to condemn Woking to relegation as it did more than two decades ago - even then it was no bad thing for the Cards as Geoff Chapple and a certain Colin Lippiatt then began to wave their magic wands.
The longer the game wore on the more effectively City used the pace of Benyon to get behind the home defence, but it was measured passing for the youngster to latch onto rather than the long ball tactic overused during the Boxing Day game with Stevenage. From one such perfect pass Cracknell found Benyon who cut in from the left and forced Jalal into a fine save to his right, before the ball could be fully cleared Cracknell played it square to the equally impressive and extremely hardworking Davis who also forced the keeper to save.
But, just as the momentum appeared to be with St Albans disaster struck. A Woking counter-attack down the Cards left ended abruptly with Batt seeing red as Taylor went flying. Considering where the incident took place, close to the touchline possibly 30 yards from goal, it seemed a possibly harsh straight red but given that he had been booked earlier in the game there was no way out of jail for the City defender although, after the game Batt claimed he had not touched the Woking striker.
More changes to the City line up were made although Lippiatt resisted the temptation to send on either of the two substitutes keeping him warm on the bench; by now the rain was lashing down although in comparison to Saturday it was little more than a heavy dew. Seeby switched to left back, Marwa dropped to right back and Clarke moved into a deeper position but even with Benyon now a lone striker it was still the Saints who looked the most likely winners.
Woking completely failed to seize the initiative and on 81 minutes it was hardly a shock when City took the lead with a goal of pure class. Hann, off balance, knocked a square pass inside to Davis who not only did well to hold off one challenge as he brought it under control, but then played a good ball up to Benyon. With great awareness Benyon saw Davis surge past him and duly flicked the ball on. Seeing Jalal advancing from his line Davis dinked a majestic chip over the diving keeper and into the goal in front of the ecstatic City support for his 13th goal for the club in 98 games.
In eight of the Saints previous 11 matches a goal had been conceded in the final ten minutes but other than for a dangerous dipping half volley from Evans there was little danger of that statistic being extended. Indeed, it was City who really ought to have put the result beyond any doubt as Benyon, despite having his ankles cynically clipped, powered his way in from the left and set the free Hann clear to charge into the box, but as the keeper narrowed the angle Hann was unable to notch the third goal City so richly deserved with his shot flying wide of the target.