An early chance for the Saints goes begging
VIDEO St Albans City hopes for a historic first Nationwide Conference double were blasted out of the water inside 34 minutes by a lively Northwich Victoria at Clarence Park on Saturday and, instead of looking forward to the remainder of the campaign with renewed optimism, City now find themselves very much in the thick of a relegation dogfight. The brightest spark from an otherwise miserable day for the Saints was the form of Djoumin Sangare, back at the Park for a second loan spell and looking every bit as outstanding as he was during his first stay some 16 months ago. City were a pale imitation of the side that played so well at Woking on New Years Day but credit must also be paid to Steve Burr's Vics who gave one of the more impressive displays seen by visiting sides so far this season. Northwich were excellent on the break, their counter-attacking play was far from a case of hoof it and chase. In Jonny Allen and Paul Brayson the Vics have two hardworking strikers who moved about with real purpose and were a threat in no small part due to the accuracy of the passing of their team-mates whether that supply came from midfield or further back. With Paul Fairclough, manager of the England semi-pro international side back at the ground where he plied his tried for 104 games between 1975-84, in attendance this was not a bad day all round for the Cheshire club with several of their players no doubt boosting their hopes of international recognition. Suspension to Damian Batt and Tom Davis ruled the duo out of the match and paved the way for the return of Lee Flynn - against the side he scored his first City goal back in September - and the debut on the left of midfield for new signing Chris Watters. Late in the game, on 73 minutes, Watters' former Boreham Wood team mate Leon Archer also made his debut but the biggest delight for City fans was the appearance at the start of the second half of (Jimmy) Sangare, and he did not disappoint as he won every tackle and header he went for and also posed problems when he moved into the Vics penalty area. Incessant rain throughout the night, morning and afternoon made the pitch heavy but bone dry when compared to the fiasco seen against Exeter the previous weekend, that this match survived when plenty others in the area failed to even start is to the credit of those who worked on it during the week, and the drainage system. The opening ten minutes was almost a thrill-a-minute football with both attacks dominating the opposition defence. City had the opening shot inside a dozen seconds when Dean Cracknell played the ball up to Elliot Benyon who went for a return from City skipper Lee Clarke before testing Vics keeper Ben Connett with a smart low drive towards the Hatfield Road goal. Before the second minute was out Michael Byrne cut in from the Northwich left and fired in a stunning effort from almost 30 yards that Paul Bastock, at the last moment, tipped over the bar. City hit back swiftly with an excellent ball from Chris Seeby - starting the game at his preferred right back position - setting Matt Hann up for a cross that Connett parried with Ram Marwa's follow up being deflected wide by Stuart Elliot. Watters near post corner was unconvincingly knocked down by Connett and cleared after a scramble. A couple of Watters' early corners caused Northwich problems but overall there was a feeling that maybe too often his crosses were just a touch too far ahead his strikers. New signing James Beaumont put the ball in the City net on eight minutes but an offside flag cut short Northwich celebrations. The visitors had a scare four minutes later when Benyon chased a back pass and forced Connett to hurry a kick that just missed the City striker before going out for a throw. City kept Northwich penned in for a spell but when the Vics broke from a Saints corner on 14 minutes it seemed like déjà vu following the opening Stevenage goal on Boxing Day - only this time City's lowest gate of the season 767, saw the match as opposed to a more healthy 2,878 against Boro. The break was clinical with Jon McCarthy's through ball sending Byrne away and with a powerful right-footed shot the ball thudded into Bastock's right hand upright before coming to rest just inside the opposite post. Although City had chances to get back into the game there was never the composure that characterised their play when dominating at Woking. The midfield, with Watters coming in for Davis who was exceptional at Kingfield, showed two positional changes and sadly the fluency was washed away with the rising tide. Even so, within a minute of the goal a cross by Ram Marwa, after Watters effort had been charged down, came to Hann at the back post but his miscued volley won nothing greater than a corner. Already a pattern was emerging of Northwich breaking swiftly with Paul Brayson and Allen causing problems through the middle of the City defence and only a stumble by Allen and fine tackle by Gary Elphick denied the Vics a second goal. By now conditions were deteriorating with the rain starting to take on more Biblical proportions; City officials used good sense (no added comment required) to cancel the segregation and allow the small number of visiting fans in the ground to congregate under the Coca Cola stand. Our generosity went unheeded as they were clearly enjoying themselves and stood steadfastly behind the goal Northwich were attacking with many covered in little more than the club shirt. Midway through the half Michael Carr had two good opportunities to extend the visitors advantage. When put through by Terry Barwick he shot wide as Bastock narrowed the angle and a minute later he raced clear of the City defence to latch onto a long ball but this time was thwarted by Bastock. A misjudgement by Connett almost got City back into the game as he came too far for a high Watters cross but did just enough to stretch and palm the ball away from the free Benyon. But most of the genuine chances were coming at the top end of the ground with a second Vics goal not far away, the waiting ended on 34 minutes when Cracknell, struggling to control Seeby's slightly short pass, lost possession close to the halfway line. Again Northwich broke at pace with Beaumont find Allen who powered his way through before beating Bastock with a cracking drive for an excellent second goal. During the final five minutes of the half Northwich could have halved the minus nine goal difference they took into the match but the closest they came to wrapping up the points was a low effort by Brayson that Bastock saved with minimal fuss. For City, a header wide by Seeby from a Hann free kick was the best they could muster. The win at Woking was the first time this season City had come from behind to win, repeating the trick here seemed unlikely but the side took to the pitch with a changed line up for the start of the second half. Sangare, on loan to the club for the rest of the season from troubled Grays Athletic, went alongside Elphick with Magnus Okuonghae nudged out to left back in place of the substituted Flynn, and Seeby placed just in front of the middle of the backline. Having already lost twice at home since Christmas, City needed a quick response and they almost got it when Benyon and Elliot challenged for Bastock's long kick and after the ball bounced off the head of both players the City striker laid it inside to Clarke whose shot can be kindly described as rising, as it sailed over the rooftops in York Road. Hann, taking a short ball from Marwa and running across the pitch, let fly with a tremendous right-footed drive from 30 yards that Connett watched closely before safely grasping just under the crossbar. But hopes of City applying sustained pressure evaporated on 59 minutes with a third Northwich goal that came out of the blue. The Vics, although on the edge of the City penalty area, seemed to be going nowhere as the ball bobbled amongst a cluster of players who huddled together to keep warm under the darkened skies. Seconds later the Northwich players got closer still as Carr unleashed a thunderous left-footed effort that left Bastock without a prayer as it soared to the right of the diving Lincolnshire Legend in the City goal. Even the Gods turned against the Saints as the rain ceased, referee Simon Beck - whose performances erred on the fussy side of things - had earlier declared that he would call a halt should puddles form on the surface. Where as such a sensible approach would have saved City from defeat against Exeter no such intervention came to the Saints on this occasion. But City did find a chink of daylight on 63 minutes through Lee Clarke's eighth goal of the season. Benyon and Clarke both battled for a high ball with a couple of Northwich players, as the ball rolled free Marwa stroked it into the right hand side of the penalty area for Benyon to latch onto only to be sent tumbling by Kieran Charnock. The award of a penalty seemed punishment enough but Mr Beck saw fit to make Charnock the first of four entries into his little black book. Clarke, with four misses from his five most recent spot kicks, had to endure a ridiculously long wait before calmly slotting the ball low to Connett's left as the keeper headed in the general direction of the clubhouse. To the disappointment of the dampened masses City could not build upon Clarke's 77th goal that took him above Billy Broomfield to ninth in City's list of leading goalscorers and the better chances continued to be created by the buoyant visitors. City even joined in the panto season when Bastock tore from his penalty area to retrieve a short Cracknell back pass only for the ball to thud into the advancing Brayson, Bastock did a grand impersonation of a dying swan as he missed his header as the ball fell but with the help of Elphick managed to clear the danger from the Northwich striker. Sangare, wasting no time in reminding his army of fans of his quality with a succession of interventions close to the City penalty area, moved forward deep into the Vics penalty area and held off three challenges before clipping the ball into the goalmouth from where it was hacked to safety. Benyon, who later confirmed that he is likely to extend his stay at Clarence Park through to the end of the season following talks with Bristol City on Friday, took a short pass from Clarke and shot well over after producing a nice turn to lose his marker with what was just about the final serious threat to the Northwich goal. To say Northwich held out in comfort during the closing stages would do Burr's boys a disservice as they controlled the game and went close to adding a fourth when a Carr shot deflected high off Elphick towards Brayson whose close range header was well flicked over by the retreating Bastock. City had one final fling during added time when Hann tried to find Simon Martin with a long pass but as the ball skidded off the wet surface through to Connett the Saints hopes of a belated comeback sunk in to sodden turf.