If St Albans City are to secure a second season of Conference National football for their Centenary Year then nothing short of a run of victories starting with next weekend's visit to Clarence Park by Southport will be sufficient. Defeat at Morecambe on Saturday at the Shrimps fine Christie Park home has plunged City deeper into trouble but even Morecambe boss Sammy McIlroy admitted it was a flattering victory for his side with Garry Thompson's strike seconds before the final whistle being a savage blow to Colin Lippiatt's side who fought back strongly and were worthy of a share of the spoils.
New signing John Hastings weaves his way through the Morecambe defence
In truth, a point would probably have not made a significant difference to the Saints plight but it would undoubtedly have lifted spirits and maybe calmed some nerves in front of goal. As it was, some of City's finishing left something to be desired as rushed shots, sliced well off target, underlined that confidence in front of goal is lacking and consequently good chances go begging.
Trying to follow Morecambe's recent form from the matchday programme is nigh on impossible but it would appear this was a second successive victory for the Shrimps against lowly opposition and is a result that keeps them well on course for a shot at the end of season promotion play offs. For City the picture is less encouraging as the three sides immediately above them, Grays Athletic, Cambridge United and Halifax Town, all picked up at least one point while bottom club Tamworth moved to with two points of the Saints with three games in hand after winning at Northwich Victoria.
Morecambe showed two changes from the side that started in a 3-1 win at Forest Green Rovers the previous Saturday with striker Matthew Blinkhorn, signed on loan from Blackpool on Friday, making a very impressive debut for his new club. But he was not the only new boy to shine as City also had a new face up front with John Hastings, on loan from League Two side MK Dons, stepping in to replace the injured Leon Archer. Hastings, 23, was strong in the air, quite outstanding on the deck, excellent at bringing others into play and keen for a poke at goal. Unlike Blinkhorn, Hastings did not get off the mark in his first match but he did more than enough to suggest that he could possibly be the one to supply the shots that could extend St Albans City's Conference National life for another year. City manager Colin Lippiatt made further changes with Djoumin Sangare, Malik Buari and Ram Marwa also returning to the starting line up after not being involved from the start against Grays. City went with an unusual starting formation of 4-2-3-1 before reverting to a more orthodox line up later in the half. Just in front of the back four were Chris Seeby and Marwa, with Matt Hann, Clarke and Buari in the midfield while Hastings toiled manfully on his own up front.
On a bright and sunny yet chilly afternoon on the north west coast City kicked off roared(?) on by around 45 travelling supporters but it was Morecambe who settled first and for the opening thirty minutes or so McIlroy's side played a decent passing game although there was little penetration as the City defence continued its good form of recent weeks. Even so, City had a nervous moment on four minutes when the first corner of the day, whipped in by Danny Carlton, led to a goalmouth scramble before Paul Bastock ended the danger by smothering the ball.
Hastings was quickly demonstrating his fine touch and control while his work rate was also demonstrated when his persistence when he forced home keeper Steven Drench into a rushed clearance that went, at speed, to Lee Clarke but unfortunately the City captain was unable to control the ball and Drench recovered his ground.
Morecambe have struggled for goals on their home patch this season - 15 in as many games prior to today - but they opened the scoring with a well-worked effort on 16 minutes. Wayne Curtis, a constant threat although wayward with his shooting, crossed from the Morecambe left, the ball came to Thompson at the back post and from his ball back across the face of the goal Blinkhorn was able to crown his bright start by sweeping the ball into the visitors net.
Falling behind to the opening goal for the 11th time in 12 games was a body blow to a revamped City side and although they did well with regards to possession prior to the interval there was precious little to suggest an equaliser was imminent and the situation almost worsened when Hann's loose pass was collected by Curtis who sent Blinkhorn away down the left. Fortunately for City his low ball across the face of the goal was just too long for the incoming Carlton.
The powerfully built Buari went on a scintillating run past two players down the City right and crossed towards the back post where Hann was well positioned only for Adam Yates to get in a crucial defensive header away. Clear chances were at a premium at either end as Curtis discovered when two shots in quick succession were charged down, the second one quite spectacularly by the diving Gary Elphick.
On the half hour Buari left his mark in a different manner with a wild lunge on Michael Howard, the City man was rightly booked yet amazingly Howard, after quickly rising to his feet to shove Buari to the ground not only stayed on the pitch but was not even cautioned by referee Jock Waugh who generally had a decent game. A good City move a minute later, involving Clarke, Deen and Hann ended with Seeby controlling a bouncing ball and unleashing a crisp drive that whistled just wide of the keepers left hand post.
With a piece of mesmerising close skill Hastings weaved his way between two defenders but just overran the ball as he edged his way into the penalty area although he did appear to have his ankle clipped on the way through.
With goals hard to dome by in recent weeks St Albans need to be profiting better from their set pieces but again the delivery at Christie Park was poor, from two first half corners Buari sent one bouncing tamely towards the near post and from the second Morecambe launched a swift counter-attack after the player slipped and scooped the ball outside the penalty area. City's final goal attempt of the half saw Marwa and Seeby work the ball up to Hastings who turned neatly on the edge of the box only for his shot to lack the power required to worry Drench.
By half time it was evident that City were forcing their way back into contention and the neat passing game that Morecambe appeared so comfortable with early on was scarcely seen after the interval as City enjoyed the majority of the possession. Six minutes after the interval City, attacking the Umbro Stand end of the ground, broke clear down their left only for Hann to be cynically cut down by Thompson a yard wide of the penalty area. Thompson's booking was a price worth paying from Morecambe's viewpoint as Hann's free kick came to rest harmlessly on the roof of the goal.
Good work by Hann and Hastings looked certain to be rewarded with an equaliser on 58 minutes only for Marwa, having burst through to the edge of the six yard box, to scuff his shot with the ball looping high across the face of the goal. Chances for the Shrimps were becoming increasingly rare with Curtis twice causing supporters seemingly safe at the back of the North Stand to duck while Chris Stanley forced those standing well wide of the target to take similar action. Stanley was also involved in a dreadful piece of gamesmanship as he fell dramatically to the ground clutching his knee in a desperate attempt to get the already harshly cautioned Patrick Ada dismissed. Referee Waugh dignified Stanley's antics by allowing him to have him treatment for his invisible injury but it was one of few sour moments from a sporting ninety minutes.
Returning to the football, Hann touched a free kick sort to Deen who drove well over while a good ball by Curtis sent Blinkhorn away only for his cross to the back post to drift away from Carlton when Stanley was better placed by the near post.
With the minutes ticking away Lippiatt withdrew Seeby and Buari with Chris Watters and Simon Martin sent on to increase City's attacking strength. The Shrimps goal was coming under increased pressure although Drench still had few dangerous shots with which to contend although a slip by Adam Yates left Watters with a clear opening but his rushed effort was dealt with easily by the keeper. A good opening was squandered when Marwa and Martin worked the ball into the box only for the sphere to bounce off Hastings toe when control was required.
Six minutes from time Sangare was hauled off to protect a tight hamstring with Faly Basse going to right back and Ada pushed inside to partner Elphick. At the opposite end what was possibly City's second clearest chance of the game went begging when Clarke, whose work rate was phenomenal throughout, beat one man and slipped a good ball into Hastings only for the former Tooting & Mitcham United striker to fire straight at Drench.
Shrimps substitute Ged Brannan had a golden opportunity to wrap things up with a free header from a Stanley corner but was thwarted by an excellent save by Bastock to his left with the keeper them pouncing on the ball as Morecambe tried to force it over the goalline. For the next few minutes Morecambe were pushed back as City searched for a vital equaliser but with a route one breakaway the Shrimps ensured it would be a fourth consecutive pointless afternoon for the Saints.
Jim Bentley, a man mountain at the heart of the Shrimps defence, launched a frantic clearance, deep into added time, long down the Morecambe left with Thompson finding space to race clear of Elphick. Thompson still had a lot to do but spotting that Bastock seemed to be wandering aimlessly around his penalty area taking in the sea breeze, the striker arrowed an excellent drive, from outside the penalty area, low inside the keepers right hand post.