St Albans City put recent disappointments behind them for Saturday's first visit to the New Lawn and with just a modicum of good fortune would have collected a potentially vital three points instead of the single one that proved sufficient to lift Colin Lippiatt's side off the foot of the Nationwide Conference table. A match that threatened to be ruined by a cold swirling wind turned out to be a highly entertaining affair from which both sides could extract some plus points yet still feel aggrieved at the loss of two more points.
Elliot Benyon looks happy with his goal!
Despite the Saints dominating the final twenty minutes the game was pretty even overall although the statistics - 17 shots for City and 12 for Rovers, and four City corners to Rovers one - give an indication of which side posed the greater threat close to goal. In addition to Ben Walshe's first goal of the season and a possibly career changing equaliser by Elliot Benyon, City also had two strong penalty appeals rejected and saw a shot from Shaun Batt thud into the woodwork and roll agonisingly along the goalline and just inches beyond the opposite post. It was a good day for the Saints yet was a hairsbreadth from being a great one.
Jim Harvey's Forest Green Rovers side showed one change from the XI that drew 2-2 at Kidderminster the previous weekend with Charlie Griffin coming in for Danny Williams. St Albans made a couple of changes from the team defeated at Crawley with Gary Elphick returning to the backline in place of Magnus Okuonghae while Lee Clarke replaced Ram Marwa in midfield. Clarke displayed tremendous determination in his now familiar midfield berth while Elphick, playing his first full 90 minutes for 15 games - a 3-0 win at Northwich Victoria being his last full outing - was a formidable figure alongside the equally impressive Dave Theobald.
Both sides made light of the blustery conditions and did their best to keep the ball on the deck, perhaps it could be said that Rovers footballing philosophy allowed the Saints to dominate as much as they did at times as the home side did not muscle City out of the game maybe as much as some sides have done this season.
The Saints made a highly promising start, winning two corners inside the opening five minutes. From the first one, crossed deep and inswinging by Walshe, Theobald glanced the ball on and Paul Hakim looked well placed for a strike at Steve Williams goal before losing his footing. The Saints leading marksman did well to regain his balance and help the ball into the path of Shaun Batt whose shot was charged down.
Walshe's second effort saw Williams punch the ball away but only as far as Chris Seeby whose skied 25-yard shot came to rest somewhere near Stroud at the head of the Five Valleys deep in the Cotswolds. Forest Green's first goal attempt came on six minutes when Alex Meechan helped on Williams' long kick to Griffin whose seemingly audacious shot from 28 yards comfortably beat Ricky Perks and drifted barely a yard wide of the keepers right hand post.
Matt Hann, quiet in the first half but a genuine threat thereafter, sent over a superb cross that Clarke looked certain to tuck away at the back post before Alex Lawless intervened with an excellent defensive header. A good move involving Lawless and Meechan created an opening that ended with the latter's low shot going just wide of the target, a fate that also befell Les Afful.
City, with Damian Batt at left back to counter the threat of the speedy Afful, hit back positively and came within a whisker of forging ahead. Seeby, who handed the captaincy back to Clarke, played the ball up to Hakim who turned in great style and slipped a pass to Shaun Batt. The on-loan Dagenham & Redbridge teenager cut across Mark Preece with his shot from 20-yards just clipping the Rovers defender and crashing into the inside of Williams left hand post and rolling back across the face of the goal when it seemed for all the world that it would curl back inside the other post - it didn't. Two minutes later, the 28th, Elphick and Hakim fed Davis whose low effort from 22 yards was smothered by Williams without too many problems.
Forest Green wasted a good chance when Kevin Nicholson and Simon Clist worked a one-two inside the City penalty area but instead of shooting Nicholson tried again to pass to the surprised Clist and the ball ran harmlessly out of play. Afful ought to have opened the scoring on 34 minutes when the ball came in from the Forest Green left but somehow the diminutive striker scooped the ball over the bar from six yards.
City may have collected just one point from the two Nationwide Conference games Ricky Perks has played as cover for Paul Bastock but the stand-in keeper has performed admirably in both games with perhaps his one misjudgement coming ten minutes from half time in this game when he failed to collect a Matt Robinson cross and Damian Batt had to clear the danger.
After a quiet spell Walshe began to exert his influence on the game with some pinpoint passing and it was from his scintillating 20-yard ball, on 41 minutes, inside Darren Jones that Hakim found the space to flick the ball goalwards and force Williams to dive to concede a corner. Hann took the kick from out on the City left, his cross appeared overhit but maybe the wind helped drag the ball into the goal where Williams failed to deal with it and allowed Walshe, after a scramble, to make sure it had crossed the line. Walshe was not slow in looking to claim it as his goal but it would be no surprise if Hann were to contest it as his.
The goal came following a good spell for the visitors yet the prospect of an interval lead lasted just three minutes before one time Spurs youngster Simon Clist, after a Meechan free kick had not been fully cleared, drilled in a stunning diagonal drive across Perks from 18 yards that hammered against the inside of the post before coming to rest in the back of the Saints goal.
Before the minute was out Shaun Batt forced Williams to save and a minute later Seeby passed to Hann whose perfect cross should have been turned in by Clarke but the Saints leading scorer for the past three years did not make a clean connection and Williams was able to get a finger to the ball and force it wide despite a goal kick being awarded. Back came City again with Walshe passing to Davis whose precise ball from the middle of the Rovers half took out the central defender with Hakim peeling away only to see his placed header palmed away by the busy Williams. Seconds later the half time whistle sounded with the scores level and City frustrated not to be ahead.
During the opening 45 minutes the play shifted direction every bit as often as the wind that seemed to be more discomforting for those high in the main stand rather than those on the pitch or on the low level terracing.
Neither side made any changes during the interval and City, now attacking the end containing the main cluster of home support under the covered terrace having played towards the still incomplete open terrace at the opposite end of the stadium during the opening half, began well with Clarke having a shot charged down. On 53 minutes Damian Batt whipped in a good free kick that Hakim just failed to reach at the near post but City had a let off moments later when Griffin cut into the box and the ball appeared to brush the arm of the grounded Elphick, no penalty was forthcoming but before City could clear Clist fired wide of the goal.
Nicholson, a former England schoolboy international, provided one of the highlights on the season on 55 minutes when, in attempting to take a free kick close to the touchline in front of the main stand, somehow kicked the linesmans flag as he swung his leg and it was a close call as to whether the flag or the ball would reach a team mate first.
But City certainly found little to smile about four minutes later as the transfer listed Allan Russell, a minute after replacing Griffin, latched onto Nicholson's pass to cut inside and force Perks into a fine save with a crisp rising drive. Having warmed himself with that effort Russell went one better on 61 minutes as he joined Clist on five goals for the season with a fierce drive from 22 yards after the Saints had been unable to fully clear a free kick. That Perks got a hand to the shot only made the brilliant strike even more spectacular.
For the second week running it did seem that defeat was heading City's way after taking a first half lead and Rovers increased the prospect with a couple of slick moves immediately after the goal, City appeared to be on the racks. Colin Lippiatt has been bold and big enough to admit he may have made a couple of mistakes lately but there can be no doubting he got his substitution right this time when, on 64 minutes, he replaced the tiring Shaun Batt with the effervescent Elliot Benyon and, effectively, changed the game.
Forest Green's brief dominance was broken with a wild slash wide by Hann - which was still more impressive than when, by the corner flag, he trod on the ball with his standing foot before tickling the ball over the goalline with what was meant to be a deadly cross with his other foot. Hann, following good work by Walshe and Benyon, was more impressive as he set up Clarke for another blocked shot before the Saints pulled level on 68 minutes.
Walshe, as he was at Crawley, was the creator as he slipped a pass into Benyon close to goal that the 19-year old managed to force into the home goal with the aid of a deflection. It was the youngsters second goal in his five games on loan to the Saints from Bristol City and given the way in which his boundless energy galvanised the City attack and ruffled a feathers in the Rovers defence it was of little surprise to hear Lippiatt talk, after the game, of reviewing the decision not to extend his loan at Clarence Park.
For the final 20 minutes the Saints were not only on top but played with an attacking confidence seldom seen this season and the midfield, so quiet in recent games, was not only buzzing but also highly inventive. Chances were created almost at will and on a number of other occasions a slightly better final ball would surely have brought about the sought after victory.
Two minutes after scoring Benyon should really have put City ahead as a defender slipped when going for a low Hann cross but the youngster rushed his shot and gave the ball gently to the relieved Williams. A clearly rattled Forest Green sent on Chris Giles for his debut in place of Nicholson but after just 13 highly ineffective minutes Harvey ‘subbed the sub' for what he claimed were tactical reasons. To save the poor lad from any further embarrassment seemed the more obvious reason as Giles stumbled his way around the pitch. In his defence, Giles did look threatening on one occasion only for Theobald to smartly dispossess him with an excellent tackle inside the box.
On 79 minutes Theobald and Hann worked the ball down the left to Walshe who crossed to the back post where Hann went for a spectacular volley - memories of his magnificent goal against Hornchurch from a couple of seasons ago came flooding back - only for the ball to thud into the ground and bounce well over the bar. With Davis returning to the exciting playmaking and creative form of earlier in the season City were causing Rovers countless problems and Hakim, picking up a loose ball, ran at the home defence before curling a fine effort just wide of Williams right hand post from 25 yards.
The final ten minutes were almost like a cup tie - a sore point given that it was FA Cup 1st Round day - with City searching for the goal required to lift them five places up the table. To say they needed a helping hand would be harsh but Forest Green tried to do their bit only for referee Darren Sheldrake to refuse to take the bait. On 81 minutes Benyon took a long ball from Seeby and was clearly nudged in the back by Robinson. The City striker tried to stay on his feet before stumbling to the turf, maybe had he gone down first of all then Sheldrake, who had a good game until being called upon for two crucial decisions in the final ten minutes, would have given the penalty, unfortunately he chose not to.
The pressure was maintained with a Walshe free kick just eluding Benyon before Forest Green survived their most anxious moment yet. Walshe, having sent one free kick straight into the wall, struck a low free kick towards the near post where Hann failed to make a good contact but as the ball bobbled around in a crowded goalmouth Benyon had two stabs at goal with one effort, allegedly, stopped from going over the goalline by a defenders outstretched hand. For City supporters who can remember the injustice of Junior McDougald's disallowed goal that would have given City a 3-1 lead in the FA Trophy semi final at the original Lawn seven years earlier the lack of a crucial decision going in their favour this time felt like a case of déjà vu.
As the game moved into added time a cross by Robinson seemed to have drawn an error of judgement from Perks but the City keeper held his never as he clutched the ball some 15 yards from his goal with two Forest Green players waiting to pounce. There was just sufficient time for City to mount one final attack but it came to nothing but Hakim's shot from Walshe's pass was last seen heading down Nympsfield Road back towards the town centre.