Hopes of moving thoughts away from the battle for survival in the Nationwide Conference with a lengthy run in the FA Trophy, sponsored by Carlsberg, were shattered by an ugly disjointed performance at Woodside Park that allowed county rivals Bishop's Stortford to complete a clean sweep of lower league sides to knock the Saints out of cup competitions this season. Indeed, for only the second time in the clubs history St Albans City will have no cup-ties to look forward to after the turn of the year.
Stortford's Michael Stanbrook and Tom Davis audition for 'Strictly Come Dancing'
The Bishop's were fully deserving of their victory simply by playing the more coherent football. Martin Hayes side found huge gaps to exploit in the Saints defence but, maybe, that situation was aided by the dominance of the home side in the middle of the pitch. Possibly the only player to emerge with any credit from the City defence or midfield was Damian Batt but even he, inadvertently, had a hand in the first two Stortford goals.
Colin Lippiatt recalled Lee Flynn at left back and relegated Chris Seeby, who has not looked entirely comfortable on the left of the defence of late, to the bench. One other change was forced upon the manager as illness ruled out striker Elliot Benyon. Paul Hakim got the nod ahead of Simon Martin so the Saints leading scorer this season pulled on a City shirt for the first time since walking out on the club five weeks ago to sign for Weymouth before being told by the FA to purchase a return ticket. On the terraces support for his return was certainly less than fulsome.
Viewing of the game for spectators seated in the main stand on the east of the stadium was troublesome early on as the low sunset across to the west of the county virtually blinded those forced to stare straight into its watery winter glow. But after 18 minutes it seemed more like City were staring down both barrels rather than the sunset as Stortford raced into an early two-goal lead.
The outcome may have been different, however, had the Saints accepted a good chance that came their way inside the opening two minutes. Batt crossed long from the right to former Stortford striker Hakim who touched the ball into the path Ram Marwa but the midfielders shot from just inside the box lacked conviction and keeper Andy Young got down to make a surprisingly easy save.
A minute later and visiting keeper Paul Bastock had no such joy. Max Porter, who produced a succession of creative passes, broke clear down City's exposed left flank and crossed to Ashley Fuller at the back post. It seemed a simple finish for the 20-year old but he shot poorly back across the goal and his effort was going wide until striking Batt with Danny Morgan firing in the rebound from around ten yards out.
Matters could have got worse for City when Roy Essandoh sent a spectacular volley into the Saints net but his strike came long after referee Ian Smedley had blown for offside, even so the space Essandoh found that time should have been a warning for Bastock's defenders. The play was switching from end to end at some speed but City's over reliance on the long ball ensured Lee Clarke and co endured a frustrating afternoon. The Saints looked at their most cohesive late in the opening half with the ball on the deck, sadly it was just a passing phase.
Squeezed in between Young making saves from Ben Walshe's 30-yard free kick and a strange bounce off Clarke from Matt Hann's cross, the Bishop's went close with efforts from Fuller, Porter and Morgan and it was far from a major surprise when Stortford claimed their 48th goal of the season on 19 minutes. Again the finish was messy but City were fully punished for slack marking as the unmarked Jack Midson saw his drive well parried by the sprawling Bastock only for the ball to ricochet goalwards off the retreating Batt with Essandoh stretching to poke the ball just inside the keepers left hand post.
City responded well to take the honours during the remainder of half but Young denied Clarke a quick response when flicking over his excellent 30-yard left-footed half volley following a delightful turn inside from the right touchline. Both sides missed half chances before St Albans, who completed the double over Stortford en route to promotion last season, pulled a goal back on the half hour. Hakim expertly controlled a long kick from Bastock on the City right and came inside before sliding a perfect ball into the path of Clarke. The City captain appeared to stumble as he went to shoot from around 12 yards out but he still managed to force the ball home although there was a suspicion that his marker, Michael Stanbrook, may have deceived the keeper by applying the killer final touch.
At last the Saints game appeared to be coming together and three minutes level City should have been back on level terms. Clarke touched a short pass to Hann who went scampering down the right at some speed before sending a fine cross to the back post where Marwa looked odds on to score but saw Young block his close range header to concede just a corner. The pressure was maintained with Tom Davis forcing Young to save before Stortford hit back with Bastock saving from a Dave Collis free kick and Gary Elphick making a spectacular diving headed clearance from Richard Howell's dangerous cross.
The second half commenced with the sun having long since departed to oversee the passing to Australia of The Ashes Down Under, that little Urn may be too hot for England to hold but, for City, their dressing room cuppa was cooled by an icy blast from the manager.
Just like the opening half, Stortford almost scored inside three minutes when Essandoh moved behind Elphick from Collis's free kick only to head wastefully wide from close in, a minute later a scorching effort from 30 yards by Fuller was closely watched by Bastock just in case it dropped a couple of feet under the bar.
Another good chance for City went begging on 54 minutes when Dave Theobald got on the end of Walshe's free kick only for his downward header to be smothered by Young. Again Stortford hit back with a good spell of their own but the next clear opportunity came City's way when Magnus Okuonghae, a mere five seconds after replacing Walshe, was picked out by Hann's fine free kick but the ball skimmed off the Nigerians head and just wide of the target. Unable to break into the City defence Okuonghae was handed a rare opportunity to shine in midfield, just in front of the centre of the defence.
Having survived what was probably St Albans best spell the home side, courtesy of another calamity in the Saints defence and one of many excellent counter-attacks, restored their two-goal advantage on 70 minutes. A long pass sent Morgan in pursuit of the ball down the Blues right, Bastock raced out of his penalty area to clear but with Morgan between him and the ball the Bostonian faced the possibility of a second red card this season if he mistimed his tackle. Now, he was stranded in no mans land and Morgan displayed tremendous presence of mind to turn onto his left and send a truly majestic curling effort over the retreating defenders and perfectly into the centre of the goal.
Somewhat belatedly, City upped the tempo in the later stages and pushed hard to avoid another humbling cup exit. Twice in four minutes Young was forced into making saves close to his posts following well-struck efforts from Davis and Batt while Okuonghae's glancing header from a Flynn throw-in appeared to strike a defenders arm but referee Smedley, who had a decent game, thought otherwise.
The deficit was reduced with seven minutes remaining and again City relied on a helping hand as a couple of deflections helped the ball across the face of the goal and beyond the back post to Simon Martin whose short, almost jabbed, effort towards the near post was bundled into the goal by Bishop's Paul Goodacre - this time there was no doubting that it was an own goal.
During the remaining seven minutes St Albans piled forward but still Stortford remained a serious threat with nifty breakaways on the still excellent surface. Elphick went painstakingly close with a glancing header from a corner and Davis also put the ball just over the goal with another fine strike from 25 yards but Elphick's ballooned effort deep into injury time just about summed up City's day and put Britain back into the Space Race.