Questions about where the St Albans City goals are going to come from during the forthcoming season found some answers at Hitchin Town on Tuesday night as the Saints, with a smattering of high quality finishing, chalked up their biggest win at Top Field in nine years.
This was far from the finished article but the efficient manner in which City set up a Herts Charity Cup semi final meeting away to either Cheshunt or Hemel Hempstead cheered Saints boss Steve Castle sufficiently to declare himself pleased with the performance.
With Simon Martin away on holiday and defenders Ryan Frater and Chris Seeby absent through injury, Castle named his strongest possible starting XI. Hitchin were similarly placed with three regular first teamers unavailable.
Hitchin, managerless for the night due to boss Darren Hay being on his honeymoon, were first to offer a threat in winning two corners that came to nothing. Lee Clarke won City's first corner but a generally cautious opening was ended on 19 minutes with City's first competitive goal of the season.
City have not been noted for the high quality of their free kicks in recent years but the acquisition of Jonathan Hunt could see that change. It was from his perfectly flighted dead ball on the City right that Paul Hakim peeled towards the near post and sent a powerful header from 12 yards to the left of Canaries keeper Martin Bennett.
Hitchin could well have pulled level four minutes later when the ball rolled kindly to Luke Gregson after Ben Martin had successfully challenged his former Harpenden Town team-mate Paul Barnes. But the chance was lost when central defender Gregson ballooned his effort over Paul Bastock's goal.
Hunt's precision from set pieces came to the fore again on 29 minutes with his inswinging free kick, this time from the left, being met by James Quilter whose close ranger header was blocked in a crowded six-yard box. The Canaries had another let off on 37 minutes when the debut making Ben Bowditch sent Lee Clarke clear of the home defence, as goalkeeper Bennett raced from his penalty area City captain Clarke clipped a first time effort from 22 yards goalwards but could only look on as it bounced agonisingly across the face of the goal and wide.
Although seemingly under little threat City had failed to take control of the game and were punished on 41 minutes when Town grabbed a fine equaliser. Jonathan Woolf struck a good diagonal ball out to the right to Mark Barnes whose excellent low pass inside to his brother Paul was smartly clipped first time beyond the advancing Bastock.
The game was not without its flashpoints and a minute from the interval referee Dave Rock displayed great leniency when around 14 players converged in a small area for a bout of push and shove following a tackle by Clarke.
City let their football do the talking less than 80 seconds into the second half when Hassan Sulaiman, taking advantage of a slip by Town left back Michael Cox, cut into the penalty area and slid the ball square for Sean Ridgway to mark his debut with perfectly placed right footed ground shot from 12 yards to Bennett's right.
The visitors had a moments concern when both Mark Smith and Mark Barnes had efforts blocked close to goal following a Woolf corner but despite a lot of effort these were Hitchin's only on target goal attempts of the second period.
A spell of City pressure following a Hunt corner saw Sulaiman have a shot charged down with James Fisher's follow up saved low down by the fully extended Bennett. Bennett impressed again on 70 minutes when Ridgway sent Sulaiman away, the keeper excelled to parry the shot with Smith getting back to complete the clearance by the foot of the post.
But City were not to be denied a third goal although its creation was most unsatisfactory. Ridgway slid a short ball out to Clarke who cut into the penalty between two defenders. Cox appeared to have made a perfect tackle in getting the ball back to his keeper' who erred in picking it up - only for linesman Mardell to deem that Cox had tripped Clarke and convinced referee Rock to award a penalty.
An already poor decision was compounded when the Hitchin defender was also shown a yellow card. Hunt ignored Hitchin's prolonged, and understandable, protests before planting the spot kick high to Bennett's left for his first goal for the Saints a mere 18 years after his debut.
Hitchin picked up a second booking when new signing Russell Bull, from local side Codicote, was cautioned for a reckless late challenge on Bastock after the City keeper had cleared the ball from well outside his penalty area.
Three minutes from time City added their fourth goal with a sublime finish as substitute Rodney Hicks, taking in his stride a delightful through ball from Clarke, elegantly chipped the ball over Bennett with a perfect first touch that sailed high to the keepers right and into the top corner as he became the third Saint on the night to open his goalscoring account.