David Tavener reports from Clarence Park
St Albans City followed up Saturdayâ€™s demolition of Eastleigh with another impressive performance on Tuesday night as Bishopâ€™s Stortford were comprehensively outplayed at Clarence Park. Better defending by Stortford than seen at the weekend by Eastleigh blunted Cityâ€™s cutting edge but there was no doubting the overall quality of the Saints play as Martin Hayes side was put to the sword.
City racked up a succession of corners throughout the game and had a number of free kicks in dangerous positions but the Bishopâ€™s held firm until two goals in the final 18 minutes secured a second successive Blue Square South victory for St Albans and a rise to thirteen in the table.
Steve Castle was forced into one change from the side that won so well at the weekend with illness rendering Lee Protheroe unfit to perform. Debutant Alex Bailey had a tough act to follow but emerged with flying colours after giving an excellent display at right back, something that was all the more amazing given that the former Chesterfield defender had not played for the best part of a year.
The rest of the side picked itself once Paul Hakim declared himself fit after taking a knock to his hip on Saturday. Due to Hakimâ€™s determination to play against his former club there was no place in the starting XI for either Lee Clarke or recent acquisition Gary Cohen.
Hakim was soon in the thick of the action and, along with Hassan Sulaiman, was proving a real handful for the visitors. But where as Hakim sought to get to the heart of the Stortford defence, Sulaiman jinked his way down the City right time and again although excellent defending by the Bishopâ€™s overworked defence limited his end product.
City could have been ahead inside four minutes when a teasing Jonathan Hunt free kick was just missed in the middle of the goal by Simon Martin and then at the back post by Ben Martin. The Saints early dominance seemed certain to lead to a goal and on 12 minutes it almost arrived when one more Hunt corner was headed down in textbook fashion by James Quilter only for Michael Hyem to block the ball by the foot of the post.
To their great credit, Stortford allowed City precious few clear efforts on goal with the clearest opening of the half falling to Danny Harris, but after being set up by Piers Wixon just six yards from goal the Bishopâ€™s striker was stunned to see Paul Bastock produce what was probably to prove a match winning save.
With confidence flowing through the side St Albans spread the ball around fluently and attacked with vigour, but still the Bishopâ€™s held firm. Concern that Stortford had done the hard work by reaching the interval unscathed grew as Hakim was off target with two snap shots and Hunt clipped a free kick just over the crossbar of former City keeper Nick Eyre.
For a couple of minutes after the restart Stortford, now playing down the slope towards the Hatfield Road goal, suggested that it was their turn to gain the upper hand. Fortunately it was just a fleeting interlude before City resumed from where they left off before the break, although Eyreâ€™s goal continued to be soundly protected.
The hour mark came and went as Hakim curled a shot wide and Ben Bowditch sent a couple of efforts in the general direction of the houses in York Road. But Castle still had an ace up his sleeve and on 57 minutes the hardworking Simon Martin was withdrawn in favour of the electrifying speed of Gary Cohen. Now Stortfordâ€™s problems were about to get serious.
Whether he decides to attack through the middle or down the flanks Cohen will unsettle any non-league defence. Both of his parents were sprinters and Cohen is more than happy to keep the tradition going, as Stortford were soon to discover.
On 72 minutes Cohen played a leading part in manoeuvring the ball into Hakim who was closely shackled as he tried to work an opening. The ball squirted square along the edge of the penalty area for the advancing Quilter to crown a fine personal display with a low right-footed shot that comfortably beat Eyre for the midfielderâ€™s first goal in 25 games for the Saints.
Excellent defending by one time Saint Matt Jones stopped Quilter from a adding a second from a Cohen cross before the Bishopâ€™s almost succeeded in making a daring smash and grab raid at the start of just over four minutes of added time.
Well-travelled 32-year old striker Roy Essandoh, an 83rd minute replacement for central defender Paul Goodacre as Hayes looked to strengthen his attacking options, headed home a Wixon cross just seconds from the end of the scheduled 90 minutes only for an offside flag to ensure City kept a second successive clean sheet.
And fears of Stortford salvaging a point were finally extinguished towards the end of the extra minutes when Hakim, teed up by Cohen, burst into the penalty area and drilled the ball across the face of Eyreâ€™s goal despite the crablike attention of Sam Taylor. Referee Paul Forrester took a dim view of Taylorâ€™s actions and, maybe a touch belatedly, pointed to the penalty spot.
After being shown a yellow card Taylorâ€™s misery was complete as Lee Clarke, a late substitute for Hunt, swept the ball to Eyreâ€™s right as the keeper fell to his left. Having missed with his most recent spot kick last January and gone ten games without a goal Clarke savoured the moment with understandable relish.