By David Tavener
Goalkeeper Nick Eyre presented his former club St Albans City with a gift more generous than flowers on St Valentines Day as his ghastly blunder handed Paul Hakim his 13th goal of the season and the Saints a welcome Blue Square South point that appeared a distant dream at half time.
With confident flowing football and a lively attack the Bishop's ran City ragged for the opening 45 minutes at Woodside Park on Saturday but a failure to add to Lewis Smith's fine effort on 33 minutes allowed the Saints to battle back gamely and collect an ultimately warranted point.
The draw extends the Saints winless run to an 11th match but City boss Steve Castle found cause for a minor celebration as this was the 100th point won by the club in their 95th league game under his charge.
A point was probably the limit of St Albans' expectations when Castle drew up the team to face his hometown club. Injury ruled out Lee Clarke, both Ben Martin and James Fisher were suspended while Simon Martin was attending a wedding.
This left Castle with just one experienced outfield player to name on the bench, Chris Seeby, where he sat amongst four 'students' from Oaklands College possessing a combined age of just 70. Similar inexperience was also found on the pitch where 20-year-old Danny Charge completed his one-month loan with the Saints and 19 year-old Solomon Shields began his.
Playing on the left of the midfield Charge did reasonably well but was also guilty of a dreadful miss that should have pulled City level five minutes from the break.
Shields looks certain to add the tenacity that the midfield has been lacking since the enforced departure of Luke Thurlbourne in December. The Leyton Orient youngster did well on his first outing at this level but when speaking after the game admitted that on another day he could have been shown a red card by referee Anthony Coggins who himself is just 21.
Stortford's results have shown a steady improvement since Mark Simpson replaced Martin Hayes as manager and this was reflected in their early play.
Within 70 seconds Shields headed a dangerous cross from Danny Green away from the visitors goal while Green went close with a measured effort from 22-yards on four minutes that flew just wide of Paul Bastock's left hand upright.
St Albans first threatened with a snapshot by Charge on eight minutes that rose comfortably over Eyre’s goal. The Bishop's soon increased the pressure on the City goal. Harlee Deen just failed to turn in a well-placed Mark Wright free kick while loose control by Danny Harris allowed City to clear when a golden chance beckoned.
Although on the back foot City showed some promising moments going forward with Hakim looking particularly lively and alert against his former club. Some of the exchanges between Hakim and strike partner Gary Cohen were the best seen during this disjointed campaign.
Hakim was heavily involved on 19 minutes when receiving a Hassan Sulaiman throw down the right and twisting away from his marker before sending a good ball into the goalmouth that Charge was unable to divert goalwards.
A counterattack almost led to Smith breaking free but Ryan Frater, standing in as City captain, did well to block for a corner. Moments later a clever back heel by Harris set up Bai Mass Lettejallow but a well-timed tackle led to the ball rolling through to Bastock.
Stortford continued to dominate but it was not difficult to see why the side had won just two of its previous nine home league games when Narada Bernard ran at the City defence but wasted a clear opening by refusing to play the ball into the path of the unmarked Harris.
Although on top the Bishop's found direct shots on goal hard to come by and when Smith did get a shot through the legs of Everitt the effort was smartly saved by a diving Bastock.
Finally though, on 33 minutes, the City defence was breached. Wright, who came close to joining City two years ago, played a long ball down the Bishop's left that Smith latched onto and muscled his way into the penalty area.
Smith exchanged passes with Harris before continuing his run across the face of the goal and shooting low past Bastock for his fifth goal in eight games since joining the Blues on work experience from Fulham.
Four minutes later City shuffled their pack when Jonathan Hunt, who had been struggling with an injury since early in the game, made way for Seeby who went to right back with Sulaiman moving from that position to the right of the midfield.
Having played second fiddle for the opening 40 minutes St Albans should have drawn level five minutes from the break. Cohen tried to put Hakim through the middle of the home defence but Eyre moved swiftly to dive at the striker's feet only to spill the ball out to Charge. With virtually the entire goal to aim at from ten yards the Dagenham & Redbridge youngster slid his shot a foot wide of the target.
Stortford pushed hard to punish that miss with Goodacre heading against the crossbar from a Wright corner while Harris laid off a deep Wright free kick to Goodacre who this time saw his under-strength shot from five yards magnificently saved at the foot of the post by the fully extended Bastock.
As the half time whistle sounded City were relieved to go in just one goal in arrears but Castle was unimpressed. After airing his opinions the Saints manager sent his charges out for a session of ball work a good five minutes before the start of the second period.
The result was stunning as City, aided by a remarkable collapse in Stortford's teamwork, pressed for an equaliser. Within 25 seconds of the restart Hakim miscued in front of goal following a good ball in from Cohen. The miss was compounded by Charge who also miscued as Stortford escaped.
Cohen suffered the same fate when he too failed to make a clean contact in front of goal after Scott Cousins and Hakim had created an opening.
City looked anxiously in the direction of referee Coggins on 61 minutes when Smith superbly turned Everitt only to be wrestled to the ground by the Saints defender. A split second later and Everitt would have conceded a penalty, as it was he was fortunate to be shown just a yellow and not red card.
From the ensuing free kick, beautifully struck by Wright and set to creep just under the crossbar, Bastock stretched well to punch the ball away with force to concede just a throw in.
Three minutes later the injustice Stortford felt at City not going down to ten men was magnified as St Albans were gifted a goal that will haunt former City favourite Eyre.
Following a scramble just outside the Saints penalty area, Seeby launched an old fashioned left-footed hoof towards the edge or the Bishop's penalty area. As Grant Cooper ushered the ball towards his keeper Eyre inexplicably rushed outside the box and got into a tangle with his startled team-mate.
The ball was as bemused as the good crowd of 602 and continued to roll forward with Hakim taking up possession and stroking it into the most vacant of goals from 18 yards for City's 50th goal of the season.
Bastock had to move sharply to beat Smith to a through ball on 67 minutes and then shuffled to his right to collect a Wright free kick as Stortford sought to regain the lead. But overall it was City that appeared the side most likely to snatch victory although Eyre faced few genuine efforts on goal.
Eight minutes from time though and Eyre pulled off a tremendous instinctive save when touching the ball onto his near left hand post after Hakim had smartly clipped goalwards a first time effort from a Sulaiman cross.
As City pushed forward Hakim and Shields worked the ball up to Charge whose run into the box was halted by Cooper, although Charge did enough to win the Saints first corner of the day off the Bishop's defender.
The latter stages had been untidy with the monotonous sound of the referee's whistle not helping what little flow there was left in the game.
Mr Coggins blew for a remarkable 25 free kicks during the second half, many of which were for the most minor of infringements, and missed several opportunities to play an advantage as the game spluttered towards its conclusion.
Even so, both sides still came close to stealing a late victory. Smith fired over for the Bishop's and Bastock cleanly caught a drive by substitute Roy Essandoh.
In between those efforts, Cohen and Hakim combined at the opposite end and attempted to put Shields through. Eyre spotted the danger and ran to clear the threat but just as he reached the ball he was caught by Shields outstretched boot.
The teenager, booked ten minutes earlier for persistent fouling, had every right to go for the loose ball but had to endure a worrying few moments as he was pulled to one side by the gentleman in black before receiving just a word of warning.