By David Tavener
Fears of being sucked deep into the Blue Square South relegation battle eased for St Albans City on Tuesday with a 3-0 victory over a Basingstoke Town side that drifted somewhere between extremely careless and committing football suicide.
Frank Gray's side arrived at Clarence Park on the back of a five match unbeaten run that had lifted the Hampshire club out of the bottom three but with two comical pieces of defending were two goals adrift inside the opening ten minutes and well on the way to handing the Saints their first win since November 8.
City, on the hand, were unusually clinical in front of goal with Paul Hakim and Gary Cohen punishing Town's early errors and James Fisher completing the scoring well before the interval with the best goal of the night, and his first for the club.
In the continuing absence of Ryan Frater, City opted to go with James Quilter alongside skipper Ben Martin in the heart of the defence as manager Steve Castle gave Fisher another run in the middle of the midfield, where he joined up with highly promising Leyton Orient youngster Solomon Shields on his home debut.
City, playing in front of their smallest home crowd for league match in just over four years – and again no directors - almost made a flying start when Martin swivelled swiftly on the edge of the penalty area and drove in a low shot that visiting keeper Ross Kitteridge held cleanly.
But the Stoke keeper was less impressive when City took the lead on six minutes. Jonathan Hunt, 37-years old but still looking remarkably sprightly, took a quick throw-in on the City right close to the half-way line. Hakim controlled the ball in some style and cut inside before aiming for the heart of the Basingstoke defence.
Just when it looked as though City's leading marksman was running out of room he received two astonishing bits of good fortune. Firstly Joe Dolan, the Town skipper, got his feet in a tangle and fell to the ground and, most remarkably, was joined by Kitteridge.
As the duo flapped like stranded seals Hakim simply walked the ball into the Hatfield Road net for his 14th goal of the season.
Such a positive start to the game seemed to lift a weight of City's shoulders and Basingstoke were quickly being pushed back again and it was no great surprise when City increased the lead on ten minutes.
Town struggled to clear a corner and were positive statuesque as Shields chipped the ball back into the penalty area. A defensive header sent the ball straight up into the air and as the visitors gazed at the falling sphere Cohen stepped forward, unopposed, to place a header to the keepers right for his sixth goal of the season, and first at the Park since August.
While City challenged with renewed confidence Basingstoke sought to get their act together and almost reduced the arrears a minute later. Matt Warner hammered in a stinging free kick from the Town left that Paul Bastock punched away double-fisted.
The ball was driven back into the penalty area where Phil Ruggles misdirected shot was diverted goalwards by on loan striker Allan Tait but comfortably smothered by Bastock. Basingstoke followed this with some decent passing moves and the game remained open as City looked to get the rampaging Hakim and Cohen forward at every opportunity.
Another good chance went begging for the visitors on 26 minutes when Dolan flicked on Warner's near post corner to Ruggles whose volley was again taken with minimal fuss by Bastock.
Just after the half hour Cohen latched onto a long header by Martin and cut into the penalty area but, under pressure, sliced his shot wide. The reprieve for Basingstoke was short as City put the result beyond doubt on 33 minutes and again Basingstoke played a part in their own downfall as a throw-in was intercepted by Hunt who headed an excellent pass down the Saints right to Hakim.
With a quick spurt Hakim raced to the goalline and created space to drill a crisp low cross towards the near post where Fisher finished with great aplomb from eight yards out.
St Albans maintained the momentum with Hector Mackie, starting a league match for the first time since September 2007, slotting in well on the left of the midfield as he and Shields played a succession of short passes that retained possession instead of the horrendous long and high ball tactics that blighted Saturday's performance at Hayes.
Good work by Mackie and Scott Cousins created another opening for Cohen whose low shot was saved by Kitteridge. City finished the half with a flurry that so nearly brought about a fourth goal.
A long punt by Bastock was met by the rising Cohen whose header square to Hakim sent the striker into the penalty area where his clever attempted lob was pushed over the top by the keeper. From Hunt's corner Cohen again met the ball well as he headed just over the target.
Basingstoke came out for the second half determined to give a better account of themselves but after a promising start the second 45 minutes became increasingly tedious with the two sides mustering just one on target effort between them.
That came on 82 minutes when Fisher challenged for a deep Hunt corner and as the ball fell the midfielder hammered a good low show into the goalmouth that Kitteridge saved with his feet.
Basingstoke were even less threatening with just an off target header by Rob Watkins from a Warner free kick to reflect on as they became the first visiting Blue Square South side to fail to score at the Park since mid October.