Thurrock became the seventh side in eight matches to fail to score against St Albans City but for City manager Steve Castle it was viewed as two Blue Square South points lost on Saturday following a draw that was far livelier than the goalless scoreline may suggest.
Few would argue with Castle’s assessment that City were below par but credit must also be given to relegation battlers Thurrock who, on this evidence, are far from being one of three poorest sides in the Division.
Former Saint, and now skipper of the Fleet, Lee Flynn was excellent while teenage striker David Knight, making his first start, looks to be a thrilling prospect. But despite these individual displays, and a decent all round performance, Thurrock’s survival hopes appear decidedly dodgy.
City went into the match unbeaten in seven games. Thurrock’s record could hardy have been any worse; without a win in seven games and just one success in 17 outings. Relegation beckons.
St Albans made one change from the side that defeated Dorchester in midweek with Adam Everitt coming into the midfield for the injured James Fisher. James Quilter was declared fit despite having butterfly stitches inserted above his right eye following the Dorchester match.
Simon Martin retained his place in attack alongside Paul Hakim to face one of his former clubs. Lee Butcher’s continuing run of good form in goal resulted in the fit again Paul Bastock having to sit the match out on the bench.
Missing from the St Albans squad was Chris Seeby, who has teamed up with former Saints boss Dave Anderson for a 30-day loan spell with Isthmian League Division One North side Northwood.
The conditions were hardly conducive for flowing football. A strong cold wind brought a succession of unwelcome showers over the ground and onto a pitch that was simply dreadful. In addition to large areas bereft of grass the stretch down the middle of the pitch was wet and heavy, while the flanks were hard.
In spite of these difficulties the opening 45 minutes were both entertaining and enjoyable. Both sides attempted to play a passing game and a good number of chances, although not clear-cut, were created.
The home side were almost gifted a freak goal inside four minutes when a Flynn cross from the Fleet right bounced up into Alex Bailey and flew across the goal and just wide of Butcher’s left hand upright for a corner.
Bailey was then involved at the opposite end of the pitch as his though ball sent Simon Martin in pursuit of Thurrock defender Phil Anderson. A slip by Fleet player appeared to have let Martin in only for Anderson to stab the ball back to his keeper. Somehow the match officials did not spot the back pass, and a free kick was not forthcoming.
Young Knight was already proving a handful and had a goal – a thunderous drive from 20 yards – disallowed for a clear push on Quilter. Moments later Sam Lechmere looped a header just wide of the target from a Fola Orilonishe cross.
The early momentum was maintained as Ben Martin and Quilter got into a tangle but Che Stadhart failed to take full advantage with a soft shot through to Butcher. Martin then sent Hakim away to win City’s first corner but Thurrock cleared with ease.
Stadhart tested Butcher again shortly after but it was home custodian Joe Woolley who was to make the first save at full stretch when diving low to his left to thwart Hakim. The Saints leading scorer also fired a good chance wide after being picked out by a near-post Jonathan Hunt free kick.
In between those efforts Butcher again denied Lechmere while Kenny Clark stabbed the ball wide from close in.
It seemed inconceivable that the half would end goalless but when Hakim broke clear only to see his drive rebound away via an upright then the writing was on the wall.
Simon Martin ought to have headed home his fourth goal in three games, following a cross by Shields, but Woolley’s outstretched left arm blocked the effort and the keeper moved quickly to gather before the ball could bounce over the goalline.
Before the minute, the 41st, was over Butcher saved from Lechmere and Hakim, latching onto a Simon Martin header from a Butcher kick downfield, had a firm rising drive parried by Woolley who scampered across his goal to make sure the loose ball did not spin between the posts.
After controlling the first half sensibly and with minimal fuss referee Stephen Daly certainly made his presence felt after the break. Thurrock’s Anderson was booked within 40 seconds of the restart, for an ugly challenge on Everitt, and had been joined by five others – not always justly so it appeared from the main stand – by the time the match was over.
On 47 minutes Knight came close to notching the goal of the season. Woolley launched a long ball into the middle of the City half, as the ball dropped Knight, before the sphere landed, took the pace off the ball with one touch and, again before the ball could hit the deck, sent a wonderful volley over Butcher who back-pedalled swiftly to catch the shot as it looped over his head.
Stadhart won a cheap free kick off Bailey on 49 minutes for which the City defender was ludicrously booked, as was Ben Martin for questioning the decision. Flynn lined up the free kick from 25 yards and sent his crisply struck left-footed drive curling a matter of inches wide of Butcher’s left hand upright.
Overall, the second half did not live up to the enjoyment of the opening 45 minutes but several good openings were still created on a surface that became increasingly difficult in the face of the blustery showers.
One such chance was created by Lechmere who drifted inside then outside of Scott Cousins before trying to clip the ball over Butcher from an angle. His effort certainly went over the City keeper but also drifted beyond the far post.
Shields was next in line to pick up a booking that defied logic after the City midfielder went shoulder to shoulder with Lechmere as the Thurrock player powered his way through the middle of the pitch.
Ten minutes from time Everitt almost won the game for the Saints when stretching between Flynn and Anderson to reach a low Hunt free kick but could not get a firm enough connection to worry Woolley.
Shields was again frustrated by the match official when running deep into the Fleet half only to be pulled back for a free kick when he would have favoured the advantage. From the ensuing free kick, taken by Hakim, Woolley saved comfortably.
Hakim, I added time, collected the fourth City yellow card of the half when shoving Clark into the perimeter advertisement boards after running the ball out of play for a goal-kick.
Thurrock’s final hope to reduce the six points between themselves and safety disappeared when Butcher, kneeling, did well to catch the ball to his left after Craig Hughes’ shot had taken a wicked bounce off the mud in front of the City keeper.