By David Tavener
A stunning virtuoso display by veteran goalkeeper Paul Bastock paved for the way for St Albans City to grab a sensational and most fortuitous penalty shoot-out victory at Dartford on Tuesday night and set up to a mouth-watering 1st Round FA Trophy meeting with neighbours Stevenage Borough.
By virtue of a 4-2 win from the penalty spot City now travel to Broadhall Way on 13 December knowing that a massive all round improvement is called for if the Saints are not to be unceremoniously dumped out of the competition.
For an hour of Tuesday's replay at a bone shaking chillingly cold Princes Park the Saints held their own against Isthmian League Premier Division side Dartford. Then, on 58 minutes, Darts boss Tony Burman sent on substitute Ryan Hayes and for the rest of the evening City looked as stable as the British economy.
Steve Castle's side, by his own admission, was run ragged. In addition to Bastock pulling off save after save, Dartford hit the woodwork on two occasions and threatened danger whenever they crossed the halfway line. The Kent side also had what appeared a perfectly good goal disallowed for what referee Chris Francis decided to be a dubious foul on the City keeper.
To suggest that City underestimated their opponents and allowed the Darts to walk all over them by taking things too easy would be wholly inaccurate. They were simply outclassed by a side from a lower division but the one man the hosts could not get the better of proved the difference between a humiliating exit for the Saints and a shot at the Conference big boys.
Dartford were unchanged from the first meeting while Castle relegated Scott Cousins, who was to later play a significant part in the Saints win, and Sam Hurrell to the bench. Adam Everitt stepped in at left back with Jonathan Hunt returning to the midfield.
The Darts started in similar fashion to Saturday in that they looked for an early goal but despite the game being a vast improvement neither keeper was seriously troubled. Bastock comfortably held a couple of efforts from Lee Noble before making a diving save from Cody McDonald that the referee mistaken rewarded with a goal kick.
City also posed a greater treat than they had done at the weekend but Andy Young, in the home goal, still had nothing to serious to worry about early on. On the half hour the keeper rushed from his goalline to gather Luke Thurlbourne's through ball and, at the same time, collided with Paul Hakim who picked up an injury to his right leg and had to be replaced prior to the interval.
The deadlock was finally broken on 33 minutes when Jonathan Hunt swept a perfect ball out to the right to Hassan Sulaiman. The wide midfielder picked out Quilter with a precise cross that, with the aid of a slight deflection, was smartly despatched past the diving Young.
Seconds from break and City maybe should have extended the lead when Sulaiman arrowed a good ball towards the near post that Cohen stabbed a yard wide.
As the temperature continued to drop City began the second half in positive mood as Fisher sent an inviting cross untouched across the face of the home goal. But St Albans attacking options, dented by Hakim's departure, were further rocked when Simon Martin, Hakim's replacement, picked up an ankle injury when crashing into the perimeter fencing.
With a good spell leading up to the hour mark City appeared well set to record their first win over the Darts. Thurlbourne forced Young into making a save, Cohen turned and shot just over while the former Grimbsy player also went on a scintillating run down the right before sending over a cross that clipped a defenders head and was collected by Hunt whose overhead effort drifted across the goal and just wide.
Dartford made a crucial alteration on 58 minutes when Hayes went to the right of the midfield in place of James White but for a while City appeared untroubled and went close again with a fine half volley from Thurlbourne that Young did well to palm over, while the keeper also smothered a Simon Martin header.
But City's attack did suffered another blow when injury accounted for Sulaiman, ten minutes later Cohen was added to the sick list with a dead leg. By this time City were on the ropes and the knockout blow was moving ever closer.
A taster of what was to come was provided by the increasingly dangerous McDonald who cut in from the Dartford right and fired powerfully past Bastock only for the ball to thud away to safety off the inside of the keeper's right hand upright.
A minute later and McDonald danced his way past two defenders only for Bastock to make the first of his many breathtaking stops. City were caught dozing when Cousins replaced Cohen at a free kick with the inspired Day playing a simple ball to the free Adam Gross who saw his thunderous drive pushed against the underside of the bar by Bastock. Before the ball was fully cleared Day regained possession but his snap shot rolled comfortably wide.
Hayes' growing influence was temporarily repelled as Ben Martin headed a good shot away for a corner but moments later in the 78th minute Hayes' raking cross could not have been better placed for former Saint Rob Haworth to head home the equaliser from close range with his seventh goal of the season.
With that goal the vocal locals were ready to raise the roof and as City capitulated and failed completely to keep possession there appeared to be just one possible outcome.
McDonald rode two tackles as he weaved his way into the penalty area but again Bastock could not be beaten and Day, looking for a goal his outstanding performance warranted, was also denied by the 38 year old Bostonian goalkeeper.
City were engulfed by a tide of White shirts and when Ben Martin headed the ball away McDonald was onto it in a flash and with a firm drive forced Bastock to parry the ball, Day looked odds on to convert the rebound but Bastock was up immediately and spread himself magnificently to block the follow up shot.
As the game moved into its 90th minute the unfortunate McDonald was once again denied his 10th goal of the season by Bastock and as Noble sought to convert the rebound Ryan Frater moved in to make a vital tackle.
Given the way the previous 20 minutes had gone the small band of St Albans supporters at Princess Park should have been heading for the Dartford Tunnel at 9.30pm but instead were fretting about the imminent 30 minutes extra time.
Although Dartford did not quite maintain the fervour of their second half performance they still called all the shots. Bastock required two attempts to collect another McDonald effort within 26 seconds of the restart while a rare City attack ended with Ben Martin's header from a Hunt corner being easily held by Young.
Although the woodwork had twice come to City's rescue there had been nothing lucky about Bastock’s heroics, but on 96 minutes the City keeper did appear to receive a giant slice of good fortune that probably saved St Albans skin.
Gross sent a cross towards the back post that Bastock went to catch with Haworth in close attendance. There looked to be minimal, if indeed any, contact between the pair when Bastock dropped the ball and Haworth back-heeled the sphere into the vacant net.
Dartford erupted but a split second later the joy turned to fury as Mr Francis blew for a foul on the prone keeper who stayed down to receive treatment from City physio Zac Chandler.
Two minutes later and Bastock was back on his feet to push away a low effort from McDonald and again defied belief to scamper across to his left to push away Haworth's follow up for a corner when a certain goal was beckoning.
Still Dartford flooded forward as Day sidestepped Frater and flashed a low shot a whisker away from the goal. Four minutes from time Day looked to have benefited from a kind ricochet after his first shot was blocked but once more Bastock stood firm to save the follow up.
After all that had gone before there was an almost surreal moment as the Saints nearly stole the tie in the final minute of extra time. Frater flicked on Everitt's long throw with the ball falling to Hunt at the back post.
After miscuing his first shot Hunt ought to have settled the tie when the ball sat up kindly in front of him but the midfielder scuffed his shot wide of Young's right hand upright.
Somehow City had survived through to penalties and an early advantage was gained as Bradley Gray put the opening spot kick into the back of the net. In front of disbelieving home fans Steve Butterworth fired the Darts first effort way over the top and St Albans took full advantage as James Fisher drove City into a two-goal lead.
Either side of Day and Tommy Osbourne scoring for the hosts Cousins hammered a cracking drive into the roof of the net but the tie threatened to twist again as Quilter's penalty struck Young’s right hand post.
But Dartford's relief was agonisingly brief as Hayes's spot kick smashed into the crossbar and when Hunt sent the keeper the wrong way with his low penalty the Saints had secured an unassailable 4-2 lead.