The away leg of St Albans City's first, but hopefully not last, season in the Conference National came to a close on Saturday with goals from Djoumin Sangare and Ben Martin failing to stop Gravesend & Northfleet from defeating the Saints for a seventh consecutive league match and in so doing maintained the Kent clubs push for a play off position. City have no such end of season concerns as to where they will finish with the nearest side to them being a distant ten points away.
Djoumin Sangare enjoying his new role as centre forward
For the Saints penultimate match under the leadership of Colin Lippiatt there were two changes from the side that lost to Oxford United the previous week. Ram Marwa stepped into replace Tom Davis while Matt Hann came in for Malik Buari. Scott Cousins, in his fourth game back, had his first run out in his favoured left back position with Ahmed Deen pushed out wide on the left of the midfield.
The day was one of the most glorious so far this year and maybe the heat had an adverse effect on the players for the play was scrappy and, in truth, it was one of the most difficult 90 minutes of the season in which to stay focused on the pitch with little goalmouth activity to retain ones interest. For Gravesend there was also the problem of having played less than 48 hours earlier when Northwich Victoria were defeated 3-0 at Stonebridge Road. These two quick wins have given Liam Daish's boys a real hope of sneaking into the plays off next Saturday, the final day of the season.
City were tested early on when an attack of theirs broke down and Gary Elphick had to move swiftly to head the ball wide to stop the free-scoring Charlie MacDonald from breaking through. A minute later, the fifth, Elphick was laid out by the boot of fellow defender Djoumin Sangare as he stooped to head the ball, after prolonged treatment Elphick, now sporting a badly cut lip, was cleared to carry on although he was withdrawn due to a headache late in the game.
City's first genuinely anxious moment came on 15 minutes when Paul Bastock saved at the feet of MacDonald following Chukki Eribenne's pass. But St Albans did fall behind just four minutes. Deen conceded a free kick wide on the Saints left that Stacy Long crossed towards the far post, Sangare successfully reached the ball but as he headed it away it struck his arm and referee Simon Beck, possibly a touch harshly, pointed to the spot. MacDonald, having beaten Bastock twice from the spot in the corresponding fixture at Clarence Park, made it three out of three by sweeping the ball low to the right of the City keeper.
City won their first corner on 27 minutes, nothing came of it, and already it was evident that this game was not going to be a classic. Following a long kick from Bastock, that the Gravesend defence struggled to clear, Dean Cracknell seized control and burst into the penalty area but crowded out by a couple of defenders he was unable to stop the ball from rolling harmlessly through to home keeper Lance Cronin.
Leon Archer suffered a back injury on 37 minutes that demanded his premature departure from the â€˜action' but his replacement, Buari, faced an agonising three minute wait to join the fun as the fourth official, Mr Moffatt, took exception to the player having black thigh supports underneath his yellow shorts.
Three minutes from the break the Fleet almost added a second when Paul McCarthy got clear of his marker from a Jon Keeling cross only to see his close range header clip the crossbar while in stoppage time Bastock smothered the ball by his left hand upright as MacDonald tried to tee up Eribenne.
Lippiatt resisted the temptation to make any further substitutions during the interval but he did play his own version of musical chairs with numerous positional changes. Sangare was taken out of the defence and put up front with Lee Clarke dropping into the centre of midfield. Hann went to the left of midfield and Buari to the right with Deen hauled back to partner Elphick. Although the two wide men had a relatively quiet time the other positional changes were, to a degree, successful. Deen, whose passing during the first half had been suspect, suddenly began playing with confidence, Clarke added guile and a good work rate to the midfield while Sangare was a revelation up front. His desire to go for goal, even when outside the box, instead of pussyfooting around was something a good number of strikers could learn from.
All that said, Gravesend started the second half positively and when a corner was only partially headed away by Elphick Luke Moore was just outside the penalty area to lash a dipping effort over the City goal. Within five minutes of the restart things started to look ominous for the visitors when Daish's side struck for a second time. Possibly not realising there was no one behind him, Cousins clipped a deep Keeling free kick out for a corner. From Long's cross McCarthy, rising some ten yards from goal, celebrated his pre-match Player of the Year award by sending a thumping header down into the turf and past the diving Bastock for his first goal of the season.
At this stage of the game City were struggling to retain possession and one did begin to fear as to the final outcome, but St Albans have become accustomed to adversity this season and on 57 minutes stunned their hosts when reducing the deficit. Cousins was twice involved in a fine move that threatened to open up the right side of the Northfleet defence, but as the former City captain broke into the area he lost possession. City swiftly grabbed the ball back and from a stunning deep diagonal cross by Clarke, from close to the touchline, Sangare swooped at Cronin's left hand post to crisply head home his first goal the season.
Boosted by Sangare's first goal in 20 months, City did string together several promising moves although the cutting edge was a tad blunt. Even Gravesend, with the ever dangerous MacDonald leading the line, were finding decent chances hard to come by although a low cross from Eribenne was asking to be turned it but, thankfully from the Saints point of view, was not.
Mr Moffatt saw an opportunity to take centre stage again just after the hour when he displayed complete and utter incompetence when entrusted with the task of informing everyone of a Gravesend substitution via the marvellous mobile scoreboard. He looked rather chuffed with himself as he did an Anthea Turner style twirl on the halfway line displaying his board to one and all but wondered why he was receiving howls of derision. A glance at his board told him that, according to him, Gravesend were substituting no.91 with no.91. A quick change and all would be fine; except that this time he went for no.91 replacing no.11 - oh well near enough, so let's play on. Conference clubs are not permitted to go above no.40 in their squads and the other number he was looking for was 16.
With that entertainment out of the way City found themselves pushed back for quite while but delayed shipping any further goals with Clarke blocking McCarthy, and Long, taking a return pass via MacDonald's clever back heel, being thwarted by the legs of the sprawling Bastock. But City's resistance was broken on 74 minutes and although the finish was exquisite, it was, defensively, a sloppy and avoidable goal. Deen broke up a Fleet attack and sought to play a ball through the home defence but only succeeded in giving the ball straight to Ross Smith whose quick forward pass caught City square and allowed MacDonald to break clear. Seeing the danger early Bastock raced from his area but really the ball was too far outside his box and as he charged out MacDonald flicked it to the keepers left and from close on 35 yards, and close to the touchline, the striker, with a superb right footed effort, claimed his 27th goal in 40 Conference appearances this season.
Still St Albans refused to accept their anticipated punishment and two minutes later Sangare neatly touched the ball past one defender and stung Cronin's palms with a cracking drive from 25 yards that the keeper needed two attempts to bring under control. Eight minutes from time Hann won a corner that he took himself on the City left. Sangare, standing beyond the back post, neatly headed Hann's cross inside to Elphick but the central defenders half volley lacked the venom required to trouble Cronin.
With two minutes of normal time remaining, thee minutes and 35 seconds of added time were also played, Lippiatt added the giant frame of Ben Martin to the attack as Elphick's headache intensified. With no other striker available on the bench, goalkeeper Ricky Perks Sunday League exploits not counted, it proved to be a master stroke as two minutes into that added time Martin steadied himself as Cracknell's long throw bounced his way and from ten yards out Martin flashed the ball to Cronin's right for his first goal since October 2004. At least that goal gave some respectability to the final score but could not deny Gravesend a second 3-2 victory over the Saints this season.