Honours may have been even in the big shoot-out between the top two strikers in the Nationwide South this season but the hat trick scored by Lee Clarke during St Albans Cityâ€™s rout of Bognor Regis Town at Clarence Park on Saturday may prove a great deal more valuable than the trio of goals Luke Nightingale scored against the Saints last October.
Lee Clarke opens the scoring
Clarkeâ€™s second hat trick for the Saints lifts the club out of the relegation places and maybe at last buries the home hoodoo that has plagued St Albans for the past two years. Despite Clarkeâ€™s latest treble burst though he was far from the sole candidate for the man of the match award as Gary Elphick was again outstanding, while Paul Bastock continued his excellent form and Tom Davis had his best game for the club.
Another to shine was the debut making Luke Cornwall who capped a highly promising performance with an exquisite goal; with a middle name of Clarence he is most certainly to the manor born.
City boss Colin Lippiatt has shown himself to be unafraid of making changes as player/coach Nick Roddis discovered on Saturday when he, along with striker Tom Beech, was dropped to the bench. Illness ruled out Chris Seeby and injury delayed Carl Kavanaghâ€™s possible league debut, all of which paved the way for the return of Scott Cousins and Davis, and introduction of Cornwall.
City, attacking the Hatfield Road end, were quickly into their stride and within five minutes had breached the Rocks defence. Cornwall did well to help the ball onto Clarke whose right-footed shot from 22 yards appeared to lack venom but still bounced beyond keeper Craig Stonerâ€™s lame dive to nestle inside the keeperâ€™s left hand post.
Cityâ€™ continued to pose the early questions with Ram Marwa heading over from a Ben Walshe corner and Elphick just failing to reach a dangerous Walshe free kick. Walshe, himself, tried an audacious first time effort that dipped just over the Bognor goal.
It would be generous to describe Bognorâ€™s response as anything other than muted but with a long range effort wide by Jamie Howell and a stabbed effort, also wide, by Ben Watson from Richard Hudsonâ€™s low cross they did at least make some headway against another impressive performance by the Saints defence.
City, though, had no intention of resting on their slender advantage and the Rocks needed a perfectly timed last ditch tackle by Kevin Murphy to deny Cornwall after the former Fulham player had been sent clear by Clarkeâ€™s flick to Bastockâ€™s long kick. But St Albans did close in on their biggest home league win for almost two years on 31 minutes when Hooper swept the ball across the park to Cousins whose excellent deep cross was calmly headed down into the net at the back post by Clarke.
But just a couple of minutes prior to the interval Clarkeâ€™s day looked to be over when he ran at the Bognor defence only to be cut down by Murphy and kicked in the head as he fell by Jodey Rowland. Matt Hannâ€™s ensuing free kick was last seen entering the space race as it flew high out of the ground while Clarke retired to the dressing room and only returned for the second half with heavy bandaging protecting a cut above his right eye.
Bognor were clearly at odds with themselves and Nightingale was cautioned after offering some choice words firstly to a spectator in the main stand then to Tony Mason who gave one of the finest refereeing displays of the season.
St Albans put the game beyond doubt just three minutes into the second period when Cousins sent Cornwall clear down the Saints left, the strikers pace left defenders in his wake before he expertly clipped the ball, from a relatively tight angle, over the advancing Stoner and into the net.
The pace of Cornwall was something Bognor never got to grips with and with a few more carefully timed runs he would have avoided a number of offside decisions and added to the Rocks misery. Bognor did manage to give a better account of themselves during the second half but their lack of attacking threat fully supported their recent run of just one win in ten league matches and with poor misses by Nightingale and Matt Russell, twice, there was little chance of Jack Pearceâ€™s side reducing the deficit.
The Saints made certain of their biggest home win over the south coast visitors on 76 minutes with Clark being both the instigator and executor as he won a penalty â€“ the Saints first of the season and first home league penalty for a remarkable 17 months - when tripped by Murphy before getting up to see his 23rd goal of the season go low into the York Road net off the outstretched finger tips on Stonerâ€™s left hand.
City ended the afternoon with a flourish as Cornwall latched onto Cousins pass and cut the ball back to Walshe whose shot from 18 yards fizzed over the bar, then in the final minute Beech headed a Walshe corner back across the penalty area to the incoming Walshe whose low shot was smothered by Stoner at the foot of the post.
Report by David Tavener