Goals flowed and nerve-ends jangled at Clarence Park before St Albans City clinched a third consecutive Southern League victory on Saturday at the expense of a Bideford side that simply refused to lay down and came so close to saving the game before finally succumbing 4-3.
A goal up inside five minutes and dominating proceedings for the opening stages St Albans appeared to be on course for a comfortable afternoon but by the end of the second half, during which the Robins from North Devon laid siege to the home goal, City were relieved to escape with all three points in their grasp.
City showed two changes from the side that defeated Redditch the previous week with joint-manager James Gray coming into the midfield while striker Brad Wadkins made his first start. Matt Taylor and the injured Greg Ngoyi were the players to stand down.
Attacking the Hatfield Road goal, St Albans could hardly have made a better start with right-back Chris Seeby, after almost losing possession to Richard Groves, drilling an angled drive all along the ground from 15 yards and into the net despite keeper Tim Sandercombe getting an outstretched hand to the ball.
It was Seeby’s first goal for the club since December 2008.
With just five minutes on the clock, a goal up and already skipper James Comley running the show, the Saints pressed for more but struggled to really test the Robins keeper.
Bideford posted a warning when a positive run by Sean Downing led to a booking for Joe Bruce after the on-loan Hemel Hempstead defender unceremoniously ended the run.
From the ensuing free kick, struck by Groves, Saints custodian Nick Jupp seemed to spill the ball but made amends with an excellent save from Robins skipper Matt Hockley as he fired the loose ball goalwards.
Richard Graham displayed a flash of welcome invention as the first half slithered towards the interval only for his clever chip, following good work by Wadkins, to be cleanly caught by Sandercombe.
City still looked comfortable Comley controlled a long kick by Jupp but saw his low shot easily collected by the Bideford keeper.
Just when it seemed that half time would bring a welcome break to the growing tedium the game sprung into life with two goals inside three minutes.
On 44 minutes Bruce misjudged a bouncing ball on the edge of the home penalty and his weak attempted header to Jupp was well read by Downing who nipped between the City duo to head the ball into the vacant York Road net.
But two minutes into added time the Robins joy was shattered when Chris Henry, desperately under-used but still a huge influence on the outcome, won the home side a penalty.
Bideford struggled to clear their lines as Henry headed a Layne Eadie cross into the goalmouth. And when the ball was half cleared Henry regained possession and ghosted past Rob Farkins and Ben Wood before being taken out by a clumsy rather than malicious challenge by Matt Bye.
Comley despatched the resulting to Sandercombe’s right to secure his first goal for the club.
Within a minute of the second half getting underway Eadie, freed by Comley’s astute flicked pass, drove the ball across the face of the goal but just too long for Henry to reach.
Bideford – 7-1 winners at Chippenham in their previous away match – brushed aside that close call to throw everything bar the kitchen sink at St Albans for the remainder of the game.
Much of the Robins threat came from the remarkable long throw of Wood. Time and again he arrowed the ball into the heart of the City penalty area but Bideford took time to get their bearings right as a succession of shots went wide of the target.
Even so, Jupp pulled off a wonderful save high to his right following Kevin Squire’s close range header from an Ian Sampson cross.
Wood also proved useful with his feet as he sent a cross bouncing in front of the home goal but no team-mates could apply the finishing touch while a glancing header from a Groves corner also flashed across the goalmouth.
Midway through the half Bye set up Downing whose shot was parried by Jupp with the City keeper doing well to scoop the rebound out for a corner as it threatened to bounce into the goal.
The Saints enjoyed another let-off when the stretching Hockley shot over the crossbar.
On 71 minutes Gray, who later admitted that it had not been one of his better days, was replaced by Charlie Dove and the teenager did at least try to stem Bideford’s endless waves of attacks by keeping possession. It was not a complete success but with City conceding possession at will his efforts were noted.
A curling cross from Bye close to the right touchline only missed the back post by inches before a quick break by Henry won a corner and eased the mounting pressure.
And on 78 minutes City, courtesy of a counter-attack, added a third goal to seemingly make the outcome safe.
Henry ran at a dithering Bideford backline and darted wide of Farkins and the advancing Sandercome before placing the ball into the corner of the net for an excellent goal.
Still though Bideford refused to accept their fate but squandered a good chance when Jupp failed to get any distance on a punch to a Groves corner and Squire headed wastefully wide at the back post.
With nine minutes remaining Bideford made a triple substitution as caution was thrown to the wind and three minutes later they were back in contention when Comley was penalised for bringing down Wood just inside the penalty area.
Groves sent Jupp the wrong way from 12-yards and at 3-2 City’s position looked vulnerable to say the least, but just two minutes later a huge sigh of relief was heard around the 119-year-old stadium with Henry again the inspiration.
Bideford’s defence failed to deal with a bouncing ball and from 24-yards Henry sent a left-footed effort wide of the fully extended Robins keeper for his eighth goal of the season.
Almost needlessly to say Bideford came back once more and grabbed their third goal on 89 minutes.
Sampson crossed from the Robins right, Bruce’s attempted clearance thudded into Groves and before City could clear Downing hammered the ball right-footed beyond Jupp from 16 yards for his second goal of the game.
Four minutes into added time City broke away again with Comley heading on a punched Jupp clearance. Henry seized possession and after a lengthy run selflessly squared a pass to Patrick Jordan.
The City substitute would have marked his debut with a goal only for Sandercombe to make a fine block for a corner.
City’s victory lifts the side back up to seventh in the Premier Division table and on Wednesday they will look to maintain the push for a play-off place when making the long trek to face Frome Town at Berkeley Road.
After the Bideford game central defender Joe Bruce confirmed that he is looking to extend his loan from Hemel that finished on Saturday.
James Gray is thought to be unlikely to play after suffering a recurrence of his shoulder injury but City are hopeful that striker Greg Ngoyi will be fit and available for selection.
St Albans City: N.Jupp, C.Seeby, L.Eadie, J.Gray (C.Dove 71), R.Wharton, J.Bruce, R.Graham, J.Urquhart, B.Wadkins (J.Patrick 81), J.Comley, C.Henry (D.Keenleyside 90), subs; M.Taylor, N.Hardy.
Booked: Bruce, Urquhart, Seeby, Henry.
Bideford: T.Sandercombe, I.Sampson, B.Wood, S.Downing, R.Farkins, A.Harper-Penman, M.Hockley (N.Barker 81), M.Bye, K.Squire (C.Clifford 81), J.Furzer (E.Laight 81), R.Groves, sub; J.Richards.
Booked: Furzer, Farkins.
Goals: 5 1-0 Seeby, 44 1-1 Downing, 45 2-1 Comley (p), 78 3-1 Henry, 85 3-2 Groves (p), 87 4-2 Henry, 89 4-3 Downing.
Referee: Ian Rathbone (Northampton).