St Albans City’s promotion bid moved onto more solid ground on Monday when a 4-2 victory over AFC Totton lifted the Saints into a Southern League play-off position but it was not a totally convincing City performance against an inexperienced Stags side.
City took 48 minutes to break down one of the two Premier Division whipping boys and that two of the goals appeared to be own goals underlined what a frustrating evening City experienced in and around the visitor’s penalty area.
After a poor opening 45 minutes blighted by both sides seemingly looking to out-do the other by the number of passes they could put straight to the opposition, City improved after the interval and the Totton side, average age of around 21 and including two defenders aged 16 and 17, tired and came under ever increasing pressure.
St Albans joint management team of Graham Golds and Jimmy Gray rang the changes after Saturday’s drab draw at Chippenham with Howard Hall, James Kaloczi, David Keenleyside and Richard Graham all removed from the starting XI.
Former Arsenal and Leicester City right back Kerrea Gilbert came in for his debut, Darren Locke returned to the middle of the defence after suspension; Matt Taylor was recalled for his first starting appearance in the league since September, while new signing Connor Calcutt partnered John Frendo in attack.
For Gilbert this was his first game of the season for any club and, naturally enough, looked a bit rusty early on. Fellow new signing Calcutt enjoyed a promising debut although he did squandered a reasonable chance to open his account.
Calcutt’s opportunity came on 17 minutes when Jamal Lowe was tackled by Dan Beckles, the ball ran kindly into the path of the dual-registered Berkhamsted striker who shot, from an angle, into the side-netting.
But given his all round performance no one will begrudge Calcutt that near miss.
By the time of that effort Lowe had already spooned one effort high over the top and repeated the feat later in the half.
James Comley, whose compass was somewhat faulty during the first half, clipped a shot across the face of the goal and just wide while a cushioned John Frendo volley from Calcutt’s excellent cross, struck the leg of defender Andrew Bridge about a yard from the goalline before being whacked to safety.
City failed to get any of seven first half attempts on target where as Totton tested Paul Bastock with an Alex Moth effort from outside the penalty area while Luke Roberts was also not far off the mark with another shot from distance.
Gray suggested that City appeared low on confidence before the interval but came out for the second half with far more attacking intent and were rewarded on 48 minutes with their 50th Premier Division goal of the season.
Unlike much of the first half play, the move that brought about the opening goal saw City keep possession well before delivering the decisive blow.
Bastock kicked a precise punt out to Taylor on the right of the midfield. Taylor exchanged passes with Gilbert and Comley before, from inside the penalty area, touching the ball inside to Frendo.
City’s leading marksman sought to create space for a shot only for the ball to bounce away from him to the unmarked Lowe who fired right-footed into the York Road goal from ten yards out.
The script was starting to come together with Totton now expected to roll over and accept their all too familiar fate and minute later Frendo had a shot charged down with his follow up going gently through to keeper Steve Mowthorpe.
However, the anticipated slaughter failed to materialise and on 51 minutes Roberts did extremely well to get between three City defenders and head a perfectly flighted Liam Hibberd free kick to the right of Bastock for the equalising goal.
Calcutt was denied by Mowthorpe only for the young keeper, in just his second game for the Stags, to blot his copybook when completely misjudging a Lee Chappell cross on 56 minutes and presenting Gilbert with a softly headed goal as City regained the lead.
To their credit Totton again hit back swiftly with Zac Mouland breaking at speed and cutting the ball back to Moth whose shot from 18 yards was saved by Bastock.
The game became ever more open with City having nine second half efforts on target to Totton’s seven; more goals were in the offing.
From one of nine corners City won during the final third of the game the Saints moved into a 3-1 lead on 62 minutes.
Chappell swung the ball in left-footed from the corner on the Saints right. Totton defender Bridge and City’s Calcutt challenged with the ball dropping behind them and striking Stags captain Chris Onoufriou.
Mowthorpe appeared to claw the ball away only after it had crossed the goal-line, and Frendo’s follow up was blocked on the line by the arm of Hibberd.
Referee Oli Dolton, on the word of linesman Michael Oakes, awarded a goal, which was probably an own goal by Onoufriou.
City immediately sent Chris Henry into action and his invention down the left flank added to Totton’s mounting problems as he slipped a pass out to Chappell whose cross was headed over by Calcutt.
A rout looked to be on the cards when City, again fortuitously, added a fourth goal on 68 minutes.
Chappell curled another excellent in-swinging corner over Mowthorpe that hit the inside of the back post and then struck the back of the falling keeper on its way into the back of the net.
With a quarter of the game remaining City may feel a little disappointed not to have scored more, they certainly created enough chances to do so, with Chappell going the closest to adding to the tally while Mowthorpe also saved smartly from Henry and Comley.
But in the final minute it was Totton who found cause for celebration with their second goal.
Bastock saved well as Mouland broke free with Locke hooking the loose away only as far as Sam House.
The Stags substitute played a quick ball up to Moth whose powerful drive was pushed into the air by the diving Bastock, but before any City defenders could react Roberts nipped in to head the falling ball home to repeat the two-goal feat he achieved when the sides met at Testwood Stadium in September.
City’s victory, in front of their lowest league attendance since last February, lifts them into fifth place and a play-off position for the first time since winning 5-2 at Totton on 7th September.
St Albans are back in Southern League action on Saturday, 18th January, when St Neots Town are the visitors to Clarence Park, kick off is at 3pm.
St Albans City: P.Bastock, K.Gilbert, L.Chappell, R.Marwa, B.Martin, D.Locke, M.Taylor (D.Keenleyside 69), J.Comley, J.Frendo, C.Calcutt (M.Nwokeji 72), J.Lowe (C.Henry 63), subs; H.Hall, R.Graham.
AFC Totton: S.Mowthorpe, L.Hibberd, A.Bridge, C.Onoufriou, D.Beckles, A.Moth, Z.Mouland, L.Ross (S.House 69), T.Edwards (N.Hurst 69), L.Roberts, J.Jennings (K.Crisp 80), subs; C.Ferrett, S.Hollick.
Goals: 48 1-0 Lowe, 51 1-1 Roberts, 56 2-1 Gilbert, 62 3-1 Own Goal (Onoufriou), 68 4-1 Own Goal (Mowthorpe), 90 4-2 Roberts.
Referee: Oli Dolton (Oxford).