St Albans City gained a crucial Southern League point from Premier Division leaders Hemel Hempstead Town with a goalless draw at Vauxhall Road on Saturday in a match that was a triumph for tactics over style.
The reaction of the City players at the final emphasised the Saints satisfaction in stopping the Tudors from scoring at home for only the second time this season.
It was also a case of mission accomplished as City, in front of Hemel’s highest crowd of the season, secured the draw the defensive tactics employed were clearly designed to achieved.
After a big build up the game failed to come anywhere close to expectations.
Whilst it would be easy to blame the negative outlook of the Saints, it must be said that Hemel were also below their best and when the Tudors did pose a threat the excellent Ben Martin, well supported by Darren Locke, competently shored up the City defence.
Locke was back in the City side for the first time since suffering a serious facial injury two months ago.
Hemel went into the match on the back of four straight wins and City on three, and when a swift attack by the home side inside the opening 30 seconds ended with David King flashing a shot wide, the scene looked set for an absorbing contest.
Sadly it was a false dawn. Hemel played the better passing football and created the greater number of openings, but young Tom Coulton in the City goal had just the occasional moment of genuine concern.
That said, the Tudors did get the ball into the City net twice during the opening half.
On 15 minutes keeper Laurie Walker scored direct from a free kick some 20 yards inside his own half, but referee Rob Smith, much to the anger of Hemel boss Dean Brennan, disallowed the effort as at the time Coulton was out by the corner flag collecting another ball that was on the pitch.
Just before the break Parkes also stabbed the ball into the net but the whistle had blown a few seconds earlier for a foul by Oliver Hawkins – on for the injured Lewis Toomey – on Locke.
Moments earlier Hawkins got a touch to a Danny Talbot free kick but could not direct his header on target.
Coulton remained the busier of the keepers as he clutched a Jordan Parkes free kick that just eluded Hemel’s 33-goal striker Ben Mackey.
After cutting in from the left Mackey had a second effort safely gathered by Coulton, while a superbly timed tackle by Martin denied the Hemel striker a clear strike on goal.
Midway through the half City, playing up the prodigious slope and into the wind, had their first attempt on goal through midfielder Sam Corcoran whose shot took a deflection on its way through to Walker.
Already there was a feeling that one goal would be sufficient to secure all three points and the clearest opening came City’s way when a well directed long ball by James Comley tempted King to head the ball back to Walker.
The header fell well short and the attentive Warren Whitely nipped in only for his lob over the stranded Walker to bounce wide of the target.
The second half got underway against the backdrop of a scuffle between rivals fans just outside the clubhouse, three City followers are believed to have been ejected from the stadium.
St Albans, now playing down the slope, showed a welcome more adventurous attitude but lone striker Whitely still had to battle, with little success, against the giant former City defender Moussa Diarra for a succession of lofted hoofs from deep.
But it was the home side, scorers of a remarkable 120 league goals before this game, that still posed the greater threat.
Coulton did well to parry then smother another Parkes free kick that appeared to clip Hawkins head as a crowd of players challenged for the ball.
At times the game promised to live up to its billing during the second half but these proved to be all too fleeting.
Mackey came closest to adding to his tally on 68 minutes when an excellent pass by Allen found him in space in the inside right position.
Mackey tried to beat Coulton with a lofted effort across the goal but the City keeper dived full length to push the shot wide of the goal.
Former Saint David Hutton regained possession for the Tudors and fed Parkes whose cross was headed away by Martin but only as far as Allen. The midfielder struck his shot cleanly but the ball sailed just over the crossbar.
Steve Wales mustered City’s second, and final, on-target shot of the game on 73 minutes but his volley went gently through to the keeper.
A minute later St Albans attacking intent increased with the introduction of Chris Henry.
The winger embarked on three scintillating runs down the left flank but Hemel’s impressive backline held firm.
Even with the arrival of Henry, who was used as a substitute for the 50th time in a league match, it was Hemel who pressed with more purpose for a late winning goal.
Nine minutes from time a Hutton cross from the Tudors left was headed by Hawkins into the path of Parkes.
From 20-yards out the Hemel skipper hammered a superbly controlled right-footed volley into Coulton’s right hand upright as he was denied his 25th goal of the season.
As the seconds ticked away Allen sent a cushioned volley just over the City goal while a tight offside decision by the St Albans-based linesman Callum Chittenden – in fact, both linesmen were from St Albans –denied Henry a run on goal.
As the game moved into a fourth minute of added time City went down to ten men as Martin received the Saints 12th red card of the season.
Having been booked on 74 minutes Martin was shown a second yellow card for suggesting what Mr Smith should do after blowing when a free kick was taken from the wrong place.
Quite why the Letchworth official waited until Martin was swinging his leg at the ball before blowing his whistle made little sense.
The City captain now faces a possible two-match ban for his second sending off of the season.
But the good news for St Albans is that goalkeeper Paul Bastock and leading goalscorer John Frendo are both available for selection for next Saturday’s, 12th April, Southern League fixture at home to play-off hopefuls Poole Town, after completing their recent suspensions.
Kick off at Clarence Park is at 3pm.
Hemel Hempstead Town: L.Walker, D.King, K.Connolly, J.Parkes, K.Murphy, M.Diarra, D.Talbot, L.Allen, D.Pearce (D.Hutton 63), B.Mackey, L.Toomey (O.Hawkins 38), subs; J.Gilbert, C.Clarke, A.Tokarczyk.
St Albans City: T.Coulton, K.Gilbert, L.Chappell, R.Marwa, B.Martin, D.Locke, S.Corcoran, J.Comley (D.Keenleyside 82), W.Whitely (G.Sykes 77), S.Wales, C.Watters (C.Henry 74), subs; H.Hall, J.Kaloczi.
Dismissed: Martin (two yellow cards).
Referee: Rob Smith (Letchworth).