St Albans City’s participation in the Southern League promotion play-offs was thrown into considerable doubt on Saturday when Poole Town re-ignited their challenge with a far from flattering 1-0 victory at Clarence Park.
Poole are currently enduring an arduous run of four games a week to catch up on postponed fixtures, yet appeared far the brighter and more confident of the two sides on a surprisingly chilly afternoon.
The Dorset club arrived at St Albans just two days after going down 2-0 at Hungerford and with an under-strength side appeared resigned to suffering a fifth Premier Division defeat in six games.
What they had not bargained for was to encounter a City side almost bereft of desire and confidence.
Since putting in a tremendous display with just nine-men for most of a 1-1 draw with Bideford on 10th February, City have stumbled their way unconvincingly through the next 11 league games and, with just three games remaining, a return to form is needed if they are not to be edged out of the top five.
Paul Bastock and John Frendo returned to the side after each had served a three-match ban, but while Bastock had a reasonable afternoon, Frendo, along with strike partner Warren Whitely, was fairly anonymous.
However, in fairness to the front duo, the supply and support they received from the midfield was pretty dreadful.
The lack of invention was plain to see and a first start for three months for David Keenleyside at Banbury next Saturday looks increasingly inevitable as it has become a match that City have to win.
The Saints received stinging criticism from joint- manager James Gray at the final whistle on Saturday but the game had begun encouragingly with both sides looking to get forward.
In recent weeks St Albans threat to opposition has seen a heavy reliance on the accuracy of Lee Chappell’s long throw, and such a tactic almost brought an early breakthrough when the ball skimmed off the head of Poole’s Luke Burbidge and had to be saved at full stretch by the diving Nick Hutchings.
Burbidge also proved to be a handful at the opposite end of the pitch and with a deflected shot called upon Bastock to make his first save of the day.
With neither Frendo nor Whitely managing a shot on target all afternoon, it was left to Chappell, on a familiar forward foray from his left-back position, to force Hutchings into making his only other save of the half with a fine low effort from the edge of the penalty area.
Twenty minutes into the game and the City goal survived a moment of much needed good fortune.
Ekow Elliott, who troubled City throughout, cut in from the left flank but had his shot charged down by Ben Martin.
In a flash Jon Davies was onto the rebound and drove a stinging effort wide of Bastock and against the inside of the keeper’s right hand upright.
City had the greater number of chances during the remainder of the half but the likelihood of a goal being scored appeared slim.
Frendo looped an overhead kick over the bar, and then received a short pass from James Comley that he helped on its way into the path of Chappell whose shot ruffled the side-netting.
Chappell, Frendo and Comley were involved in another promising move around the edge of the Town penalty area, but the chance was lost when Hutchings moved swiftly to beat Chris Watters to Comley’s clever chipped ball into the penalty area.
A surging run by Chappell late in the half offered hope only for Sam Clarke’s well-timed challenge to end the threat.
Playing down the slope towards their favoured end, the Hatfield Road goal, in the second half St Albans would have been looking to take the game to their guests but, instead, fell away alarmingly.
City were forced into a change at the interval with James Kaloczi coming into the middle of the defence in place of Darren Locke who was hampered by a back problem.
Ten minutes after the restart Keenleyside replaced Watters. Following his lengthy lay-off, Keenleyside is still a bit rusty but the kind of through balls he was aiming to produce, although generally over-hit, offered more hope than that being produced around him.
Poole missed a clear chance to open the scoring on 56 minutes when Davies, Elliott and Burbidge exchanged three quick passes before the latter sent Elliott away. But the chance was lost when Elliott, from 18 yards out, scuffed a shot across Bastock and just wide of the target.
But just two minutes later and there was to be no second let off for St Albans.
Steve Devlin lobbed the ball into the penalty area, Ben Martin headed away but only as far as Elliott whose shot from 18 yards, that again seemed to lack power, bounced inside Bastock’s right hand upright for his fourth goal of the season.
St Albans responded by briefly upping the tempo of their play but it lack quality and the greater threat remained with the Dolphins.
A superb cross-field ball by substitute Carl Preston gave Marvin Brooks a clear sight of the home goal but an excellent save by Bastock kept the Saints in contention.
Poole repeatedly gave City problems with quick breaks late in the game but the home side did carve out a couple of decent chances themselves.
A promising move ended with Steve Wales stabbing a shot over the goal following a low cross by Comley, while a spell of sustained pressure again saw Wales and Comley involved before the latter floated a cross towards Frendo who appeared to palm rather than head it straight to a grateful Hutchings.
Poole almost increased their lead in added time when Neil Martin charged down Howard Hall’s attempted clearance with the ball running into the path of Elliott.
With almost nonchalant contempt Elliott attempted to lob the ball over Bastock but the City keeper sprung up to produce another top class save at the expense of a corner.
But Bastock was unable to stop Poole becoming the only side to complete the league double over St Albans this season, the result also allowed Cambridge City to leap above City into third place.
St Albans, in theory, have one of the easier run ins to the end of the season and despite collecting just one point from the past two games, still know that victory in each of their final three matches will secure a play-off position.
The Saints future should be clearer after next weekend when they visit Banbury United on Saturday, 19th April, before entertaining Biggleswade Town on the Bank Holiday Monday. Both matches kick off at 3pm.
St Albans City: P.Bastock, H.Hall, L.Chappell, R.Marwa (C.Henry 69), B.Martin, D.Locke (J.Kaloczi 46), S.Wales, J.Comley, J.Frendo, W.Whitely, C.Watters (D.Keenleyside 55), subs; G.Sykes, S.Corcoran.
Poole Town: N.Hutchings, S.Clarke (N.Martin 85), J.Wannell, L.Dibba, J.Whisken, C.Pettefer, M.Brooks, S.Devlin (C.Davis 65), E.Elliott, L.Burbidge, J.Davies (C.Preston 58), subs; M.Charles.
Goal: 58 0-1 Elliott.
Referee: Oleksandr Saliy (Enfield).