After plodding their way unconvincingly through the closing weeks of the season St Albans City turned on the style at Bridge Road on Wednesday to storm into the Southern League play-off final with a 4-2 destruction of perennial play-off failures Cambridge City.
The Lilywhites defeat was the fifth play-off disappointment suffered in the past nine years by Gary Roberts side.
The tale is a little happier in St Albans as the Saints chalked up a sixth straight play-off win and now head to Premier Division rivals Chesham United on Bank Holiday Monday confident of ending a three-year exile from Conference South.
Gone was the tentative staid City of recent weeks. In its place was a vibrant, fluid outfit that oozed with creativity when moving forward and, particularly during the first half, was watertight in defence.
The two goals that Cambridge scored were high class spectacular efforts; they had to be break down City’s quite superb backline.
With a fit again David Keenleyside restored to the side City, effectively, played with five midfield players. But such was the swiftness that lone striker John Frendo received support it was a far from negative formation.
This performance may be been a long while coming but, goodness, it was worth the wait.
Cambridge went into the match on the back of five consecutive wins and just one goal conceded; St Albans had lost once in eight games.
But it was clear from early on that the Saints had settled by far the better of the two sides on Histon’s over-used dustbowl of a pitch, and inside five minutes the goal spree had begun.
Ben Martin was twice involved in breaking up a Lilywhites attack and played the ball forward to James Comley.
The bustling midfielder laid a quick pass into the path of Steve Wales and from the halfway line the former Chesham midfielder ran at the home defence.
With exquisite timing and placement Wales slid the ball wide of home skipper Lee Chaffey and allowed Frendo to let it run on before twisting his right foot around the ball and cutting a deadly low shot across Zac Barrett and into the net.
It was Frendo’s 40th goal of the season but only the third to have troubled his right boot.
Roared on by an exuberant following, St Albans suggested that a second goal was in the offing and on 23 minutes Cambridge were facing a familiar end of season blow out as the Saints doubled their advantage.
Lee Chappell, the Saints supporters’ player of the year and long-throw expert, had, literally, a hand in both that and the third goal.
The art of the long throw may not be one of the most technical aspects of the game, but when properly directed the outcome is lethal.
From a long throw on the Saints right Chappell arrowed the ball into the heart of the home goalmouth.
The ball skimmed off the head of Cambridge defender Josh Beech and was met on the full on the apex of the six-yard box by Wales whose left-footed shot beat Barrett at his near post.
It was not quite game over but Cambridge, hesitant since the start, were in desperate need of some inspiration.
Sam Corcoran has started to blossom for the Saints in recent games and this was probably as good as he has been in a City shirt.
The former Chelmsford midfielder tested Barrett with a shot from 25 yards before Beech, with a dipping effort that went just over Paul Bastock’s goal, had Cambridge’s first goal attempt of the night.
The match was so nearly put to bed on 34 minutes when another Chappell throw, this time from the Saints left, clipped the head of Will Lawton before drifting towards the back post where Wales beat Adam Martin to the bounce and flicked a clever shot onto the face of the upright.
Cambridge launched a swift counter-attack but Adam Marriott, the leading goalscorer in the Premier Division, was thwarted by the combined efforts of Martin and Comley.
As the interval approached hope was fading fast for Cambridge before the deficit, on 45 minutes, was reduced by a goal worthy of the occasion.
Chappell had a clearance charged down by Robbie Burns, Darren Locke tried to minimise the damage by heading the bouncing ball away but it was seized upon by Danny Kelly who, from around 26 yards out, beat Bastock with a glorious right-footed strike.
The scene was now set for an absorbing second half but within six minutes of the restart the Saints had again moved into a two-goal lead.
Keenleyside had already forced Barrett into making a good save to keep out a well-placed lob before Martin, in a cluster of six players, rose to head a Chappell throw to the right of Barrett for his 12th goal in 188 games for the club.
Once again Cambridge were chasing the game and had to push men forward as the Saints eyed the final with Chesham.
After good work by Burns, Tom Pepper crossed low into the penalty area where Kelly, shackled by Bastock and Howard Hall, scooped a close range shot over the target.
For the first time Cambridge were beginning to exert some sustained pressure on the Saints goal and Bastock used all of his numerous years of experience to palm over the bar a blistering header by Marriott following a Josh Dawkin corner.
For much of the evening all of the vocal encouragement had come from the visiting supporters but on 63 minutes the home fans finally found their voice as Marriott lashed a clinical first time shot past Bastock from 18 yards following Beech’s perfect ball through the middle of the St Albans defence.
The Cambridge fightback was almost immediately extinguished when the umpteenth Chappell long throw – possibly his longest of the night – bounced up and was headed goalwards by Frendo.
With astonishing agility Barrett flew high to his right to touch the ball onto the crossbar. Wales returned the dropping sphere into the goalmouth where Frendo had two efforts blocked by the prone Beech.
Comley then sent a dipping effort just over the home goal before Bastock rolled back the years to save low down from Andrew Phillips after the substitute had been teed up by James Brighton.
Any hope Gary Roberts held of getting one over his former club evaporated on 83 minutes when Corcoran scored an outstanding solo fourth goal for St Albans.
Ram Marwa, less than two weeks away from the birth of his second child, won a header 15 yards inside the Saints half. Corcoran picked up the loose ball and ran, unchallenged, in a straight line towards the home goal.
Barrett, mindful that Frendo was to Corcoran’s left, strayed possibly just a bit too far to his right, and, even at full stretch, was left helpless as the 23-year-old sent a clinically perfectly placed left-footed shot just inside the keeper’s left hand post.
It was St Albans 12th goal in just three visits to Bridge Road, how they must wish that Monday’s final was being staged in this corner of Cambridgeshire rather than at The Meadow, in Amy Lane, home of Chesham United. Kick off is at 3pm.
Cambridge City: Z.Barrett, T.Pepper, J.Brighton, W.Lawton, L.Chaffey, J.Beech, R.Burns (I.Lewis 89), A.Martin, D.Kelly, A.Marriott, J.Dawkin (A.Phillips 66), subs; J.Ramm, N.Beasant, L.Lee.
Booked: Marriott, Martin.
St Albans City: P.Bastock, H.Hall, L.Chappell, R.Marwa, B.Martin, D.Locke, S.Corcoran, J.Comley, J.Frendo (G.Sykes 85), D.Keenleyside (C.Henry 90), S.Wales (J.Kaloczi 78), subs; T.Ward, T.Coulton. Booked: Comley.
Goals: 5 0-1 Frendo, 23 0-2 Wales, 45 1-2 Kelly, 51 1-3 Martin, 63 2-3 Marriott, 83 2-4 Corcoran.
Referee: Paul Forrester (Luton).