St Albans City’s bid to return to former glories moved a step closer on Bank Holiday Monday when over 3,000 spectators saw the Saints brush aside Chesham United 3-1 to win the Southern League Play-Off final on a day high in emotion at The Meadow.
From a goal down inside six minutes City gradually gained the upper hand and once John Frendo slotted home a free kick, nine minutes before the break, the Generals were facing a familiar play-off nightmare.
Two minutes into first half stoppage time Steve Wales, a Chesham player until six weeks ago, skilfully guided City ahead and when Frendo added his 42nd goal of the season just prior to the hour it was clear that the game was over for Andy Leese and his boys.
The turn-around in City’s fortunes since Graham Golds and James Gray moved up from managing the City Youth team to replace David Howell as First team manager in November 2012 has been astonishing.
In the duo’s first full season in charge they have led the club to long, financially lucrative, runs in both the FA Cup and FA Trophy, and have now crowned the campaign with play-off victories over Cambridge City and Chesham – both of whom finished above City in the Premier Division table.
It is a meteoric rise for the two former City players and the completion of part one of their transformation of St Albans City was carried out amid a remarkable backdrop.
As crowds streamed down Amy Lane away from the ground a decision was taken to delay the kick off by 15 minutes.
But even then there was heartache for many as Chesham, on instructions from the police, closed the gates once 3,000 spectators were inside the ground. It seemed a curious move as there appeared to be ample space for at least a further one thousand spectators.
Amongst those inside the ground was the St Albans Mayor, Annie Brewster, who wasted no time in joining the post match on-pitch celebrations suitably attired in her blue and yellow garb.
But just six minutes into the game it must have been Chesham who were contemplating wild celebrations later in the day.
John Kyriacou found Drew Roberts with a short throw on the Chesham right midway into the City half.
Kyriacou took return pass and knocked the ball forward to James Potton.
City defenders Ben Martin and Darren Locke failed to get tight to Potton who then slipped the ball through Locke’s legs, moved wide of the advancing and diving Paul Bastock before sliding an excellent goal into the vacant net at the cricket pitch end of the stadium.
At least half of the massive attendance had St Albans connections but the locals raised the roof as the ball hit the back of the net.
City were slow to recover from that setback and had Chesham added a second within the next 20 minutes then it would not have been completely unexpected.
Even so, City ought to have pulled level when Locke sliced a clear shot out of the ground and into the Meadow after two United defenders had failed to deal effectively with a Howard Hall free kick.
Chesham’s best opportunity to increase their advantage saw Roberts, sent scurrying down the right by Kyriacou, slide a low cross towards the near post where Dave Fotheringham darted just in front of Ram Marwa but could only stab his half chance narrowly wide.
A slip by Chesham central defender Darren Purse allowed a flick by Wales to send Frendo away and United keeper Shane Gore had to get down quickly to beat away Frendo’s firm drive.
St Albans were, by now, fast gaining in confidence and playing up the slope into a breeze appeared to pose no problems.
City left-back Lee Chappell, having evaded a lunge by Kyriacou, was unceremoniously sent flying by the immediately booked Fotheringham to win the Saints a free kick some 25 yards from goal.
Chesham opted for just a short wall and Frendo, who possess the eye of a hawk once the goal comes into view, simply curled a wonderfully well-placed left-footed shot wide of the wall and curling inside Gore’s near, right-hand, upright.
City were level and the away support, which had no trouble in drowning out a remarkably subdued home following throughout, upped the volume by a decibel or two.
With the prospect of playing down the slow to come City would have been content to go in level at the interval; instead, they added a superb second goal two minutes into added time.
The loss through injury of David Keenleyside for a couple of months of the season was a severe blow to the Saints, as his ability to unpick the meanness of defences is a joy to behold, and so it proved once again here.
James Comley, who continued his run of excellent form of late, probed for an opening before laying the ball short to Keenleyside.
The former London Colney midfielder bided his time before spotting a gap inside former City defender Danny Gordon.
With extraordinary precision Keenleyside arrowed his pass into the penalty area and Wales, reading the situation perfectly, raced forward to guide the ball across Gore and, again, inside his right hand post.
Wales, with five goals in just nine games, has proved an invaluable asset to the Saints.
Chesham, though, were far from finished at this stage of the game and came so close to pulling level in the seconds remaining before half time.
Martin struggled to deal with a bouncing ball and headed it to Roberts who knocked a first time pass over the City defence for Bruce Wilson to chase.
The Chesham midfielder shot low but Bastock saved well.
The ball rebounded to the edge of the penalty area where the retreating Martin, inexplicably, headed goalwards and was relieved to see Chappell make a quite exceptional headed goalline clearance.
City still had to survive a goalmouth scramble from the ensuing corner but did get to the interval a goal to the good.
Chesham, who went into the play-offs without a win in their final four Premier Division games of the season, needed to hit back early in the second half.
The Generals saw a lot of the ball after the restart but other than for a rally after the third City goal seldom looked capable of denying St Albans a fifth consecutive play-off victory.
The goal that pretty much ended the tie as a contest came on 59 minutes and, as with the second goal, was extremely well crafted.
Chris Watters, another former Chesham player, won the ball close to the touchline from Potton and played it forward to Keenleyside.
From Keenleyside the ball was quickly moved inside to Comley. The City captain spotted that Watters had continued his run into the penalty area and chipped a perfect pass onto his head.
Watters’ first attempt to find the incoming Frendo was blocked by Purse, but he made no mistake with his second effort and Frendo had the easiest of tasks in tucking the ball home right footed in front of the jubilant away support.
Chesham looked shot to pieces, both physically and psychologically, and City went looking for goals.
Martin headed wide from a Watters corner and Comley was no more than a yard away from embarrassing Gore with spectacular effort from just eight yards inside the Chesham half.
A slip by Daniel Brathwaite allowed Frendo to seize possession and square the ball to Wales whose powerful low drive only just went the wrong side of the target.
Bastock was called upon to make a couple of saves from Roberts, while Chris Dillon was unable to turn in a half chance, but by now the clock was being wound down and the party atmosphere ratcheted up by the travelling support.
Frendo, teed up by Wales, called upon Gore to make one last save but by then the job was done and St Albans City were back in the Football Conference.
Now the Saints just have to wait a couple of days to see which of the two second Divisions, North or South, they will be placed in for the 2014-15 season.
Chesham United: S.Gore, J.Kyriacou, T.Little, D.Gordon (D.Brathwaite 48), D.Purse, S.Thomas (R.Graham 77), D.Fotheringham (I.Effiong 68), J.Potton, C.Dillon, D.Roberts, B.Wilson, subs; H.Dodge, J.Prosper.
Booked: Wilson, Fotheringham, Dillon.
St Albans City: P.Bastock, H.Hall, L.Chappell, R.Marwa, B.Martin, D.Locke (T.Ward 69), D.Keenleyside (G.Sykes 87), J.Comley, J.Frendo, S.Corcoran (C.Watters 44), S.Wales, subs; C.Henry, T.Coulton.
Booked: Locke, Frendo.
Goals: 6 1-0 Potton, 36 1-1 Frendo, 45 1-2 Wales, 59 1-3 Frendo.
Referee: Savvas Yianni (Weston-super-Mare).