So much for saving the best until last, the home leg of St Albans City’s 101st year ended without so much as whimper on Saturday as Braintree Town strolled to an easy 3-0 Blue Square South victory at Clarence Park.
Saints boss Steve Castle had one of his easiest team selections of the season in as much as putting out a starting XI was simply a case of naming his eleven fittest senior players.
The City manager has operated with a small squad all season and at weekend his options were pitifully small as suspension ruled out Ben Martin, injury accounted for James Fisher, while neither Paul Hakim nor Alex Bailey were available.
When added to the recent loss of Lee Clarke, Solomon Shields and Chris Seeby, the latter on loan to Northwood, then the problems facing City at 3pm were all too obvious. And if Castle thought that matters could not get any worse then just three minutes into the game muscular central defender Ryan Frater clashed with Braintree’s Danny Hockton and left the pitch with a sprained left ankle.
Frater is almost certain to miss next Saturday’s trip to champions-elect AFC Wimbledon and will be joined on the sidelines by Ben Martin, Fisher and the also suspended Jonathan Hunt.
Frater, due to Ben Martin’s absence, was expected to be a pivotal figure in City’s performance at the weekend and without his physical presence the Saints seemed to wave the white flag from early on against an organised Braintree.
Standing in as captain for the day was Scott Cousins on his 150th appearance for the club, within a handful of minutes of the kick off Cousins was having to reorganised the rest of his defence as Adam Everitt was pulled out of the midfield to play alongside James Quilter following Frater’s early demise. Hassan Sulaiman continued his run at right-back.
Substitute Kwame Asamoah, making his first league appearance since the final game of the 2007-08 season, went into the midfield where he teamed up with Hector Mackie, fellow Oaklands protégée Craig Mortimer and the experienced Hunt.
And it was Hunt, particularly during the first half, who offered the brightest moments in a desperately poor display by the Saints. But after the break neither Hunt nor Cousins saw much of the ball as play centred, to a greater degree, on the opposite flank.
In attack Gary Cohen and Simon Martin made virtually no headway against an Iron defence that included impressive former Saint Ryan Moran.
Braintree, playing their second game under new manager Robbie Garvey, gave warning of what was to come when Bradley Quinton sent a half volley through to Paul Bastock and on 16 minutes the breakthrough was made with an excellent goal.
Quinton, who found acres of space from which he operated with impunity all afternoon, played a short square pass to James Hawes who, from around 25 yards out, beat Bastock with a fine left-footed strike that comfortably beat Bastock high to the keeper’s right.
Five minutes later Cohen had a shot charged down but with a first half shot count of 14-3 in the visitors favour there is little doubt as to where most of the action was to be found. One-time Saint Michael Shinn sprayed a lovely ball over Sulaiman out to Mark Jones and from his cross Quinton headed wide at the back post when a second goal appeared odds on.
Braintree were catching City time and again with long punts from deep inside the Iron half, without Ben Martin and Frater St Albans seemed powerless to stem the flow towards their goal.
A second goal looked to be just around the corner as Hockton and Quinton had efforts charged down with the latter also striking the ball across the face of the goal but just too far ahead for Hockton to turn in. Shinn also blazed an effort high over the home goal while Bastock did well to tip over the top a dangerous in-swinging cross.
The second 45 minutes saw little respite for the out-of-sorts Saints. Bastock made a spectacular full length save to his right from a well-placed Quinton free kick before Quilter and Hockton were both cautioned for an off the ball scuffle.
After an ineffective 63 minutes Simon Martin made way for 18-year-old Inih Effiong and the teenager took his chance to impress very well.
But the prospect of City falling to their second league double defeat within a week moved closer on 64 minutes when Hockton got goal-side of Sulaiman and Quilter to slip the ball past the diving Bastock for his 14th Conference South goal of the season.
Three minutes later Hockton, in a confined space, skilful beat Bastock but his deft flick just lacked sufficient pace to score and allowed Sulaiman to collect the ball on the goal-line and walk it to safety.
City finally had a shot on target after 68 minutes and only brilliant goalkeeping and defended denied the Saints a way back into the match.
Effiong raced clear of Jones down the Braintree left and slid a perfect ball into the goalmouth that was met by the incoming Cohen but was blocked on the goal-line by Iron keeper Nick Morgan, the ball ran loose to Hunt and when a goal appeared a certainty Billy Burgess slid in with a perfectly timed tackle to block the effort.
Morgan was back in action to make his only other save of the afternoon when Mortimer drove a decent shot towards the keepers’ near left hand post.
Braintree ended City’s potential fightback with a third goal on 74 minutes. Hawes crossed from the Iron left and when Everitt headed the ball away from goal Williams was on hand to pick up the pieces and scoop a decisive shot to Bastock’s left.
Bastock was determined not to be beaten for a fourth time and made an excellent save from Williams following a cross by Jones.
During the closing seconds City twice threatened to poach a consolation goal. The first effort came to nothing courtesy of 20-year old referee Antony Coggins who penalised Cohen for a non-existent foul on Morgan after the keeper had fumbled a cross by Effiong.
Then, in the final goalmouth action of the season at Clarence Park, a Mortimer cross was headed back across the goal and out for a goalkick by Hunt.
The importance of Ben Martin to the Saints was highlighted in the end of season presentations on Saturday. At the final whistle the City captain, was presented with the Saints Supporters Club Player of the Season trophy and a short while later Martin was on his feet again in the clubhouse to collect the Players’ Player of the Year award.
The Wagstaffe Simmons Trophy – named after the clubs founder, George Wagstaffe Simmons - was presented to Supporters Club chairman, Ian Rogers. Jonathan Hunt collected the Player of the Month award for April.
St Albans City: P.Bastock, J.Hunt, S.Cousins, A.Everitt, J.Quilter, R.Frater (K.Asamoah 7), H.Sulaiman, C.Mortimer, G.Cohen, S.Martin (I.Effiong 63), H.Mackie, subs; L.Jackaman, J.Palmer.
Braintree Town: N.Morgan, B.Burgess, M.Jones, R.Moran, J.Bruce, B.Quinton, J.Hawes (D.Quinton 87), C.Piper, D.Hockton (W.Finch 76), G.Williams, M.Shinn (R.McLaren 87), subs; A.Porter, C.Holloway.
Goals: 0-1 Hawes 16, 0-2 Hockton 64, 0-3 Williams 74.
Booked: Quilter, Hockton.
Referee: Antony Coggins (Bicester).