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City strike late to silence Canaries at Clarence Park
A wonderful Chris Henry strike seven minutes from time on Saturday shone some light on another difficult week for St Albans City as the Saints salvaged a Southern League point with a 1-1 draw against a Hitchin Town side that should have put the game to bed by half time.
With five goals to his name Henry is the leading goal scorer of those players still at the club and in denying Hitchin he kept the Saints in seventh position of the Premier Division while the Canaries remain in trouble in 20th place.
City suffered three more player departures during the week with winger Sean Shields securing a deal of more than three years with League Two side Dagenham & Redbridge.
Leading goal scorer Lewis Toomey joined Conference South promotion seekers Boreham Wood while French central defender Moussa Diarra has made the short journey to sign for Southern League leaders Hemel Hempstead Town.
City captain Curtis Ujah had been expected to join the exodus after training with Conference National side Ebbsfleet United only to inform City on Friday night that he was available for selection.
Eight First teamers have now quit Clarence Park since manager David Howell was sacked at the end of November leaving new managers Graham Golds and Jimmy Gray pondering whether they have taken on a poisoned chalice.
One ‘old boy’ has returned to the Park though in the form of striker Jerome Walker who has rejoined the club from Isthmian League side Concord Rangers and went straight back into the starting XI against Hitchin.
Golds and Gray also gave a home debut to Josh Urquhart and the former Potters Bar Town player generally used the ball to good effect.
The Canaries can have some sympathy as they too are going through a ‘transitional’ stage and made five signings in the run up to Saturday’s game.
And on a cold day made to feel bitter by an icy breeze it was the visitors who, for much of the afternoon, appeared the more cohesive unit and created far more goal scoring opportunities.
John Frendo, Hitchin’s leading goal scorer so far this season, headed over the bar early on before a loose back pass by Saints midfielder Matt Taylor presented the ball straight to Town striker Jake Woolley whose first time effort thudded into the crossbar with Saints keeper Nick Jupp collecting the ball as it bounced back up off the turf.
City were forced into an early alteration when Greg Ngoyi suffered a leg injury and was replaced on 19 minutes by Simon Martin who was making his 300th appearance for the club.
Midway through the half Hitchin should have taken control of the game but inaccurate efforts from Woolley, and Frendo, twice, let City off the hook.
A rare flurry of activity in front of the Canaries goal saw Ujah battle hard to win the ball from a Richard Graham free kick deep inside the penalty area and hold off two defenders before slipping a pass to Martin whose goal-bound shot was blocked.
Ujah’s copybook was blotted soon after when he carelessly lost possession to Frendo who squared the ball to Woolley only for his shot to be charged down by the redeemed Ujah.
Hitchin survived an anxious moment on 36 minutes when Taylor played the ball out to Walker on the City right flank and from his cross Town keeper Jonathan North, on loan from Wealdstone, flapped as Martin leapt with him.
The keeper appeared to push the ball into the back of the City striker and both looked on as it looped behind them and hit an upright before being cleared by Canaries skipper Lawrie Stewart.
A swift counter-attack ended with Jupp saving from the ever threatening Frendo.
Moments before the break City made a surprising swap when Taylor was withdrawn to be replaced by player/manager James Gray who had his first run out in seven weeks.
Gray, looking a touch rusty, immediately conceded a free kick, taken by Josh Bickerstaff, which led to Frendo having a shot blocked and in the ensuing goalmouth scramble Jupp made good saves from Frendo and then Daniel Webb.
St Albans were forced into third change on 55 minutes when Fabio Bufano, who had settled well in first game in the middle of the Saints backline, went off on a stretcher with a suspected hamstring injury to be replaced by David Keenleyside.
One minute later Hitchin gained a long overdue lead when Jack Bennett fed Frendo whose shot was palmed away by the diving Jupp to Chris Seeby but the City defender’s clearance was cut out by Jhai Dhillon.
The Town midfielder’s shot was charged down but the ball broke to Woolley and the 19-year-old, who was on the bench for Luton Town’s FA Cup win over Wolverhampton Wanderers the previous week, drove his new loan club into the lead.
A couple of half chances went begging for the Saints as David Keenleyside and Ujah fired wide before Martin looked to have marked his milestone appearance with a goal following a goalmouth melee only to see it to be rubbed out by a raised linesman’s flag for offside.
City’s second half showing was a marked improvement on their first and the longer the game went on the fewer chances Hitchin created although Frendo did go close with a curling effort.
Even so, the Saints still looked to be on course for a third consecutive defeat until Henry came to the rescue. Walker rode a couple of challenges before sliding a pass to Henry inside the penalty area. Faced by three defenders Henry switched from his right to his left foot and arrowed a perfectly placed shot across North and into the far corner of the York Road net.
The attendance of 381 is the lowest for 26 years for a league match at Clarence Park between the two clubs.
St Albans City: N.Jupp, C.Seeby, L.Eadie, J.Urquhart, C.Ujah, F.Bufano (D.Keenleyside 55), R.Graham, M.Taylor (J.Gray 44), G.Ngoyi (S.Martin 19), J.Walker, C.Henry, subs; J.Kaloczi, N.Hardy.
Hitchin Town: J.North, S.Berry, J.Bickerstaff, L.Stewart, D.Webb, J.Dhillon, J.Beckett (L.Gregson 78), M.Noone, J.Woolley, J.Frendo, C.Donnelly, subs; L.McGovern, R.Paul, D.Delderfield, M.Bennett.
Goals: 56 0-1 Woolley, 83 1-1 Henry.
Referee: George Sprague (Cambridge).