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Weary Saints close in on leading pack
Any Mansfield Town spies present at a cold Clarence Park on Monday will have returned home to Quarry Lane rubbing their hands with glee after watching St Albans City stumble to a thoroughly unconvincing 2-1 Southern League victory over county rivals Hitchin Town.
City started slowly then disappeared completely after the interval, but still did what they are proving to be extremely adept at this season, and that is picking up points when being some distance below their perceived best form.
Hitchin, having outplayed City at Top Field and having had the better of this instantly forgettable encounter, can feel rightly aggrieved at taking just one point from the Saints this season.
St Albans best moments came during the opening 45 minutes when they did string together several moves of numerous passes, and their threat on the counter attack caused the Canaries a number of anxious moments.
But, all of that said, the best team on the night did not collect any points.
St Albans made a couple of changes from Saturday’s victory at Chatham as midfielders David Keenleyside and James Comley made way for the return of Harrison Georgiou and Chris Watters.
Hitchin looked likely to be unchanged from the side that drew with Burnham at the weekend until keeper Tahj Bell pulled up in the pre-match warm up with his place being taken by David Hulman.
Inside the opening couple of minutes Hitchin attacked with a conviction that belied their current form that shows just one win in 13 games prior to this match.
In addition to winning a couple of early corners the Canaries went close when a teasing cross by Lewis Rolfe was punched away by City keeper Paul Bastock at the feet of former Saint Simon Martin.
The pressure was maintained with a long range effort by Sam Barker, another ex-City player, that Bastock smothered low down.
A slow start by the Saints is hardly a new experience this season and neither is what happened next as they took the lead with their first genuine threat to the Town goal.
A long free kick by stand-in skipper Ryan Wharton led to Georgiou winning a corner on the City right.
Chris Watters curled the ensuing set-piece towards the near post where an unattended Wharton stooped to head powerful past Hulman to record his first goal for the club.
City now played with greater intent but a header wide by Darren Locke, and an excellent hooked clearance by Dan Webb as Mark Nwokeji looked to pounce on John Frendo’s knock down, was the closest they came to adding to Hitchin’s woes.
Martin put a tame effort through to Bastock before the Saints won a penalty on 33 minutes when Hulman dived at the feet of the advancing Frendo and sent City’s leading marksman crashing to the turf.
Referee Paul Burnham settled on just a yellow card for the Hitchin custodian who correctly dived to his right for the penalty but could not deny Frendo his 15th goal of the season.
Five minutes later Hitchin looked to have found a lifeline when Robbie Burns headed on Matt Lench’s cross into the penalty area and Michael King expertly stretched to volley home from close range only to be hauled back for offside.
City lost Locke with a groin strain just prior to the interval but had a ready-made replacement in James Kaloczi.
St Albans first half display had contained flashes that suggested good things may happen after the interval, but, unfortunately, it was just an illusion and Mark Burke’s Canaries will be kicking themselves for not punishing the Saints lethargy.
Hitchin lost an early opportunity to reduce the deficit when skipper Callum Donnelly sent a volley over the target.
The Saints almost added a third goal when a Kaloczi header from a Watters corner was headed away close to the post by Lench although the ball going wide in any case.
City’s ability to keep possession for long stretches, as seen during the opening half, evaporated as the game wore on and even strikers Nwokeji and Frendo struggled to hold the ball up.
Bastock had to be alert to dive to his right to catch a dangerous cross by Burns just as Martin and Donnelly waited to pounce, and moments later Webb headed well over from a cross by Lench.
On 74 minutes Hitchin’s persistent was rewarded when they finally pulled a goal back.
From the second of two successive Donnelly corners, City partially cleared their lines until Barker clipped an excellent cross into the goalmouth.
Stuart Pearson’s header was kicked off the goal line by Lee Chappell but Webb was on hand to head the rebound into the Hatfield Road goal.
The comeback could have been killed off had City taken advantage when Hulman struggled to deal with crosses by Watters and Ram Marwa.
During almost six minutes of added time Hitchin had one decent opportunity to salvage a point when Burns whipped as superb cross to the edge of the six yard box only for Rogan McGeorge and Martin to get in each other’s way, with the latter heading softly through to Bastock.
The win, which stretches St Albans unbeaten run to nine matches, lifts City up to seventh in the Premier Division table and just one point outside of the play-off places. St Albans have, however, played more games than the sides around them.
St Albans City: P.Bastock, D.Green, L.Chappell, R.Marwa, R.Wharton, D.Locke (J.Kaloczi 44), R.Graham (M.Taylor 56), H.Georgiou (C.Henry 76) J.Frendo, M.Nwokeji, C.Watters, subs; E.Bailey, D.Keenleyside.
Hitchin Town: D.Hulman, L.Rolfe (N.Burtenshaw 68), M.Lench, S.Barker, D.Webb, S.Pearson, R.McGeorge, C.Donnelly, S.Martin, R.Burns, M.King, subs; G.Wharton, L.Kirkpatrick, C.Baker, S.Morrison.
Booked: Hulman, Donnelly.
Goals: 10 1-0 Wharton, 33 2-0 Frendo (p), 74 2-1 Webb.
Referee: Paul Burnham (Wymondham).
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