Bitter end as gallant Saints bow out of the Trophy

St Albans City’s quite superb runs in both of the national knock-out competitions ended in dramatic and controversial circumstances on Saturday, as Conference National leaders Cambridge United gained a 2-1 FA Trophy victory with a goal deep into added time at Clarence Park, while in the remaining seconds City had two players sent off.

The goal that sank the Saints, four minutes into added time, was a glorious left-footed drive by substitute Aaron Pierre on his United debut but it came amid great bitterness from the home side.

Pierre’s moment of glory followed a corner by Nathan Arnold – scorer of the first Cambridge goal – but it was the award of that corner that irked the Saints.

City left-back Lee Chappell was adamant that the ball was already out of play when he blocked Mitch Austin’s attempted cross but experienced linesman Sean Feerick awarded a corner.

Following the goal, City captain Ben Martin, previously booked for persistent fouling, expressed his displeasure at the awarding of the corner to referee Robert Whitton, and duly picked up a second yellow for his fourth dismissal in 166 games for the club.

City were still reeling from Martin’s exit when substitute Chris Henry was also shown a red card following an altercation with Cambridge defender Kevin Roberts.

After the game Henry claimed that he merely shrugged Roberts off but said that the referee accused him of kicking the United player.

Neither of the dismissals are likely to have had any bearing on the outcome of this match but they could hit City’s bid to win promotion from the Southern League, with Martin facing a one-match ban while Henry will spend three games on the sidelines.

That the game should end in such dramatic fashion will have surprised anyone who left the ground early for, overall, this was a low-key affair that lacked the thrills and tension associated with cup ties possessing the possibility of an upset.

St Albans’ pre-match plans were shattered before a ball had been kicked when Mark Nwokeji pulled up with a tweaked hamstring.

The 13-goal striker was immediately replaced in the starting XI by Danny Green with David Keenleyside pushed forward to partner John Frendo in attack. Surprisingly though, Nwokeji did make an appearance midway through the second half.

Cambridge head coach Richard Money made seven changes from the side that defeated Macclesfield in midweek.

St Albans joint-manager James Gray, in addition to slating the match officials, was critical of City’s first half display and it was not difficult to see why.

Other than for a tame effort from James Comley, United keeper Jason Brown did not face a single direct threat to his goal prior to the interval as City lacked their attacking potency of recent weeks.

Far too many passes went astray from both sides for this to be an entertaining affair while Frendo could make few inroads into a dominant Cambridge backline.

United also enjoyed the better of the midfield exchanges, this only added to the problems facing Frendo and Keenleyside.

The match, however, almost got off to a sensational start when, after just a minute, a loose back pass by Michael Spillane put Frendo away but the City striker arrowed his shot narrowly wide of the target.

The tone for the remainder of the half was soon set when City squandered two chances to clear their lines following a United corner. The pressure ended when Spillane laid the ball off to Arnold whose firm drive flashed wide of Paul Bastock’s goal.

United lost Liam Hughes after just ten minutes with a suspected fractured cheekbone following a clash with Martin, Hughes’s place was filled by Luke Berry.

After Comley tried to beat Brown with a curling effort, United went close with Delano Sam-Yorke heading wide from an Austin cross.

On the balance of play it was with some justice that United moved ahead on 32 minutes, although that it was their first on-target effort of the day merely highlighted how little goalmouth activity there had been.

Tom Ward sought to break up a Cambridge counter-attack on the halfway line but his attempted clearance was charged down by Sam-Yorke.

The former Basingstoke Town player ran deep into the City half before squaring a pass to Arnold who drove the opening goal past former United keeper Bastock from 12-yards.

Bastock, who played for Cambridge in 1989, kept City in the game with two excellent saves prior to the interval but could only look on as Karl Ledsham went close from a Josh Gillies free kick.

A misdirected pass by Frendo was seized upon by Berry who exchanged passes with Gillies before being denied by Bastock’s save.

The City keeper then looked on with relief as the ricochet off his hands looped to Arnold whose header struck the face of the crossbar, with Bastock smothering the rebound.

The 43-year-old City custodian then dived to his right to beat out a Gillies free kick with Ward heading the rebound out for a corner.

The half closed on a positive note for the Saints when Ram Marwa played the ball up to Frendo whose excellent first time through ball sent Keenleyside away, but his drive across Brown bounced wide of the far post.

The opening ten minutes of the second half looked ominous for St Albans as Cambridge pressed for a second goal.

But genuine threats on the home goal were sparse as Ledsham sliced a shot high into the terracing and a threatening run and low cross by Arnold was terminated by Ward’s timely intervention.

City finally posed a significant threat on the United goal when Comley began a run inside his own half and finished it with a decent strike from 30 yards that Brown gathered cleanly.

Moments later Keenleyside neatly controlled a falling ball but his shot bobbled gently wide.

St Albans were at last building up some momentum and it was maintained on 61 minutes with a long free kick by Comley that Brown, under pressure from Martin, punched away for City’s only corner of the half.

Chris Watters swung the set piece in from the City right and referee Whitton was perfectly placed to award a penalty as Josh Coulson virtually threw Ward to the ground.

After a little delay Frendo calmly sent Brown the wrong way from the spot to chalk up his 19th goal of the season.

But any hope that City could use the goal as a springboard to success quickly evaporated as United regained the upper hand and Bastock had to make a smart save right on the goalline from Sam-Yorke following a long throw by Pierre that flicked off Ward’s head.

Bastock also had to be watchful as Spillane curled a free kick a yard wide of the goal.

As the pressure grew Martin headed a United free kick across his own penalty area that substitute, and Cambridge’s leading scorer, Kwesi Appiah calmly controlled only to be thwarted by another exceptional save by Bastock to his right.

A draw was starting to look the most likely outcome and a few more seconds were lost when Martin was booked following a foul on Austin.

Moments later City’s day caved in as Austin knocked the ball inside to Sam-Yorke before taking the return pass and racing to the goalline where he won the controversial corner off Chappell.

Arnold sent the ensuing corner towards the penalty spot, where it got stuck in amongst a crowd of players before Coulson laid it into the path of the on-loan Brentford striker Pierre, who beat Bastock with a powerful shot into the Hatfield Road net in front of the 228 travelling Cambridge supporters.

Now that St Albans outstanding escapades in the FA Cup and FA Trophy are over for another year, the Saints are free to focus fully on rising up the Southern League table and that bid starts on Monday night (16th December) with a home Premier Division fixture with bottom of the table Bashley.

Kick off at Clarence Park is at 7.45pm.

St Albans City: P.Bastock, H.Hall, L.Chappell, R.Marwa, B.Martin, T.Ward, D.Keenleyside (M.Nwokeji 65), J.Comley, J.Frendo, D.Green, C.Watters (C.Henry 81), subs; D.Locke, J.Kaloczi, T.Coulton.

Dismissed: Martin, Henry.

Cambridge United: J.Brown, K.Roberts, J.Coulson, T.Bonner, M.Austin, L.Hughes (L.Berry 13), D.Sam-Yorke, M.Spillane, K.Ledsham (K.Appiah 81), N.Arnold, J.Gillies (A.Pierre 69), subs; C.Maxwell, T.Champion.

Goals: 32 0-1 Arnold, 61 1-1 Frendo (p), 90 1-2 Pierre.

Referee: Robert Whitton (Braintree).

Att: 887.

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