Record crowd sees St Albans City frustrated by other Saints

Mark Nwokeji scores the City equaliser. Picture: Robert Walkley

Mark Nwokeji scores the City equaliser. Picture: Robert Walkley

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A record attendance for St Albans City in the Southern League left Clarence Park doubtless frustrated and disappointed after seeing City’s bid to strengthen their position in the Premier Division play-off places dented by a 1-1 draw with a fast improving St Neots Town.

The opening 45 minutes were open with good chances created at either end.

But the memory of that half was washed away by a turgid second period in which an experienced St Neots back line proved that it will be the foundation for a second half of the season rise up the table, while the home Saints lacked the inspiration to unlock the dominant visiting Saints defence.

St Albans, playing down the slope towards the Hatfield Road goal during the first half, made a couple of changes from Monday’s win over Totton with strikers Connor Calcutt and Jamal Lowe making way for Richard Graham and Mark Nwokeji.

St Neots, looking to equal their best unbeaten run of the season , three games, brought back midfielder Leon Hibbert and striker Matt Nolan; the latter was one of five former St Albans players to feature in the Town side.

Both sides displayed a willingness to attack early on but neither goal came under serious threat.

Hibbert headed wide from a Jay Davies corner for St Neots before right-sided midfielder Lewis Hilliard managed to launch two shots out of the stadium.

Town keeper Nathan Abbey, later booked for dissent, flapped unconvincingly at a Lee Chappell corner with John Frendo clipping the loose ball into the side-netting.

Frendo, following good work by James Comley, forced Abbey into making the first save of the game, while Nwokeji fired wide after Comley and Frendo had linked up.

St Neots ought to have taken the lead on 25 minutes when Hilliard found Nolan in space and from his low cross Thomas fired past Paul Bastock only for City skipper Ben Martin to clear from the goal line.

Moments later, as Kerrea Gilbert struggled to contain Nolan, Martin deflected a shot for a corner.

City responded positively with Matt Taylor, who enjoyed a particularly good opening half, firing narrowly wide from 25 yards, and Nwokeji, from a similar range, forcing Abbey to parry the ball out for a corner by the foot of his right hand upright.

On 32 minutes Abbey switched from goal-stopper to goal-creator.

The 35-year-old keeper found Lorenzo Ferrari with a perfectly directed goal kick out to the Town left.

Ferrari went through the gears as he drove away from Darren Locke and Gilbert before sliding a pass into the middle of the penalty area.

When the normally reliable Ram Marwa fluffed his attempted clearance Thomas was presented with ample time to crack a low left-footed shot wide of the exposed Bastock.

A minute later and Ferrari, freed by Hilliard, led Gilbert another merry dance before knocking the ball towards the near post where Nolan failed to make a clean contact and a good opening was lost.

Six minutes before the interval St Albans, unbeaten at home in the league since September, pulled level with a scrappy goal.

Martin out-jumped Frater to head a deep Comley corner back across the St Neots goal. Locke and Gavin Hoyte met the ball at the same time which sent it spinning towards Dave Deeney whose attempted clearance struck Nwokeji.

The ball then hit Arthur Lee on the goal-line before being smashed home at the second attempt by Nwokeji for his 14th goal of the season.

Boosted by that goal City ended the half with a flurry of activity around the Town goal as Frendo was denied by a flying save by Abbey, the keeper was also called upon to save Locke’s header from the ensuing corner.

The thrilling end to the first half raised expectations for a gripping second period, but the football served up proved to be the dampest of damp squibs.

City were presented with a good chance to make quick breakthrough after the restart when Frendo was brought down on the edge of the penalty area by Frater.

But, for the fourth time in recent weeks, the set piece was struck tamely along the ground straight into a grateful defensive wall.

Nwokeji headed well over from a Chappell cross before a stretching Nolan just failed to reach a low cross by Frater and the visitors again went close when a Thomas header from a Hilliard corner struck the outside of a post.

Those moments aside the game was petering out for a tame draw, St Neots first away from home this season. Then, on 81 minutes, Frendo had a shot charged down and Marwa sent the rebound flying at speed towards the roof of the net before Abbey pulled off a spectacular tip over the top.

In the closing moments St Neots maybe should have secured victory when Frater headed a Ben Ford free kick back across goal to Jake Woolley who opted against shooting first time and lost out to Gilbert, before taking an elaborate dive as City cleared their lines.

A draw was probably a far outcome but there will be concern in the home camp that once again City were unable to break down a well organised back line, with even the introduction during the second half of wide men Chris Henry and Lowe failing to seriously trouble the visitors.

The Saints also suffered a blow when Ben Martin’s troublesome hamstring again forced his premature exit. James Kaloczi is currently ruled out by injury but City hope to have Tom Ward back in action by next weekend.

The former Gainsborough Trinity central defender is making good progress from a broken bone in his foot and is looking to be available for next Saturday’s home game with Arlesey Town.

The attendance of 815 comfortably surpassed City's previous Southern League record of 730 set on Boxing Day against Chesham United.

St Albans are due to be back in action this Tuesday, 21 January, with a Herts Senior Cup quarter final at Hemel Hempstead Town. Supporters are advised to keep an eye on the City club website as the weather could well intervene and cause a postponement.

St Albans City: P.Bastock, K.Gilbert, L.Chappell, R.Marwa, B.Martin (H.Hall 68), D.Locke, R.Graham (C.Henry 64), J.Comley, J.Frendo, M.Nwokeji (J.Lowe 74), M.Taylor, subs; N.Ferguson, D.Keenleyside.

Booked: Taylor, Gilbert.

St Neots Town: N.Abbey, D.Deeney, A.Lee, L.Hibbert (D.Cracknell 60), R.Frater, G.Hoyte, L.Hilliard, J.Davies, M.Nolan, S.Thomas (B.Ford 79), L.Ferrari (J.Woolley 90), subs; S.Tolley, D.Swan.

Booked: Hibbert, Abbey, Nolan.

Goals: 32 0-1 Thomas, 39 1-1 Nwokeji.

Referee: Thomas Ramsey (Chelmsford).

Att: 812.

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