Goals and controversy flowed in equal measure at Vauxhall Road on Tuesday as Southern League leaders Hemel Hempstead Town gained a thrilling 4-3 Herts Senior Cup quarter final victory over fellow promotion seekers St Albans City.
The hero of the piece for Hemel was skipper Jordan Parkes, whose hat-trick put the Tudors in complete control at 4-1 before the Saints, in the most tiring of conditions, launched a comeback that, with just a modicum of good fortune, could have staved off defeat.
Hemel may also care to raise a glass in honour of referee Ashvin Degnarain. A normally reliable match official he was found wanting on the big decisions in this game and, without going over the top, could easily have reduced Dean Brennan’s side to eight men by the final whistle.
In fact, the only dismissal made during the evening was to remove the Saints joint-manager Jimmy Gray from the dug-out following some unwise comments in the aftermath of Hemel’s highly contentious second goal.
Although both sides made numerous changes from their weekend fixtures – Hemel five changes, City six – the two teams were still strong, as the clubs showed a mutual respect for each other and the competition.
The game kicked off on a sodden surface and heavy rain throughout the second half only added to the difficulty the players had, particularly on the lower half of the ground.
Hemel, coming into the game on the back of two consecutive league defeats, had much the better of the opening exchanges and had had nine attempts on the City goal before the Saints had mustered one threat to young Hemel keeper Jack Smith’s goal.
The home side ought to have scored inside the opening minute but City keeper Tom Coulton did well to deny Tommy Berwick at point blank range.
Although Hemel were comfortably in control early on they seldom seriously troubled City until taking the lead on 27 minutes.
Parkes launched a long ball down the Tudors right that sent former Saint Lewis Toomey in a race for possession with Darren Locke.
When Locke lost his footing Toomey moved inside and neatly side-stepped James Kaloczi before shooting inside Coulton’s near post.
A good block by Howard Hall stopped another former Saint, David Hutton, from turning in a Berwick cross, while Parkes wasted a guilt-edged opportunity to open his account when slashing the ball over the top from close in.
City were not without chances themselves with Mark Nwokeji twice squandering good positions before Hemel enjoyed their first piece of good fortune.
David Keenleyside floated a free kick into the home penalty area that Smith struggled to punch clear.
Lee Chappell seized upon the loose ball and drove it goalwards where Ollie Thorne, standing on the goalline, moved his right arm to stop the ball from going in.
Somehow Mr Degnarain deemed that Thorne had not handled and the Town midfielder, most fortuitously, remained on the pitch.
A minute from the interval Keenleyside, running to keep the ball in play, twisted his foot badly and while he writhed in agony City sought to make a substitution.
Assistant referee Mike Chisholm appeared to raise his flag for the substitution to take place, but the referee let the game continue.
Hutton quickly rolled a short corner into the path of Parkes and with a powerfully shot across Coulton Hemel moved into a two-goal lead.
Gray immediately lashed out verbally at the officials and was duly despatched from the technical area.
City did make the overdue substitution before the game restarted with Matt Taylor sent into action.
Just six minutes into the second half and Taylor ended a surging run down the left with a low cross that clipped Moussa Diarra and looped towards the back post where Nwokeji swooped to head home.
But three minutes later Hemel regained their two-goal advantage when Diarra came out on top in a solid challenge with Comley.
The ball flew in the direction of Hutton who played a pass into Berwick and from his perfectly weighted ball Parkes was on hand to drive home a third goal for the Tudors.
City looked to be heading for a defeat of growing proportions on 61 minutes when Locke’s header from Berwick’s cross went straight to the advancing Parkes, who calmly slid his third goal to the right of Coulton.
Given the strength-sapping conditions, City could have been excused for laying down and accepting their fate, but within minutes it was St Albans who were pushing forward with menace.
Smith, an unsteady figure in the Hemel goal, had to backpedal to catch a chipped effort from Comley before the City captain gave him more problems on 69 minutes.
Somewhat arrogantly, Smith sought to beat Comley on the ground but lost possession to the one-time QPR player and hauled him to the ground just as Nwokeji stroked home the loose ball.
The referee pointed to the penalty spot but, quite illogically, allowed Smith to escape with nothing more than a yellow, when he could so easily have been the Tudors second dismissal.
John Frendo, only sent on five minutes earlier in place of midfielder Danny Green, competently beat Smith from 12 yards.
Two minutes later Comley, one player to revel in the soggy conditions, was crudely scythed down by Hemel right-back David King. It was a shocking challenge but again Mr Degnarain was lenient in the extreme in producing just a yellow card.
City now peppered the home goal but what should have been a certain goal came to nothing when Chris Henry, latching onto a loose piece of control by Kerrea Gilbert following a Comley cross, hammered the ball straight at the head of Shane Blackett on the goalline, when it appeared easier to score.
Blackett then intercepted a square pass by Comley only for the ball to roll into the path of Frendo. Somewhat out of character, Frendo shot over the home goal as Smith dashed from his goalline.
Hemel almost caught City on the break but Dave Pearce’s reluctance to shoot early allowed Coulton just sufficient time to whip the ball from the toes of the Tudors substitute.
The attention quickly returned to the opposite goalmouth with Locke and Kaloczi just failing to turn in a Comley corner while Comley himself shot over the home goal.
Hemel eased the pressure with a good break that ended with Parkes firing across the face of the goal.
However, a miscued clearance by Kieran Murphy on 86 minutes sent the ball straight to Frendo and with a splendid curling left-footed effort from 16 yards the City striker claimed his 27th goal of the season.
In the limited time remaining Hemel had a couple of chances to put the tie out of City’s reach while Locke headed just wide for St Albans from a Comley corner before the Saints skipper, after cutting out a Town clearance, sent a dipping effort just over the crossbar.
With that miss holders Hemel survived to progress through to the semi-finals.
St Albans City return to Southern League duty this coming Saturday, 25 January, with the visit of Arlesey Town to Clarence Park. Kick off is at 3pm.
Hemel Hempstead Town: J.Smith, D.King (K.Connolly 75), S.Blackett (D.Talbot 75), J.Parkes, K.Murphy, M.Diarra, O.Thorne (D.Pearce 75), D.Hutton, L.Allen, T.Berwick, L.Toomey, subs; D.May, L.Walker.
Booked: Smith, King.
St Albans City: T.Coulton, H.Hall (K.Gilbert 59), L.Chappell, R.Marwa, J.Kaloczi, D.Locke, D.Green (J.Frendo 64), J.Comley, D.Keenleyside (M.Taylor 45), M.Nwokeji, C.Henry, subs; R.Graham, J.Watson.
Goals: 27 1-0 Toomey, 44 2-0 Parkes, 51 2-1 Nwokeji, 54 3-1 Parkes, 61 4-1 Parkes, 69 4-2 Frendo (p), 86 4-3 Frendo.
Referee: Ashvin Degnarain (Islington).