With two players dismissed before the interval of Monday’s important Southern League clash with Bideford at Clarence Park, St Albans City should have been staring defeat square between the eyes, yet somehow walked off at full time justifiably disappointed to have secured nothing more than a quite remarkable 1-1 draw.
City lost James Comley for two bookable offences, the second of which appeared to be harsh in the extreme, whilst John Frendo, having previously been booked, was shown a straight red card for allegedly elbowing Bideford defender Ben Gerring.
It is certainly not unusual for teams to fail to take full advantage when facing ten men but the manner in which Bideford approached the task for over 50 minutes ventured somewhere between timid and clueless.
Timid, because they seemed reluctant to really charge at their outnumbered hosts, and clueless because they appeared to have no plans to stretch and out-manoeuvre the Saints.
As for St Albans, well they left the pitch to a heroes reception from a most vocal crowd that did its utmost throughout a second half that almost defied belief.
It would have been total disbelief had City won, but it would also have been totally justified.
Bideford arrived at the Park needing a victory to climb back into a play-off position, City required all three points to go second behind runaway leaders Hemel Hempstead.
And against such a backdrop it was maybe not too surprising that the game got off to a sensational start with Bideford ahead inside two minutes.
Tom Ward was penalised for a foul on Owen Howe five yards outside the penalty area.
Matt Bye’s deep free kick was headed back into the middle by Daniel Sullivan to Rob Farkins whose volley was blocked by Paul Bastock, with follow up efforts by Sean Downing and Richard Groves also blocked.
Kerrea Gilbert’s attempt to clear the City lines was cut out by Farkins whose first touch gave the ball to Sullivan.
With an excellent ball down the left side of the home defence Sullivan sent Downing clear, and after side-stepping the advancing Bastock, Downing calmly opened the scoring.
Bideford looked to build upon their good start and continued to push forward although St Albans soon got a foothold in the game and went close to pulling level when a good low cross by Lee Chappell clipped the leg of the diving Farkins and flew just beyond the back post, much to the relief of the Bideford skipper.
From the ensuing corner Chappell’s cross bounced off the top of the crossbar and out for a goal kick.
As the game switched from end to end Bideford went close with a blistering drive by Sullivan that went across Bastock and narrowly wide.
Another good move by the Robins saw Groves tee up Howe, whose cleanly struck effort was beaten out by Bastock The City keeper’s 300th game for the club looked set to be a good deal busier than many that had gone before.
The game looked to be turning in City’s favour on 19 minutes when referee Martin Holmes awarded a penalty for handball.
A long throw by Chappell was helped on by Ward and then headed high by Downing. As the ball dropped Farkins challenged Mark Nwokeji but had an arm above the City striker and was duly punished for handball.
Frendo’s trusty left foot swept the resulting penalty past Steve Oliver in the Bideford goal for his 34th goal of the season.
City now played with greater confidence and Frendo, receiving a pass from Ram Marwa, sent Nwokeji away with a delightful back-heel, only for Oliver to be equal to Nwokeji’s shot.
A good chance went begging when a Comley corner was headed wide at the back post by Ben Martin.
The same combination were unfortunate not to put City ahead from another corner when Martin’s header was kicked off the line by Bye.
But on 34 minutes Comley’s contribution to the proceedings was terminated when, as he chased back after having a cross charged down, he was pulled up for clipping the heel of Groves.
The offence barely seemed to warrant a booking under normal circumstances and for a player who had already been shown a yellow card to be shown a second one, and sent off, for such a minor incident seemed extremely excessive punishment. But off Comley went.
Bideford had a golden opportunity to strike a huge psychological blow when Howe ran clear but stumbled slightly before shooting and was denied by a superb parry by Bastock when diving at full stretch to his right.
City were still reeling from Comley’s exit when, just seven minutes later, Frendo was also sent packing, this time for an elbow into the throat of Robins defender Gerring.
A goal before the break for Bideford would almost certainly have secured victory, and but for a sensational save by Bastock from Gerring’s header, when the ball looked destined for the back of the net, the Robins would have got that goal.
There can really be no excuses for Bideford failing to win the game and they certainly began the second period in the right frame of mind with Downing sending Groves away, but again Bastock was equal to the task.
It was to be one of only two efforts Bideford managed on-target during the half.
To their great credit, St Albans did not pack an eight-man defence in front of Bastock and, instead, caused problems for the Devon club through Jamal Lowe and Nwokeji on the break.
At the back the outstanding Martin and Ward received excellent support from full backs Gilbert and Chappell, but it was very much a team effort with which City held firm.
Bideford looked to be waiting for City to crack rather than make it happen, and the closer the game moved towards the final whistle, the more confident St Albans became.
A throw deep in the Bideford half by Gilbert was collected by Nwokeji who turned swiftly and cut the ball back to the again impressive James Kaloczi whose drive went just the wrong side of the post.
Another counter-attack, begun by a hoofed clearance by Ward, saw Lowe and Nwokeji link well with Lowe’s eventual shoot clipping Gerring’s boot and looping just over the Robins goal.
By now the supporters on the terrace behind the Bideford goal were at full throttle as the realisation that something sensational could be about to happen.
The team had long since dispensed with caution and Bideford defended in numbers as Chappell’s long throw-ins caused several anxious moments.
From one such throw, Martin headed the ball into the middle and Kaloczi went close with a controlled over-head kick.
With around fifteen minutes to go Bideford finally enjoyed a spell of possession with attacking intent.
But, other than for a tame effort by Downing, a shot against the crossbar by substitute Kevin Squire when it looked easier to score and a slashed effort wide by Howe, few serious inroads were made into the home defence.
On 88 minutes one more twist unfurled when, following a long ball by Kaloczi, City substitute Chris Henry and Bideford defender Nick Milton collided just outside the penalty area.
It seemed little more than two players running into each other but referee Holmes deemed Milton to have denied City a goal scoring opportunity and showed his third red card of the night.
Somewhat surprisingly, Marin took the free kick and the ball sailed harmlessly over the target.
The impetus, however, was now very much with St Albans.
Kaloczi found Henry in space but a miscued shot allowed Oliver to save, while the Robins looked on in terror as another shot by Henry clipped Gerring and somehow bounced just wide.
In the few seconds that remained Bideford had to withstand a couple of City corners before, a tad sheepishly, accepting a point at the final whistle.
St Albans will have gained immense confidence from this match and will take that with them for when the two sides square up to each other again on Saturday, 15th February, this time at Bideford’s Kingsley Road home. Kick off 3pm.
James Comley will receive a one-match ban for his sending off but the Saints leading goal scorer, John Frendo, is facing three matches on the sidelines.
St Albans City: P.Bastock, K.Gilbert, L.Chappell, R.Marwa, T.Ward, B.Martin, J.Kaloczi, J.Comley J.Frendo, M.Nwokeji (H.Hall 73), J.Lowe (C.Henry 87), subs; P.Dean, M.Taylor, R.Graham.
Dismissed: Comley, Frendo.
Bideford: S.Oliver, N.Milton, N.Barker, S.Downing, R.Farkins (K.Squire 72), B.Gerring, R.Groves (G.Mercieca 63), M.Bye, O.Howe, D.Sullivan (E.Phillips 89), S.Reed.
Goals: 2 0-1 Downing, 19 1-1 Frendo (p).
Referee: Martin Holmes (Ely).