St Albans City’s run of poor form – slightly masked by mixed results – continued on Monday when a brace of goals by Hitchin Town striker Michael King wiped out Howard Hall’s spectacular effort for the Saints to clinch the North Herts clubs passage through to the final of the Herts Charity Cup with a 2-1 victory at Clarence Park.
City, the current holders of the Charity Cup, made six changes from the side that laboured its way to victory on Saturday but the end product was little different.
Joint-Saints boss James Gray admitted that confidence is low, and while being knocked out of the Herts Charity Cup is not a major blow, the level of performance will have done little to boost the sagging spirits at Clarence Park.
The match got off to an interesting start with Peter Dean’s cross in the first minute bouncing off the top of the Hitchin crossbar.
But the Saints were disrupted on 17 minutes when Elliot Bailey limped off with an ankle injury, something that allowed Chris Henry to make a quick return to the side.
Chances were somewhat thin on the ground early on although James Kaloczi went close with a header on 25 minutes from Chris Watters cross after collecting Dean’s short corner.
Four minutes later though and St Albans took the lead with a goal that the sparse crowd are unlikely to forget.
Danny Green was fouled on the edge of the Hitchin penalty area, and the knee injury he sustained then forced him out of the game at half time.
The Canaries lined up an eight-man wall but they could only gasp as Hall unleashed a venomous right-footed drive that blazed its way wide of the wall and to the left of the static Town keeper Tahj Bell.
Hitchin, looking for their first Herts Charity Cup success at the Park for 29 years, drew level four minutes from the interval.
Henry, on a marauding run down the City left, was dispossessed by Dan Webb who quickly played the ball forward to Charlie Smith.
With probably the best pass of the night, Smith sliced City open with a superb ball between Tom Ward and Kaloczi that sent King away.
Lee Chappell gave chase, but before the City defender could put in a challenge King stroked the ball, right-footed, past the diving Paul Bastock.
Four minutes after the restart King struck again with a goal that was remarkably similar to his first.
John Frendo, playing against his former club, gifted possession to the Canaries with a wayward crossfield pass that Matt Lench intercepted inside his own half before moving forward.
Lench fed Callum Donnelly and the Town captain threaded a perfect pass into the path of King.
Kaloczi moved across to clear but the ball bounced kindly for King to stab a shot into the Hatfield Road net from 12 yards.
King took a knock from Bastock for his troubles but recovered to finish the game.
City’s first half performance, although below the quality they would like, was just about acceptable, but once behind there was little to commend their play.
Just after the hour Lench did well to bring down a deep cross and hammered the ball across the face of the home goal.
Referee Mark Mellor kept himself occupied with a flurry of bookings for Chappell, Ward and Donnolly, with the Town player fortunate that an off the ball kick on Sam Corcoran later in the half went undetected by the match officials.
The best news of the night for St Albans came on 75 minutes when David Keenleyside, after two months on the injury list, made his return.
And Keenleyside wasted no time in showing what City have been missing when finding Henry with a good ball down the side of the penalty area.
Henry’s near post cross was chested off by Frendo to Ram Marwa but the use of an arm before stroking the ball into the net led to the ‘goal’ being disallowed.
Hitchin, with former Saint Simon Martin doing a fine job up front, generally had the better of the second half but other than for King latching onto another good ball by Smith and forcing Bastock to scramble to his left to save, there were few direct threats on the City goal.
That said, St Albans posed even fewer problems at the opposite end.
The nearest City came to saving the game was when Ward headed a Watters corner downwards inside the six yard box and Marwa beat Bell to the rising ball but could not direct his header on target.
The match proved costly with regards to player availability for St Albans with both Bailey and Green rated as doubtful for Saturday’s Southern League fixture away to Bashley.
Bastock will also miss the trip to the New Forest as the City keeper starts a three-match ban.
A slight hamstring strain stopped Tom Coulton from taking Bastock’s place against Hitchin, but the 21-year-old is expected to make his league debut at Bashley.
Jimmy Gray is expected to announce the signing of two new players later this week, including one from promotion rivals Chesham United.
But the arrival of the two new faces is expected to come after confirmation that midfielder Richard Graham and striker Mark Nwokeji have been released.
St Albans City: P.Bastock, H.Hall, L.Chappell, S.Corcoran (D.Keenleyside 75), T.Ward, J.Kaloczi, C.Watters, D.Green (R.Marwa 46), E.Bailey (C.Henry 17), J.Frendo, P.Dean, subs; K.Gilbert, M.Tewkesbury.
Booked: Chappell, Ward.
Hitchin Town: T.Bell, D.Webb, J.Bickerstaff, S.Barker, A.Ann (L.Rolfe 46), S.Pearson, C.Smith, C.Donnolly, S.Martin (G.Wharton 81), M.King, M.Lench, subs; N.Burtenshaw, D.Corran, J.McKenzie-Lowe.
Referee: Mark Mellor (Hemel Hempstead).