St Albans City continue to announce their return to Conference South in style, as county rivals Bishop’s Stortford became the Saints third successive victims when going down 2-1 at Clarence Park on Saturday.
Stortford, ever present members of the Conference South since its formation ten years ago, were a big disappointment for the opening 30 minutes of this Hertfordshire derby and, even for the time when they did hold the upper hand, lacked the cutting edge required to seriously trouble their hosts.
City, starting their third spell in this Division, were the better side for most of the first half but, until the introduction of Sean Shields during the second half, were bereft of either the urgency or pace to unsettle the Stortford defence unduly.
Shields, back at Clarence Park on a two-month loan from League Two side Dagenham & Redbridge, played the part of the returning hero to perfection, save for not capping his performance with a well deserved goal.
He left Clarence Park at the start of last year as a player with great potential. Since that time he has played 13 times for the Daggers First team and become a Northern Ireland U21 international.
He returns looking barely an ounce heavier but likely to run amok against Conference South defences.
The early chances came the way of the Saints with Steve Wales sending an ambitious lob over not only Bishop’s ‘keeper Joe Wright but also the crossbar.
Right-back John Kyriacou, set up by the influential James Comley, tested Wright low down before Stortford first threatened with Mikel Suarez heading over the Hatfield Road goal.
City received a blow in 11 minutes when Sam Corcoran suffered a recurrence of a foot injury first sustained in last season’s Play-Off final win at Chesham.
To lose the in-form Corcoran so early was a setback but it was offset by Lee Clarke coming off the bench to get a decent run out for 80 minutes.
City’s David Keenleyside was fortunately not to be shown a card following an ugly lunge on Ryan Auger on 11 minutes and just three minutes later St Albans forged ahead with a great piece of opportunism by Comley.
Stortford central defender George Allen allowed a long ball to run through for his keeper to collect but Wright had to go wide of his penalty area to get the ball.
Wright sought to play a short pass to Auger in front of the top end of the main stand, but his weak kick was intercepted by Comley who twisted quickly and chipped an exquisite in-swinging right footed shot over the retreating keeper and into the centre of the goal.
Comley’s second goal of the season should have been the trigger for City to take full control but with John Frendo absent, attending a family wedding, the Saints attack appeared to be somewhat blunt.
Keenleyside put a header through to Wright from a Comley free kick, while Steve Wales flashed a cross in front of the Stortford goal before then drilling a shot just wide of the keeper’s right hand upright.
Having presented few problems for City thus far, Stortford squandered a good opportunity when Anthony Church put a well-positioned free kick over the target.
Their next foray, on 35 minutes was more successful when Auger headed the ball forward and Suarez lifted a pass over the home defence for Spencer McCall to race clear and clip a nicely weighted shot to the right of the sprawling Joe Welch.
McCall was not far away from adding a second with a rising shot from 22 yards while team-mate Ismael Kamara summed up a dismal personal performance when slicing a shot well wide when clear of the City defence.
Stortford began the second half a good deal more impressively than they did the first but, other than for a shot wide by McCall, good approach play went to waste.
At the opposite end of the pitch Stortford continued to make problems for themselves with a second clearance by Wright, this time under pressure from Comley, going straight to Elliott Buchanan.
The former Bromley striker scooped a shot goalwards from close on 30 yards and looked on as it landed barely a yard wide of the target.
Buchanan could certainly have done with a goal as he, and follow striker Loick Pires, continue to struggle to convince supporters that they can play alongside Frendo.
The goal that secured City a third consecutive victory owed much to another calamity in the Stortford defence in general and keeper Wright in particular.
Comley won a generously awarded free kick that Chappell swung towards Wright’s far, right hand post.
Just as the keeper grabbed the ball it was knocked from his hands by colleague Suarez, and Saints captain Ben Martin had the simplest of finishes from three yards to restore the lead on 70 minutes.
During the final 20 minutes much of the attention focused on Shields, as he injected welcome pace and excitement into the game.
He set pulses racing when receiving the ball on the left from Darren Locke.
Shields then slipped a pass inside to Wales and continued a run across the pitch to reclaim possession from Comley and twisting to shoot low across the goal and narrowly wide.
Stortford threatened a swift response when one of their best moves of the day ended with McCall knocking a good ball into the path of George Sykes.
The former City striker, on loan to the Bishop’s from Barnet until January, shot low but was denied by the legs of Welch.
The Saints counter-attack was brilliant with Shields sweeping the ball across the pitch to Wales. The former Chesham played laid the ball off to Comley before darting forward to collect a looped pass over the Stortford defence.
As the ball fell Wales struck a half volley that beat the diving Wright before crashing into the upright.
Shields almost created a goal out of nothing when running at mesmerised defenders before scooping his shot over the crossbar.
The Bishop’s final hope of salvaging a point disappeared when a spell of pressure on the home goal ended with Auger slashing a wild shot high over the York Road goal.
Picking out a City player for the man of the match award would not be easy although the defence generally did well and Shields brought the game alive, but for sheer effectiveness Danny Green would be a leading contender.
The Saints win lifts them to third in the Conference South table. On Bank Holiday Monday, 25th August, they go in search of a sixth consecutive away win, something that was last achieved 12 years ago.
To equal the class of 2002-03 City will need to win at Eastbourne Borough who cemented their place at the top of the table on Saturday with a 3-1 win at Concord Rangers. Kick off at Priory Lane is at 3pm.
Saturday’s game was the first played at Clarence Park since a plaque honouring the memory of the nine former players to lose their lives during the two world wars was placed in the clubhouse.
By coincidence, City’s final opponents before the outbreak of the World War II were Bishop’s Stortford.
St Albans City: J.Welch, J.Kyriacou, L.Chappell, S.Corcoran (L.Clarke 11), B.Martin, D.Locke, D.Green, J.Comley, E.Buchanan (L.Pires 54), D.Keenleyside (S.Shields 54), S.Wales, subs; M.Taylor, T.Coulton.
Bishop’s Stortford: J.Wright, R.Auger, J.Herd, J.Tabiri, G.Allen, D.Fitzsimmons, I.Kamara (S.Sellears 62), A.Church, M.Suarez (G.Sykes 75), S.McCall, R.Melaugh (H.Baker 75), subs; P.Anderson, A.Miller.
Goals: 14 1-0 Comley, 35 1-1 McCall, 70 2-1 Martin.
Referee: Ian Cooper (Rochester).