Conference South league leaders Eastbourne Borough dented St Albans City’s excellent start to the season when an early goal condemned the Saints to a 1-0 defeat at Priory Lane in a match blighted by un-seasonally strong wind and constant rain on Bank Holiday Monday.
The match started at a pace equal to the driving rain and swirling wind that battered the ground all afternoon and, for a while, City were reeling as Eastbourne underlined their whirlwind start with a simple goal.
City defender Darren Locke headed away a Lloyd Foot free kick for a corner that Simon Johnson swung to the near post and Adam Watts, standing no more than six yards out, leapt above Locke and headed to the right of the seemingly unsighted Joe Welch.
Boro’ looked supremely confident at this early stage of the game and City were very much on the back foot. But the Saints held firm and afforded Tommy Widdrington’s side few clear opportunities to enhance their early advantage.
That said, Eastbourne appeared equally secure at the back although Sean Shields, coming in from the left flank, suggested that City could get back on level terms.
Shields, back with the Saints on a two-month loan from Dagenham & Redbridge, was one of three changes made to the starting XI that defeated Bishop’s Stortford 48 hours earlier.
Lee Clarke, in for the injured Sam Corcoran, and John Frendo, recalled in place of Elliott Buchanan, were the other alterations as City searched for a sixth consecutive away win.
A spell of Boro pressure ended with Dean Sinclair, booked inside four minutes for a foul on James Comley, firing well over the City goal. Sinclair’s effort was soon matched by an equally wayward strike from Sam Beale.
City responded with Shields winning the ball off the dithering Johnson only to send an angled shot straight through to home keeper Lewis Carey.
A promising City attack was halted when Ian Simpemba unceremoniously took out Shields, and from the resulting free kick John Frendo curled the ball just wide.
City looked anxiously towards referee Carl Book on 15 minutes when Welch slid out of his penalty area to dispossess one-time Saint Richard Pacquette with the ball striking his arm in the process. It was with some relief to the visiting side that only a yellow card was waved.
Possibly City’s best move of the half came when Lee Clarke found Shields who neatly flicked the ball past Johnson.
Clarke continued his run and collected Shields low cross, which clipped Foot on the way through, only to lose his footing when shooting and scooping the ball just wide of Carey’s right hand upright.
Although City were now competing well the possibility of a second Boro goal was never far away and Pacquette, following a cross by James Walker, went close with a header across the target.
Shields caused more problems when shifting from foot to foot before forcing Carey into a low save. With three City players waiting on the edge of the six-yard box maybe a cross could have provided a more productive outcome.
The attention quickly returned to the opposite end of the pitch where Welch used his legs well to save from Gavin McCallum, while Sinclair’s curling follow up was headed away acrobatically by Lee Chappell.
As half time drew close a heavy downpour engulfed the stadium and City’s hopes of a comeback almost got washed away when a loose Ben Martin free kick handed Boro possession.
A quick break looked set to end in a goal for McCallum but Locke did well to get back and force the midfielder to shoot over.
Having ended the first half by winning two corners in quick succession, City began the second period on the attack with Carey forced into saving from Steve Wales inside 40 seconds.
A goal for Wales would have been the perfect gift for his watching father, Peter – the former City defender – who goes into hospital for operations to both of his knees on Tuesday.
Eastbourne are, without question, the best side that City have faced so far this season, so great encouragement can be taken from the way in which they tried to take the game to the East Sussex club after the interval.
And a familiar sight was soon to be seen again as Shields darted in from the wing and tested Carey with a shot that bounced awkwardly in front of the Boro custodian but he blocked it well with his legs.
St Albans probably did enough after the break to justify a share of the spoils but their best chance went begging, on 56 minutes, when Wales arrowed a low pass across the advancing Carey to Shields.
Unfortunately for City the Northern Ireland U21 international tapped a somewhat under-hit shot across goal instead of straight forward, and allowed Simpemba to glide across the sodden turf and make a remarkable clearance for a corner.
The Eastbourne skipper made another crucial intervention to a cross from Comley as City pressed forward later in the game.
Not to be outdone, Welch pulled off a spectacular save when diving to his left to palm away Pacquette’s well-placed first time shot from Beale’s low cross.
The game became more stretched in the latter stages as both sides tended to get the ball forward by the quickest means possible.
Credit must be given to the two teams, and both sets of defences in particular, for putting on such a commendable performance in extremely difficult conditions. The Priory Lane pitch held up superbly too in the face of the non-stop rain.
Eastbourne stay top of Conference South by virtue of this win while City slip back a couple of places to fifth.
St Albans return to action on Saturday, 30th August, when Sutton United make their first visit to Clarence Park in six years. Kick off is at 3.00pm.
Eastbourne Borough: L.Carey, M.Hamilton, S.Beale, L.Foot (J.Lovett 63), I.Simpemba, A.Watts (M.Aldred 38), G.McCallum, D.Sinclair, R.Pacquette (E.Charles 82), S.Johnson, J.Walker, subs; D.Bown, D.Lok.
Booked: Foot, Sinclair.
St Albans City: J.Welch, J.Kyriacou, L.Chappell, L.Clarke (L.Pires 65), B.Martin, D.Locke (E.Buchanan 90), D.Green, J.Comley, J.Frendo, S.Shields, S.Wales (M.Taylor 76), subs; D.Keenleyside, T.Coulton.
Booked: Welch, Kyriacou.
Goal: 3 1-0 Watts.
Referee: Carl Brook (St Leonards).