Two seasons ago St Albans City and Cambridge United were divided by three Divisions, and with City struggling in Conference South that gap looked certain to be widened by a further Division. How times have changed as one relegation later for United and one promotion for the Saints led to the sides stepping out at the Abbey Stadium on Saturday as equals despite the obvious disparity in perception at either clubs stature within the game. Anyhow, enough of what has gone before as Colin Lippiatt's born-again Saints rose to 17th in the Nationwide Conference with a thoroughly deserved victory over Jimmy Quinn's side.
For the Saints there were a number of plus-points to be gleaned from a third away Conference success, Paul Bastock celebrated his 100th game for the club with his 35th clean sheet, Dave Theobald and Gary Elphick continue to forge a formidable partnership in the centre of the defence while the combination of Lee Clarke and Elliot Benyon up front is starting to emerge as one of the most exciting and dangerous striking partnerships the club has seen for a number of years.
The Abbey Stadium may be old, except for a fine new all-seated stand at the south end of the ground, but it has an atmosphere and feel to it of being a proper football ground, something the new and though impressive stadiums can never hope to replicate. The acoustics are excellent and were well used by the Saints followers who, despite numbering just 147 (plus a sprinkling within the main stand), gave their best vocal performance of the season thus far. It was the perfect response to the magnificent vocal support United received from their supporters on the visit to Clarence Park in August.
City were unchanged for a third successive match - bang go Lippiatt's chances of getting the Liverpool job - and the confidence gained from fielding an unchanged side at the start of a fourth successive match without defeat was plain to see. Cambridge have been the least consistent of the two sides in recent weeks and with the entertaining Courtney Pitt suspended the U's were forced into one change from the side that won at Southport the previous week with Jon Brady stepping in.
United, defending the Newmarket Road end of the ground, kicked off but it was City who were first to offer an attacking threat and upon winning a free kick some 25 yards out broke into the box through Ben Walshe's quickly taken dead ball splitting the defence only for Matt Hann to scuff his shot wide. Maybe not the best of starts for the former United player but overall Hann had a decent game and is clearly starting to find his feet in the Conference.
A United attack down their right saw Walshe and Tom Davis try to be just a little too clever in walking the ball away and in the end happily settled for conceding a corner that Ram Marwa and then Davis cleared. Although United looked sharp and quite dangerous early on in attack it was City who continued to make the better inroads. Elphick touched on a Walshe free kick that Hann returned to the danger area only for Elphick to shoot tamely through to home keeper Paul Crichton.
Cambridge had won just one of their previous five home matches but looked to have taken the lead on eight minutes when Michael Bloomer's cross bounced high to deceive Damian Batt but was well read by Brady whose precise looping header was destined for the top left hand corner of Bastock's goal before the one-time United keeper back pedalled and tipped the ball over for a corner.
City were quickly back on the offensive with a long Batt throw-in clipping a defenders head and bouncing across the face of the home goal while a good run by Benyon ended with a comfortable save by Crichton. Throughout the early stages the referee had attracted no shortage of attention, mainly due one suspects to it being none other than Amy Rayner who has been the spotlight just lately following comments by the Luton Town boss Mike Newell. She did little to win new friends on 15 minutes by booking David Bridges for a foul on Walshe that barely merited even a talking to but in fairness to the Leicestershire-based official she gave a very reasonable performance and a number of the more seemingly contentious decisions possibly attracted derisions because of the person who made them rather than their accuracy. Certainly Quinn's post-match comments seemed well considered and an honest assessment of Rayner's performance.
City had a great chance when Clarke helped on a long kick from Bastock that Hann took into the box and cut inside one defender before attempting, unsuccessfully, to round a second rather than try a shot with his left foot. But City were ahead on 22 minutes courtesy of a superbly crafted goal. Clarke was out on the right before moving into the box to receive a stunning through ball from Benyon. With a perfect low cross Clarke picked out the incoming Marwa whose close range poke was partially stopped by Crichton before rolling over the goalline.
Two minutes later the unfortunate Bridges departed on a stretcher after suffering what appeared to be some kind of a twist to his leg when blocking a shot by Davis. United then produced the most incisive move of the game with Brady taking a pass from substitute Ritchie Hanlon and working a one-two with Danny Carey-Bertram on the left before whipping over a splendid left-footed cross that Marcus Richardson headed onto the roof of the net.
That scare aside City continued to offer the greater threat as the home defence looked, at best, uncomfortable. Benyon's persistence clearly irked them; Clarke caused problems by winning a good number of high balls while Hann continued to break from deep with good effect. Batt, mostly brilliant but occasionally uncharacteristically caught dreaming, moved forward before sending a rising effort over the bar while Clarke was twice involved in a move that led to a Benyon shot from 20 yards being turned round the post by the diving Crichton. Hann's inswinging corner flew invitingly yet untouched across the face of the goal.
Whatever Quinn and his assistant Steve Castle put into their players half time cuppa worked a treat as United applied heavy pressure at the start of the second half as they attacked the well-populated home North terrace. Brady put Richardson clear down the left inside 22 seconds but his shot into the side netting merely highlighted United's problems in front of goal this season. A minute later Carey-Bertram brought the ball down in some style and shot on the turn from 10 yards out but his effort flashed narrowly wide of the back post.
Referee Rayner angered the home support when blocking Rob Wolleaston's crossfield pass and then penalising the same player as he fought to regain possession from Davis. But the United fans really found their voices when Benyon gave chase to what appeared a hopeless cause and forced Mark Peters and Michael Morrison into some slapstick defending. Peters sought to end the confusion only for his attempted clearance to rebound off his captain's head and send Benyon away. As Crichton raced out Benyon nudged the ball to the right of the keeper before being sent crashing to the ground. It looked a penalty from the press area but it was only after linesman Tim Moffat indicated a foul that the referee pointed to the spot and duly showed Crichton the inevitable red card, United's seventh of the season.
After a lengthy delay, during which time central defender Peters took the goalkeepers jersey, Davis struck a perfect spot kick high to Peters left and into the net only for Ms Rayner to order a retake due to encroachment. Given City's record from penalties this was an uncomfortable moment for the visitors but Davis, in the 55th minute some three minutes after the initial incident, sent Peters the wrong way to claim his fourth goal of the season.
Strangely, Cambridge were more dangerous once down to ten men but City did look likely to add a third almost every time they moved forward. Brady arrowed a free kick wide of the wall but straight at Bastock - the 11th keeper to make a century of appearances for the club - before Marwa intercepted a wayward clearance by Peters who was well out of his goal as Clarke's audacious effort from 30 yards drifted well wide.
Benyon had a shot deflected out for a corner from which former United defender and Cambridge Schoolboy player Theobald volleyed over as City turned the screw. Further pressure ended with Benyon retrieving an overhit cross and returning it beyond the far post to Hann whose volley was well blocked twice by Peters with Hann curiously penalised by a free kick as his second effort thudded into the keeper from close range.
The game should have been wrapped up on 72 minutes as Benyon played the ball in from the right to Clarke who in turn fed the unmarked Marwa but his low shot from 18 yards, in line with the penalty spot, lacked conviction and Peters saved with his legs. United had not been without chances since the second goal although Bastock had just two on-target efforts to deal with throughout the half. Twice excellent free kicks deep into the visitors penalty area failed to receive the finish they deserved while Liam Marum looked to have got clear when Batt misjudged a high ball but as the striker pondered the possibility of becoming a hero with a fourth goal of the season - thereby being United's leading goalscorer - Batt was back in a flash to regain possession and clear the danger.
A final United flurry saw Bloomer shoot straight at Bastock, and Hanlon have a shot blocked. City closed with a good move that Chris Seeby began and as Davis, Clarke and Benyon took the move forward Seeby raced down the left to take a return pass then blow his moment with a tired looking cross that failed to get off the ground. With virtually the final touch of the day Batt epitomised City's growing confidence as he chested back to Bastock what had appeared an inviting cross.