St Albans City supporters may have seen more goals than any other Conference National side this season, and their side may be the fourth highest scoring outfit in the Division, but, as manager Colin Lippiatt and goalkeeper Paul Bastock pointed out in post match interviews, survival will not be achieved unless the consistency with which two or more goals a game conceded is halted. Stevenage Borough, on a perfect afternoon for Boxing Day football, became the latest beneficiaries of the Saints generosity in plundering three goals and all three points in a closely fought and occasionally feisty encounter at Clarence Park.
City probably shaded the balance of the play in a match, which, despite lacking quality and cohesion, was enjoyable to watch, but it was Boro who provided the greater goal threat and cutting edge. Despite slipping to a second successive league defeat - four games in all competitions - City could find several bright points starting between the sticks with a return to top form of Bastock although his kicking from back passes still forced concerned squirrels to quickly vacate the trees lining the football ground. The part Bastock played in trying to deny Boro their second goal was staggering and he could rightly ask where his team mates were as Stevenage players lined up to take pot-shots at his goal before the ball finally trickled its way into the Hatfield Road goal.
In front Bastock, Magnus Okuonghae returned in place of Dave Theobald and gave a good account himself while Gary Elphick won numerous aerial challenges and tackles on the ground. City started with Matt Hann wide on the left of midfield and Paul Hakim, who just over a week earlier played for Boro Reserves, on the right before being he was put out of action by a shameful late and high lunge by Adam Miller that referee Graham Horwood treated somewhat leniently with just a yellow card. In attack, Elliot Benyon returned to partner Lee Clarke but the teenager was generally well shackled by the visitors and, for once, the on loan Bristol City striker failed to accept the one decent opening that came his way.
As for the visitors, the highly vaunted George Boyd showed some nice touches but generally had a relatively quiet game. Captain for the day Ronnie Henry, whose grandfather Ron played for St Albans City Reserves before enjoying a glittering career with Tottenham Hotspur, was in excellent form as was Jon Nurse, and Miller, although perhaps fortunate to still be on the pitch, became more influential the longer the game went on.
With spectators still queuing to get into the ground, Okuonghae nearly made an immediate impression, albeit at the wrong end, as he glanced a free kick towards his own goal but Bastock was on hand to gather safely while at the opposite end the again impressive Lee Clarke won the first corner of the day, which, unfortunately, came to nothing.
Another promising move, started by Bastock throwing out to the recalled Chris Seeby whose excellent ball sent Hann away, also came to nothing better than a corner when the wingers crossed failed to beat the first defender. But Hann was more positive on 11 minutes when Miller headed away his corner as far as Clarke who slipped the ball back out to Hann who cut inside and forced Alan Julian to save by the foot of his right hand upright.
Boro responded with a good ball along the deck from Steve Guppy inside to Mark Beard who saw his shot blocked with Steve Morison's follow up deflected for a corner. Clarke has perfected the art of twisting between two defenders in a confined space in recent weeks and on 27 minutes he created an opening for himself in such a fashion that again required swift action from Julian.
Stevenage enjoyed their best attacking spell of the opening 45 minutes around the half hour mark but three times good openings were terminated by excellently timed tackles by Elphick who, over the full 90 minutes, was pulled up for a high number of fouls by referee Graham Horwood. But Boro did find a way through on 34 minutes when a certain amount of naivety in the home ranks left acres of space for the visitors to counter-attack when a Hann free kick, from in front of the boardroom, broke down.
With Okuonghae and Elphick committed to attack, Boyd was left unattended wide on the halfway line by the dugouts and switched an excellent diagonal ball to Nurse who slipped it across the retreating and lone City defender, Batt, for Miller to send a fine right-footed shot high to Bastock's right. Three minutes later and again City were caught lacking in numbers as Stevenage broke with pace but this time Bastock, at the second attempt, collected Miller's low shot.
City had one other scare before the break when Batt and Bastock appeared to leave the ball for each other, Nurse nipped in but before he could turn goalwards Batt was swiftly in to regain possession and clear the home lines.
For the start of the second half Colin Lippiatt switched Hann and Hakim with Hann moving to his preferred right sided position, within thirty seconds of the restart a run by Hann, set up by Benyon, ended with John Nutter conceding a free kick. Before the minute was out Hann's free kick, via a couple of rebounds, fell kindly for Clarke to toe-poke home his 76th goal for the club and his third in as many home games.
With that goal the tempo of the game went up a notch and although the quality of the football continued to be below what one would wish for, the interest and intrigue levels rose substantially. Four minutes after the goal Hakim's contribution came to an end as he laid the ball off moments before Miller laid him off with a shocking late and high challenge. Referee Horwood, who demonstrated fine understanding and willingness to let the play flow during the first half, surprisingly brandished just a yellow card and, sadly, as the tempo and intensity of the game rose the standard of the refereeing did not keep pace with it.
A mild mid-pitch scuffle broke out following Miller's ‘tackle' and another scuffle ensued on 55 minutes after Beard fouled Davis. Beard was cautioned, as was Okuonghae for shoving Nurse, as the players crowded round and displayed all the patience of Boxing Day shoppers at the sales.
As for the football, City were enjoying a purple patch although Julian was seldom tested and, indeed, only had four on-target efforts to worry about throughout the entire game. Decent crosses from Hann and Batt kept Boro penned into their own penalty area before Cracknell, after scuttling across the edge of the box, shot left-footed across the diving keeper and a couple of yards wide of his left hand post.
Up until this point, Stevenage, too, had looked dangerous in attack without calling upon Bastock to make many saves but midway through the half Mark Stimson's side began to look a touch more potent with Dale Binns testing Bastock with a 25-yard half volley after a Boyd corner had been headed away. But the turning point of the first league encounter between the two county rivals for 13 years, came on 67 minutes when Tom Davis, who toiled away endlessly in the middle of the park, intercepted a free kick and played a short pass to Hann who in turn found Clarke. Seeing Benyon moving forward Clarke arrowed a ball through the middle of the Boro defence and sent his striking partner bearing down on the York Road goal. Ideally, Benyon would have preferred to be cutting in from the right and never looked quite comfortable running in from the left and, possibly unwisely, close to shoot right-footed when his left peg may have given him a better angle. The end result was that the shot went harmlessly wide of Julian's left hand post.
City had a let-off when Elphick glanced away a Boyd free kick that Batt retrieved close to the goalline and sought to charge upfield only to be dispossessed by Morison, who was somewhat harshly penalised by the man in black. But there was no such escape route for City on 75 minutes as Boro went ahead for the second time with a goal that was not only cruel on Bastock but was also close to a slow torture for the brilliant Bostonian.
Miller and Boyd were both involved in the build up down the Stevenage right, the duo moved into the City penalty area and set in motion a sequence of events that is best viewed on video than described here. Bastock pulled off three quite remarkable point-blank saves when a goal seemed certain each time but just when it seemed as though his heroics had kept City on level terms up popped former Saint Steve Morison - seven games one goal during 2000-01 - to scuff a soft effort into the Hatfield Road net from wide of the keepers right hand post; there was a suspicion that Boyd may have applied the final touch. For those brief few seconds Bastock resembled General George Armstrong Custer as he took on and defied all comers before finally biting the dust. As Boro and their 1,206 fans celebrated Bastock lay on his back, peering into the murky sky pondering the meaning of life.
The game seemed to have been put to bed eight minutes later when Morison rose between two City defenders and powerfully headed home to Bastock's left from Miller's cross. To their credit St Albans rallied and on 86 minutes made those who were drifting out of Clarence Park regret their premature departure with a second goal to set up a tense finale that included six minutes of added time.
Clarke, some 30 yards out and in the middle of the pitch, laid a pass to the left of the penalty area to substitute Lee Flynn, the one time Stevenage player crossed to the back post but the chance looked to have been lost as two Boro defenders shepherded Hann away from goal. But with a good cross Hann got the ball between his markers and found Flynn coming in at the back post to send a looping header over and across Julian that came to rest just under the bar and inside the post for his first goal at the Park.
For a few fleeting moments a draw was a possibility as Stevenage lost some composure and two wild sliced clearances allowed City to push forward. Ram Marwa looked nicely placed to score after Elphick had won two headers but a well-timed tackle ended that foray while fellow substitute Simon Martin had a low cross put out for a corner. Once that short storm was over Stevenage attacked with some force but, in reality, the visitors were happy with what they had as their recent improved run was extended to two defeats in nine games.