The game: St Albans City v. Wealdstone.
The ground: Clarence Park.
The conditions: drab and soggy; just the way I like my wholemeal breakfast muffins.
St Albans is a place of history. It has Roman ruins. It has a grand old cathedral. It has several converted former hat-making factories, remnants of its past as a prominent hub for hat making. More importantly, it hosts a venerable non-league football club and an equally venerable non-league ground.
Clarence Park, the ground in question, was packed to its leafy perimeter for Saturday’s bout between the ‘Saints’ of St Albans City and the ‘Stones’ of Wealdstone FC. Though this might have looked like a mid-table fixture at first glance, neither side was comfortably clear of the Conference South drop zone at the start of play; the incentive of climbing the table combined with the two sides’ own history – this was the Stones’ first visit to Clarence Park since 1971 – made this a very intriguing match up indeed.
Things got interesting on the pitch after only a couple of minutes. I was still making my way to a suitable spot on the terraces when Wealdstone won a quick corner. The initial delivery in was cleared, but only as far as the Stones’ veteran striker Jefferson Louis; peeling away from his marker, he then drove a shot across goal and into the top right corner of the net.
The Saints barely touched the ball for the next ten minutes; stunned by conceding so early on, they could have let the game slip away before it had even begun in earnest. As the Wealdstone fans sang jubilantly on the sidelines, a sweet free kick into the City area gave visiting defender Tom Hamblin a free header at goal – this was saved and held by home keeper Joe Welch – before Stones forward Scott Davies fired just over the crossbar.
City urgently needed to kick themselves into gear; to their credit, they soon did. In the thirteenth minute, Saints defender Howard Hall jinked his way past several Wealdstone players before setting up Jamal Lowe twelve yards out; his thumping hit toward the top right was almost identical to that of the opening goal, bar the fact that Stones keeper Luke Chambers made a diving, fingertip save to keep it out. This chance seemed to galvanise the home side, who started to play some free-flowing football. The pitch was damp, Wealdstone were hardy, but City got into their stride regardless; Sam Corcoran and John Frendo combined well, both getting shots away at goal, while Jamal Lowe was especially lively in attack.
In the twenty-fifth minute, the Saints had the ball in the back of the net. Frendo won a free kick out on the right and the resulting delivery was nodded down for defender James Kaloczi to toe-poke in; unfortunately for the home side, Kaloczi was narrowly offside. A minute later, Corcoran side-footed agonisingly wide from ten yards having been teed up by full back Lee Chappell; this was a golden opportunity, one which should have seen the resurgent Saints go level.
The home team had more opportunities to come. In the twenty-ninth minute Frendo worked the ball to Lowe out on the left; the Saints’ attacker cut inside before putting his curling shot inches too high. Moments later, a City long-throw routine forced Wealdstone’s Wes Parker to nod just wide of his own post. The home pressure seemed to be unrelenting.
In what was becoming a topsy-turvy affair, the Stones then forcefully regained the momentum and retained it until the break. Louis had a couple of good attempts at goal, but the best chance of this period fell for Davies. In the forty-first minute, having whipped in a Wealdstone corner himself, a partial home clearance came back to him as he sprinted toward the edge of the box; his low shot at goal was pushed back into the danger area by Welch, before City’s Michael Malcolm hoofed the ball away. The two sides seemed understandably breathless after all this ebb and flow. The first half came to a close with Wealdstone leading one-nil but, considering the number of chances St Albans had created, the game was certainly still up for grabs.
Once the local kids’ teams had cleared the pitch (some of their shooting practise put me, as a grown man, to shame), the sides were back out and ready to go once more. Early strikes were exchanged in a sign of more to and fro to come, Louis firing right across goal after a Wealdstone surge and Corcoran forcing Luke Chambers into another excellent save at the other end. Then, suddenly, it seemed as if the away side had snatched it. Charging up his favoured flank in the fifty-fourth minute, Wealdstone left back Ryan Watts sent a long cross looping over the Saints’ area; this was headed back toward goal by teammate Jonny Wright, before falling perfectly for Louis to twist and blast a rising shot past the helpless home keeper and in. Two-nil to Wealdstone. But not for long.
Five minutes later, St Albans finally got a goal. Out of nowhere, substitute and debutant Jake Nicholson popped up on the Wealdstone left and got a shot on target; this was deflected straight to Frendo, who stuck out a leg and tucked the ball away. The manner of the goal was fortuitous, but the scoreline now better reflected the character of the game; the home side would surely do everything to get their equaliser.
In the sixty-first, Lowe won the Saints a corner after some sharp running; this was whipped right onto Darren Locke’s head, but the home defender could only power the ball over. Not long afterward, the confident Nicholson snapped a free kick toward the top left corner; once again, Luke Chambers was there to stop it.
After this, the game was rather inopportunely broken up by a lengthy injury to the referee; as he clutched his hamstring to gleeful cries of ‘Off! Off! Off!’ from both sets of fans, I couldn’t help but pity the prone official. The Wealdstone supporters, noisy all game, took the lull as an opportunity to divide into two groups and then chant raucously at each other. I definitely admired this as an inventive way to pass the time.
The referee recovered, and the game continued. Extra time was guaranteed, but the home side seemed impatient nonetheless; pouring forward, they encamped themselves around the Wealdstone box for a prolonged stint. This impatience was, in the end, their decisive undoing. Breaking away on the counterattack, Jefferson Louis outpaced the entire City team, racing away down the right wing while resisting Omar Beckles’ ragged attempts to dispossess him; arriving at the byline, the Stones’ striker cut a tidy pass back into the Saints’ box for Scott Davies to slot home and make it three-one.
St Albans did have chances after this, but it was too late to cut a two-goal deficit; efforts from Corcoran, Nicholson and fellow substitute Jack Green went close but the game had turned conclusively Wealdstone’s way. The match was closer than the final score would suggest, yet the Saints weren’t able to pull off a miracle on the day; the winners, meanwhile, will be happy to have made another historic Conference South season more likely.
Result: St Albans City 1 Wealdstone 3.
My MoM: Jefferson Louis. Two goals and an assist at thirty-six years of age. Showing the kids how it’s done.
Best fans: the Stones. Brought two lots of fans. All they care about is Wealdstone FC.