When is an upset not an upset?
The casual observer may have seen today’s FA Cup 3rd Qualifying Round tie between St. Albans and Kingstonian as a home banker – the Hertfordshire side ply their trade in the Blue Square South whilst their visitors were only promoted to the Ryman Premier (the division below) at the end of the season before last.
However, St. Albans haven’t managed to win a single one of their 5 home games in the league this season, scoring only twice whilst the K’s are flying high near the top of the Ryman Premier and have been knocking the goals in for fun. So in reality, there was not much between the two sides going into this game. The home side’s 4-1 home reverse after going a goal up early on against Bishop’s Stortford last weekend will surely have dented their confidence, whereas Kingstonian’s late winner at home to local rivals and table-toppers Sutton United may well have had the opposite effect.
So it proved as the red and white stripes created chance after chance and only had themselves to blame for not ensuring that only their name, and not their hosts, would be in the proverbial “hat” for Monday’s draw.
St. Albans is often described as the nicest place to live in England and I was beginning to see why as I sat supping good old proper ale outside a local pub before the game. It may well be October but today was unseasonably warm. The sky felt as if it was hovering 4 feet above the ground as I walked to Clarence Park with my guest photographer for the day – a relatively new St. Albans resident who is gradually exchanging his love of some Saints from much further afield for the lower league delights of his local side.
St. Albans’ stadium has the air of “old football ground”; there are a few superb old buildings and some fantastic old turnstiles, some of which are still in use. It is set within the confines of a Victorian park and at this time of the year the trees around the outside seem to be doing everything they can to get a sight of what’s going on – leaning over the surrounding fences and literally throwing parts of themselves towards the pitch in the vain hope of a better view. Discarding my latest fad of standing behind the dugouts due to the unfortunate requirement of actually sitting down (and paying the £2 seat tax to do so), we plumped for the terrace that runs down the opposite side of the pitch and watched as the noisy Kingstonian fans pegged up their enormous flag behind the left hand goal. As I had arrived at the station 2 hours earlier, a group clad in red and white had alighted from the train singing loudly which is something you hardly ever hear at Arsenal and United these days, let alone St. Albans! Good for them.
As usual, their wide repertoire of songs was thoroughly tested during the first half as their side, having survived an early chance or two for the Saints, began to take the game to their hosts, playing at a quick pace and not letting the opposition settle. In some ways it was a classic underdog performance with many tackles putting St. Albans off their game and making their players and fans feel extremely uneasy. In possession, Saints were struggling to put a passing move together and it was Kingstonian that came closest to scoring – Gray exchanging passes with Lodge only to see his shot tipped over the bar by the ageing Paul Bastock in the Saints goal.
More chances came and went for Kingstonian, Tom Bird latching on to a long ball from the K’s keeper and nearly forcing an own goal which was swiftly followed midway through the first half by an excellent break down the right which ended with a shot from Hamlin sailing wide of the target. But the chance of the half fell to top scorer Bobby Traynor, 10 minutes before the break after a scrappy period of play. The excellent Matt Gray played the frontman in with a superb ball over the top of the static home defence but Traynor, seemingly not aware of the amount of time he had or the situation he was in, dithered and waited and eventually chose to try and chip the Saints keeper – his effort though was sadly lacking in conviction or quality and the threat was gone.
In the last round I was at Tooting to see if they could overturn the odds against Staines and, when it came to half time, the decision as to which end to stand at for the second half was easy. Tooting never looked to be a threat and it was clear which net was going to see more of the action. This one was a tougher choice – surely the home side would regroup at the break and make more of a game of it in the second half? It was a tricky one but we plumped for a position near the St. Albans goal and it turned out to be the right end.
It took until ten minutes into the second period before St. Albans had a shot on target – Sean Shields making his way into my notes for the first time in the match. Soon after, K’s were back on top though, Hamlin striking the junction of post and bar with a shot after a long ball from the keeper. It wasn’t long after this that we first heard Saint’s biggest (loudest, certainly) fan in the stand behind us – big smile on face, giving it his all in a desperate, lonely battle with the rowdy collective behind the St. Albans goal. Despite the fact that his heroes were struggling to create anything worthy of the word “chance”, the song “can we play you every week?” was regularly belted out with gusto, those around him refusing to join in the over-exuberant revelry of the lone fan. The Kingstonian fans cruelly taunted the poor lad with a retort of “on your own” as he gleefully grinned from ear to ear before moving on to his next song – an apparently completely made up ditty which simply involved him singing 4 notes over and over again and repeating soon after, with increasing volume and pitch.
By this point, the terrifying old man in the St. Albans goal was beginning to lose his cool with his defence and his patience snapped after one effort, causing him to fling the ball angrily into the ground in front of him before taking a goal kick. Matt Gray in the K’s midfield had impressed us in both games against Margate in the previous round and he practically ran this game from start to finish – I can only remember him conceding possession on one occasion in the match but that may well be my ailing memory.
The follicly challenged Chris Marsden-a-like was later responsible for a moment which would become one of the more memorable of the game but for all the wrong reasons. When referee Neil Hair blew his whistle after Gray had fouled substitute Ross Dedman, Gray grabbed Dedman’s shorts in frustration and anger, pulling them across his body with a modicum of force which was enough to reveal a little more (a LOT more!) of the Saints player’s crown jewels right in front of the main stand. Happily, for those of you reading this in the office, my apprentice photographer wasn’t ready with his camera so there is no accompanying image available.
With 20 minutes to go, Lee Hall beat the last defender and teed the ball up for Traynor who, once more, failed to hit the target when it looked easier to score, the ball flying over the bar and the Kingstonian fans behind the goal. It was beginning to look as if it wasn’t going to be K’s day and, as they began to tire and lose their cut and thrust, the home side at long last came out of their shell and started to impose themselves on the game. First, the Spaniard Pelayo Gomez forced a brilliant save from Rob Tolfrey at his near post and then Ross Dedman’s shot on the turn was deflected wide for a corner. A goal at this late stage would have sealed it for either side but, despite another late effort for Saints from substitute Effiong, the game finished 0-0 and the two sides will replay on Monday night.
Kingstonian, despite their inferior standing in the football pyramid, will probably count themselves unlucky not to have progressed and may even count themselves as favourites for the replay. But surely St. Albans won’t underestimate them next time and it could well be a very close match once again. Last time we saw K’s, they were taken to penalties by Margate but just about scraped home. Monday night should be a much tougher test.