St Albans City 2 - 1 Bridport
Saturday 30th September 2017
St Albans City, third in the National League South table and looking good for a place in what, in real money, is the fifth division, duly took their place in the final qualifying round of the FA Cup on Saturday writes Kerry Miller.
They are the bare facts but closer examination reveals that Western League Bridport, three and a half divisions below, gave them a hell of a fright in what was a superb second half comeback and, with a following breeze and a bit of fortune, could easily have brought them back to St Marys Field on Wednesday night for a money spinning replay.
That is, of course if St Albans City turned up, as more than one club official seemed to believe they were entertaining Bridgwater Town and the thought of a hundred or so Hertfordians rattling around an empty Fairfax Park brought a smile during what was an already uplifting day at Clarence Park.
It certainly brought home just how far apart the clubs are, with the 683 attendance being described as ‘a little low’, probably because being an FA Cup tie it was all pay including season ticket holders, and at £15 football is not cheap at the top end of non-League football. Saints’ supporters are blessed that their ancient old ground is still up there with the best, being relatively unspoilt in modern times when ground grading has all but ruined some classic football venues and it is unlikely the Bees will play on a better one for some time.
The other divide was shown by the fact that Bridport’s manager Adam Fricker is ex-Chard Town while home boss Ian Allinson made more than 100 appearances for Arsenal during a long career in the Football League.
The Bees went into the game not short of confidence having dramatically got past Cadbury Heath in a breath-taking replay, in front of St Albans officials, before hammering Bitton last Saturday and in veteran striker Mark Salter and busy wideman Ed Butcher backed up by the raiding Richard Hebditch, they had enough to cause problems.
St Albans predictably began at a fast tempo which the Western Leaguers found difficult to deal with and Percy Kiangebeni drove an early free-kick over before a long throw found skipper Tom Bender whose nodded effort had Bees’ keeper Jason Hutchings scrambling. Bridport showed they were not there to make up the numbers when Tom Richardson robbed a defender and fed Salter who set up Hebditch but he blazed over.
Butcher and Salter briefly found space on the left which showed promise but largely they were picking up scraps as the National League South side went through their paces, often impressively until Bridport broke again and Hebditch’s drive caught Sam Merson full in the face.
The game seemed to turn around the 20th minute when Keiran Monlouis limped off and was replaced by the burly Shaun Lucien, who took less than a minute to make an impact. The 25 year old former Brentford striker has turned out for the holy trinity of Uxbridge, Harrow Borough and Wealdstone and showed why as he lashed in a shot which had Hutchings beaten from 20 yards before he could move. It seemed all over and a case of how many on the half hour when Kiangebeni was given the freedom of the Bees’ half and crashed another drive through Hutchings to make it 2-0.
It was harsh on the visitors who had come to play and it could have been worse before the break but the exotically-named Rhys Murrell-Williamson wasted a good chance before Zane Banton hit the outside of the post. Bridport won their first corner just on the break which came to nothing then Saints ended the half with two more misses, from the busy Kiangebeni and Merson, which should have put the tie to bed, but few could have predicted what was to come on the restart.
Within seconds Breaden Symes was a touch late on Ben Herd and was rightly booked but Bridport looked up for the challenge and after surviving an early onslaught from Banton, Merson and Lucien, began to get a foothold in the game as Saints’ defence lost its shape. Salter was chasing everything without having much ball to play with until they won a free-kick out wide on 54 minutes and Andy Martin’s kick was nodded on by Salter and Leigh Bailey had trundled up from the back and was on the spot to knock it home to put the Bees right back in the game and stun the home crowd.
To emphasise it might just be their day, the Bees escaped a moment later when Solomon Sambou hit the bar and as the ball bounced down, somehow Bender nodded it over from almost under the bar.
Fricker then sent on Dane James in place of Leighton Thomas but the away goal was enjoying a charmed life as Murrell-Williamson waltzed through only for his effort to cannon onto the post off Bailey and away. Bridport then came again with Richardson’s header saved by Dean Snedker and with 20 minutes left they began to dominate enough of possession to make the home crowd and home bench more than a touch edgy. They could well have levelled when Salter and Hebditch raided with Butcher and substitute Oscar Latas had time to pick his spot but the drive lacked pwer and the chance went begging. St Albans should also have put things to bed with the next attack as the ball was lost in midfield and Merson was free and clear but Hutchings brought applause from the striker himself with his superb save.
The home side were looking for the final whistle with the crowd almost silent as the game went into added time and Bridport posted one last raid when a long throw found Cameron Vere but he volleyed wide from a good position and the game was gone. With the last attack Saints’ sub Kingsley Eshun again hit the post but it mattered not as referee Robert Massey-Ellis called it a day and Saints were in Monday’s draw.
For Bridport, they were a credit to the Toolstation Western League once again and should now look to use their six games in hand in the league to lift themselves to a more realistic position starting at home to Shepton Mallet on Wednesday and away at Cribbs next Saturday.
They travelled back knowing they have contributed to some classic FA Cup memories which proves the much-maligned but equally loved competition can and does still come up with the goods.