It had, I have to say, been a long time. Since moving to Brighton two years ago, I had neglected St Albans City, but in the meantime they have done a pretty good job of neglecting themselves, too. Two years ago, the story couldn’t have been much more different. Under the tutelage of Colin Lippiatt, they chased full-time Weymouth all the way in the Conference South, eventually losing out after a bad tempered match in Dorset, but comfortably won their play-off final match at Stevenage against Histon to gain promotion to English football’s fifth division. To say that their brief stay there was unsuccessful would be something of an understatement. There were brief highlights – an opening day win at Kidderminster and a 4-2 win against York City, for example – but mostly it was thrashing after thrashing, and instant relegation back to the footballing hinterlands.
Last summer, the wheels came spectacularly off the wagon. With Lippiatt retiring and the players (who evidently felt that the forty points that they amassed in the Conference were ample evidence if their talents) leaving in droves, the club took the breathtaking decision to appoint Ritchie Hanlon, an untried twenty-nine year old, as manager. The result was fairly predictable. The club slumped to second from bottom in the Conference South amid rumours of being close to bankruptcy and were knocked out of all available cups (apart from the, erm, Setanta Shield, in which they would inexplicably beat Torquay United on the way to a quarter-final beat by Aldershot Town) at the first attempt. Hanlon’s reign lasted until the end of September, when he was replaced by the former AFC Wimbledon manager Dave Anderson. Given that Anderson had been replaced by Wimbledon because they felt that he had taken them as far as he could in not getting them promoted from the division below The Saints, it seemed a peculiar decision, and he couldn’t arrest the slide. By the time that he in turn was replaced by Steve Castle (a bete noire for the supporters from days of old), the rot appeared terminal.
I had been undecided about where to go this Saturday, but my fate was sealed by a dream that I had on Friday night in which Eastbourne won the match by a 6-1 scoreline. Our arrival in Eastbourne required us to make a trip to the sea front (St Albans’ travelling support likes to make the most of it’s trips to the seaside), which resulted in me beating a fellow travelling supporter at “Dance Dance Revolution” on the end of the pier. Nice to know that I’ve still got it. In the bar prior to the match, the atmosphere was funereal. The club is, I was told, in a bad way. The leadership seems rudderless, with players seemingly being signed on the off-chance that they might just be good enough to play at Conference South level. More or less everybody that I spoke to said the same thing – if (or when) they do go down this season, it will be a step too far to get back. For supporters that hoped amongst hopes that they might even be able to launch a challenge for a place in the Football League a couple of years ago (no matter how unrealistic that may have been), it was a lot to have to live with. Eastbourne, by contrast, are living the high life, tied at the top of the table with local rivals Lewes and optimistic that they can go on to win the title. The air of confidence around Priory Lane was tangible.
The less said about the first half, the better. It was (as it always seems to be at Eastbourne) a bitterly cold afternoon, and with our place behind the goal looking straight into the sun, it was not far short of a blessed relief that, for long periods, we couldn’t even see what was going on. For one travelling supporter it was all too much, and he clambered onto a barrier on the back of the terrace to shield his eyes from the sun from the sun, only to get a sound telling off from a steward (their exchange, which ended in said supporter inadvertently calling said steward’s father a paedophile, was one of the few highlights of the afternoon). We were in the bar by the time that the news filtered through that St Albans had lost a player just before half-time, sent off for use of the elbows. Considering that the club had, just last week, very publicly and somewhat huffily introduced a players’ disciplinary code, the irony was not lost on those of us nursing our pints. Still – half-time and goal-less. Quite an achievement.
It couldn’t, and indeed didn’t, last. Eastbourne had a goal disallowed barely three minutes into the second half. This was Th Saints’ final warning, though, and a couple of minutes later the home time did take the lead. Watching a team like St Albans playing the sort of football that they’re playing at the moment was (and this is especially true when not having seen them for a long time), a bit like seeing a former girlfriend now trapped in an abusive relationship. The players didn’t seem to know who each other were, and it became very clear that, as soon as the goal had been breached, it was a matter of damage limitation for St Albans. They may as well not have bothered. The second and third goals were almost perfunctory, so easily did Eastbourne carve their way through the brittle visiting defence, before the fourth goal came from the penalty spot. Another glorious victory for the players disciplinary code. The crowd behind the goal, however, had long since given up on what was going on the pitch, venting their frustration at the chairman (“Gibson Out!”) and the manager (“Castle Out!”). Just four points adrift of safety and with thirteen matches still to play, they’re not down yet, but there is a rotten stench coming from the place – a team that doesn’t know how to come back from a goal down and sense of impending civil war both on and off the pitch. Eastbourne, meanwhile, still have considerably loftier ambitions. Only a late goal for Lewes at home to Bishops Stortford kept them off the top of the table, and they are still only a point behind with a game in hand.
I was never, I have to say, a “home and away every week” type. Life has a tendency to get in the way of football, and I hadn’t managed anything like a full season of St Albans matches home and away in well over a decade. I’ll never be a regular at Clarence Park again, and Saturday’s experience demonstrated to me that there is a gulf between me and the club that may never be fully broached. At Eastbourne on Saturday, there was a football team playing that I didn’t understand, and that I had no great feelings for. A 4-0 defeat and the feeling of impending relegation should hurt, shouldn’t it? There is still a hardcore of fans that still make every match, though, and their club, which celebrates its hundredth anniversary in April, is sick. There are tentative plans to convert the supporters club into a supporters trust, so at least there will be someone there to pick up the pieces if (or when) The Saints finally come apart at the seams. For the time being, though, the prognosis at Clarence Park seems bleak, with the most worrying aspect of it being that a second successive relegation will only worsen matters rather than giving them the critical breathing space that they appear to need at the moment.