We didn’t quite realise just how much of an event it was until we arrived at the ground itself. St Albans City had finished in second place in the 2005/06 Blue Square South table behind big-spending Weymouth, but the team had hardly set the local populace alight (the average home crowd for that season remained less than 600 and the club didn’t record a home crowd of over 1,000 people for the whole of the season). The possibility of promotion to the Blue Square Premier, the highest level of football that the club had played at since its formation in 1908, seemed to be an acquired taste for local people and it still felt a long way away, even on the day of the play-off final itself. The opposition, Histon, were a village team from near Cambridge. We even wondered aloud on the way to Stevenage for the match whether the crowd for it would attract many more than 1,000 people.
Colin Lippiatt’s team deserved better than this. They might have ended the league season as runners-up to Weymouth, but they ran them close, eventually effectively ceding defeat in the championship race only after a narrow 3-2 defeat at The Wessex Stadium with just a couple of league matches of the season left to play. That the team should be anywhere near the top of the table in the first place was, however, something remarkable in itself. St Albans City had scraped into the Blue Square South by the skin of its teeth two seasons earlier and looked destined to drop back into the Ryman League when Lippiatt arrived at the club as the assistant to Stuart Cash in October 2004. Cash, however, lasted just a week before deciding that this particular job wasn’t for him and Lippiatt, to everybody’s surprise, took over instead.
Lippiatt managed to stabilise the club and keep its Blue Square South place in 2005. No-one, however, could have expected what followed in the season to follow. Making full use of the expansively wide Clarence Park pitch, he built a team from other clubs’ cast-offs – Lee Clarke had failed to make the grade at Peterborough United, Matt Hann had been given a chance at Cambridge United and Peterborough United before drifting into non-league football and Tom Davis had failed to make the grade at Fulham and arrived at Clarence Park via Gravesend & Northfleet. They tussled with Weymouth for the duration of the 2005/06 season before losing out, but the play-offs offered a chance to rescue something from the season.
All of which brings us back to Broadhall Way, Stevenage, on a warm early summer’s afternoon in May 2006. St Albans City had, in the quarter of a century or so since I had first seen them, developed a mildly irritating habit of managing to drag defeat from the jaws of victory in any number of inventive ways, specialising in doing this when it really mattered. Their occasional appearances in the First or Second Rounds of the FA Cup were perpetually met with defeat and their record of having been four times beaten semi-finalists in the FA Amateur Cup and once beaten semi-finalists in the FA Trophy in itself seemed to speak volumes about a club that would, if it possibly, possibly could, find a way of losing when something tangible was at stake. As such, there wasn’t much precedent to suggest that they would triumph this time around and many amongst those of us that travelled up from St Albans did so more in the spirit of sanguine fatalism – a desire to enjoy the day out rather than harbouring any expectation of promotion.
Such fatalism wasn’t required, in the end. Our surprise upon reaching the ground was two-fold – firstly, the size of the queue waiting to get through the turnstiles and, secondly, the number of people already on the terrace behind the goal when we finally got inside. The memory plays tricks at four and a half years’ remove, but we know for sure that City won 2-0 with two second half goals in a match that City were never in much danger of losing. Even so, I still managed to hold my breath until the final whistle had gone (those memories of throwing away a two goal aggregate lead in the second leg of an FA Trophy semi-final at Forest Green Rovers had taken some scrubbing away) and it was only upon the final whistle that the fact that, just this once, they had actually managed to end on the winning side when it mattered began to sink in.
I can’t remember how we got back to St Albans after the match. As a matter of fact, I can’t even remember, considering that I had moved to Brighton a couple of weeks earlier, even exactly why I went back to St Albans after the match. We walked into Clarence Park and, still holding a half-empty champagne bottle, took a short cut diagonally across the pitch in the direction of the clubhouse. We reached somewhere approachng the centre spot before we realised that the man walking ever-so slightly unsteadily towards us was Colin Lippiatt himself. We stopped and grinned at each other for no more than a couple of seconds. There wasn’t any need to say any more than a cheery, “Alright, Colin!”. In fact, there wasn’t really anything to say other than than that. He knew what the day had meant and we did too.
For the winners, play-off finals are just as much the start of something as they are the end of something else. St Albans City were ill-equipped for life in the Blue Square Premier and were relegated back from whence they came after just one season. None of this, however, was a reflection upon Lippiatt, who retired at the end of that season before being tempted back to the game as a technical director at Woking, where he had initially made his name as the assistant to Geoff Chapple for the Woking team of the early 1990s that beat West Bromwich Albion 4-2 at The Hawthorns whilst racing up from the depths of the Isthmian League and into the Football Conference. He also had a spell in the managerial seat at Woking, as well as working as the Head Coach at Yeovil Town during the late 1990s and as the assistant manager, again to Geoff Chapple, at Kingstonian at the turn of the century. At Woking, Kingston and St Albans, he was a critical part of arguably the greatest days in the entire histories of the clubs. We mourn the passing of football managers because they give us days like that Bank Holiday Monday in May 2006, and there will be equally fulsome tributes from Kingsmeadow, Kingsfield and Huish Park. With this in mind, it is only right and proper to say thanks, Colin. We may never know such excitement again.