Thank you again, Southern Rail. I don’t know how important their engineering works are at the moment, but they have, for the last couple of months, made a complete hash of more or less every journey that I have made over the weekend. It’s no different today – no trains between Brighton and Lewes means that what should be a ten minute long train journey becomes forty minutes on a rail replacement bus service, meaning that I turn up at the ground with barely thirty seconds to spare before kick-off. It’s a good job that The Dripping Pan is so close to Lewes railway station.
On paper, there is an element of foregone conclusion about this match. Lewes are top of the Conference South, whilst St Albans City have been in the relegation places since the opening day of the season. The truth of the matter, however, is that the picture is a little more cloudy than the league table suggests. Lewes lost 3-0 at Braintree Town in the week, and there have been rumours of unrest in the squad as altogether more tangible injury problems. St Albans, by contrast, are proof that one man can make a difference. Former Boston United goalkeeper Paul Bastock left Clarence Park at the end of last season, but now he’s back and his influence has been immediate. The Saints have won their last two matches and, from being the absolute certainties for relegation that they were when I last wrote about them, they have put themselves in with a fighting chance of staying up.
It’s my first visit to The Dripping Pan in the rain, and it’s fair to say that the roof behind the goal doesn’t work. Within five minutes we’re drenched, and moving three or four steps back doesn’t seem to make any difference. On the pitch, The Saints have begun surprisingly energetically, with the home side looking more like relegation candidates than the visitors. Paul Hakim shoots across the face of goal and wide, and then Paul Bruce curls a corner directly in, only for the referee to imagine some sort of foul and cancel the goal out. After twenty-five minutes, though St Albans do break through and it’s an outstanding goal. Hakim slips the ball inside to Lee Clarke, and the striker fires a dipping shot into the top corner of the net. Lewes try to assert themselves, but it is already clear that they are not firing on all cylinders this afternoon. Bastock almost seriously injures himself in clearing a cross, but his recovery is complete, and City finish the half with Paul Bruce shooting against the Lewes post.
The second half starts with Bastock again making a mockery of his thirty-seven years by leaping athletically to tip an attempted lob over the crossbar. St Albans, however, are still the better of the two teams, creating chances to tie the game up, but failure to take them looks as if it might prove to be costly. City even have the ball in the net again, only for it to be disallowed for offside. In the closing minutes, City finally get the ball in the net again. Bruce’s shot is spilled by the Lewes goalkeeper, and Sunday flicks the ball back across the face of goal for Hakim to double the lead.
Minutes later, it’s all over, and City claim a priceless three points in their battle against relegation. Back in the clubhouse, the importance of the result filters through with the other results. City’s main relegation rivals, Welling United, have won as well, so failure to win would have left them well adrift again at the bottom of the table. As it stands, they’re one point adrift with eight matches left to play. It’s likely to go to the wire at the bottom of the table. At the top of the table, this result might have scuppered Lewes’ championship ambitions – second placed Eastbourne Borough have won 5-1 at Sutton United, putting them top of the table with a game in hand. Lewes have picked a bad time of the season to hit rocky form. These two clubs might yet be playing each other in the league again next season.