Throughout my youth, going to watch St Albans City play wasn’t something that ordinarily provoked the senses very much. The Saints were experts at finishing somewhere between sixth and seventeenth in the league never unduly troubling the top or bottom of the table. I don’t really know how I would have coped with going week in, week out over the last few years. The excitement of the last few seasons (promotion, relegation, another close shave with relegation), one suspects, has been a little too much for the locals. Their surprise promotion into the Conference in 2006 was not so much a surprise as an utter, utter shock, and they demonstrated this in the cack-handed way with which they dealt with life in a higher division, filling the team with loanees and defending like a school football team against sides that made them look more like an overgrown youth team than a side capable of competing at that level. The overwhelming feeling that I have taken from recent visits to Clarence Park has been a yearning for a return to normality, a desire to be able to turn around and spend the afternoon talking with one’s friends, without having to take too much notice of what is going on on the pitch.
Chelmsford City arrive at Clarence Park in fine fettle. They won the Ryman League at a canter last season, and have had a good start to life in the Conference South, with two wins and a draw from their opening three matches. They are moneyed, and the people putting money into their club have spent heavily on the team. The warnings for them are clear – the recent high profile collapses of Hornchurch and Canvey Island don’t necessarily make for an optimistic prognosis for a club with a benefactor, and even the club with the comparatively successful story of this sort from Essex, Grays Athletic, have had to “rationalise” since getting into the Conference and seem likely, if anything, to go back down rather than be promoted again. Their supporters will have to be keeping their fingers crossed that City’s current owners maintain their interest. For said supporters, it has been a difficult last ten years. The club’s old ground, New Writtle Street, was a fine, traditional non-league stadium but was lost to the official receivers as the club battled against exctinction. They spent the next nine years ground-sharing at nearby Billericay Town before the local council renovated a local athletics track, Melbourne Park, allowing them to return back to Chelmsford. With average crowds at over the 1,000 mark, they seem less likely to implode than their unfortunate county rivals have done over the last few years.
This tale of two cities, then, although Chelmsford (as St Albans supporters are rather keen to tell them) isn’t a “real city” – it has a cathedral, but not the royal charter status required to make it legally a city. Such status is largely an irrelevance this afternoon, however, as Chelmsford. more or less immediately from the kick-off, dominate proceedings. Within two minutes, Chelmsford had the ball in the back of the St Albans net, but Justin Miller’s long range shot was deflected off an player in an offside position and was ruled out. They didn’t, however, have to wait that long for a goal, and after ten minutes Ian Cousins crossed for Bertie Brayley to score. It looked for all the world as if St Albans’ world would cave in around them. The Saints were unable to convert any of their possession into meaningful opportunities, and were frequently mere brushed away from the ball, giving the match the look of being a match up between a decent youth team and a professional side. Seven minutes before half-time, the result was put beyond any reasonable doubt, with a lob from Ricky Holmes giving the St Albans goalkeeper Paul Bastock absolutely no chance to double their lead. Meanwhile, St Albans’ public address system was giving some cause for light relief, as it blasted out random crowd noises every few minutes or so. Rumour has it that a laptop that is being used to control the music being played over it was out of control.
Two down at half-time, the mood in the club bar was sombre. It seemed, if anything, as if it would merely be a matter of whether Chelmsford won by five, six or more. The second half, however, demonstrated where their problems may lay later on in the season. Chelmsford failed to push home their advantage to the extent that they should have done, attacking frequently without a great deal of purpose and allowing St Albans far more possession than the gulf in quality between the two teams would suggest they deserved. With ten minutes to go, The Saints were allowed a route back into the game with ten minutes to play when Tom Youngs’ shot was deflected up and Paul Hakim ignored calls from the Chelmsford defence to out-jump goalkeeper James Gay and head the ball in. It should have made for a tense last ten minutes, but St Albans’ bluntness up front meant that there weren’t too many anxious moments for the visiting supporters, and the result at full-time was well-deserved by Chelmsford.
After the match, the St Albans manager Steve Castle commented that, “it would have been unjust for us to have got anything out of it” – a stark, but fair assessment of affairs. The early confidence that St Albans’ great escape at the end of last season brought about seems to be ebbing away at an alarmingly rapid rate. They’ve started the season with two draws and two defeats, and desperately need a win soon to restore a little bit of self-belief. Chelmsford were my pick to win this league before the start of the season, and I didn’t see much on Saturday to alter that belief. They’re a tough, physical side with lively attacking players and a solid defence. It’s difficult to see how many teams will be able to break them down this season. In the bar after the match, the talk was of another likely relegation struggle for St Albans City this season. Oh, for the quiet torpor of a season in mid-table.