Absence, we are often told, makes the heart grow fonder. It’s been a little over ten years since I last lived in St Albans and I’d seldom had cause to visit my former home over the course of the intervening decade. Perhaps it is this emotional gap that helped this city, the first true stop north on a journey from London, feel sprightlier to me than it might otherwise have done. On the other hand, though, perhaps something else has been going on there. The market now seems to specialise in artisan foods, the town centre was bustling in a way that many high streets have stopped doing so in recent years. The handsome cathedral building, which once seemed to be in a perpetual state of renovation, now seems to be finally clear of scaffolding. Even the Odeon cinema, which once stood derelict as a tribute to the seemingly irresistible onward march of the out of town mall, is now being renovated to reopen. The smell of affluence hangs heavy in the air.
As if to prove the absolute failure of trickle-down as an economic theory, little of this wealth has ever found its way to Clarence Park, the leafy, historic, yet oddly unsatisfactory home of St Albans City Football Club. There has always been a strong irony to the fact that the football club in one of the wealthiest cities in the country should, over the years, have found itself periodically struggling to maintain its very existence, but its very geographical location makes attracting a crowd difficult. With Luton Town to the north, Watford just to the south-east and twin gargantuans that are Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal not much further away, the club spent much of its existence in the shadows, never quite managing the lengthy or vertiginous levels of success that ultimately develops a lasting and sizeable fan base.
Clarence Park itself is a curate’s egg, simultaneously a ground-hopper’s dream and an unsatisfactory home for the regular supporter. As soon as you approach it at the York Road turnstiles, you realise immediately that this will not be like other football grounds. Said turnstiles are small, green painted wooden huts, their pitched roofs covered in an inch or so of moss. Once inside, there is a quite spendid wooden main stand which dates from 1922 but, for all its splendour, simply doesn’t offer the sort of view that supporters expect nowadays, while the rest of the ground is terraced, with a cover opposite – nicknamed “the Cola” on account of its vaguely pop art soft drink advertising- and two open terraces at each end which whisk much of any noise made by supporters away over the public park which borders the ground on two sides.
It’s been thirty-three years since the Saints last played a home FA Cup match against Football League opposition, a one-all draw against Torquay United in the Second Round of the competition. They lost the replay. Prior to that, their last home match against Football League opposition came in 1968, when they played Walsall in the Second Round of the competition, another one-all draw, this time against Walsall. Indeed, it’s been eighty-nine years since the club last beat a Football League Club in this competition, and since then they have ever been the bridesmaids. Supporters over a certain age talk about the team from the 1992/93 season with hushed reverence, but even that team could only finish in second place in the Isthmian League Premier Division, whilst the FA Cup brought a First Round match against Cheltenham Town, then of the Southern League Premier Division. A hitherto free-flowing City team stalled that day and lost by two goals to one. Since then, they’d only managed two hammerings against Football League opposition in this competition, a nine-two loss at Bristol City in 1996 and a four-one defeat at Stockport County six years later.
This time around, though, there was mild optimism in the area. City hadn’t been beaten in any competition since the twenty-first of September, and have, in striker John Frendo, a player clearly capable of a higher level than that at which he is currently playing. On top of this, Mansfield Town were on a dismal run of form, having failed to win since the twenty-first of September, and with their previous match, a three-nil defeat at Southend United, having had an air of shambles about it, with two players being sent off on top of a poor performance. To the extent that form guides can be relied upon – and those with an interest in horse racing may well agree that they have a tendency to be of limited value – this was a match that had the potential to cause a major upset.
Over the course of four days from last Saturday on were the seeds of St Albans City’s capitulation laid, though. Seven days before the biggest match at Clarence Park in two decades, Billericay Town travelled to Hertfordshire for a match in the FA Trophy, and a Billericay goal with a minute to play took the match to a replay the following Tuesday night, where another one hundred and twenty minutes of football was played before a penalty shoot-out, in the visitors favour, finally settled matters. The players then went back to their day jobs ahead of an FA Cup match against a professional team who were well rested having played their previous match on the Friday night of the weekend before.
Small wonder, then, that the non-league team collapsed in the way that it did on Saturday afternoon. For forty-three minutes, however, the shock looked distinctly on. It had taken just eight minutes for St Albans to take the lead. After Mansfield’s defence had failed to clear a free-kick, David Handleyside crossed from the right for Darren Locke to head the ball back across goalkeeper Alan Marriott and into the corner of the goal. And for the next thirty-five minutes they held their own and, had Mark Nwokeji not been knocked slightly off balance, his shot might even have doubled their lead before two goals in the last couple of minutes of the half from Lee Stevenson and Anthony Howell turned the game on its head at the worst possible time for a team whose exertions of the previous week returned to haunt them in the cruellest possible way in the second half.
Six minutes into the second half came a further blow for the home side, when Richard Graham, who had been their key player in midfield throughout the first half, was withdrawn. Even so, though, there was a hint that they might be able to force their way back into the game, with the most notable opportunity coming when Locke pulled the ball back from the goal-line with an overhead kick for John Frendo to drive the ball into the Mansfield goal. Any delight on the terraces, however, was short-lived when the linesman’s flag lifted to deny what would surely have been the goal of the round by indicating that the ball had crossed the goal line as it was hooked back from the touchline.
Then came the landslide. To say that the last twenty minutes of the match came as something of a shock to the home supporters considering the way in which proceedings had been going would be something of a statement. As St Albans simply ran out of steam, the professionals from the Football League ran riot. Colin Daniels added the third goal before Sam Clucas scored a hat-trick in twelve minutes to turn a taut, somewhat tense tie into something approaching a massacre. Ollie Palmer, who ahd played three games on loan for St Albans in 2010, then added a seventh before Clucas, with a quite beautiful chip, scored his fourth goal in sixteen minutes to complete what had suddenly and quite unexepectedly become a rout.
And yet, and yet. Anybody who was present for the whole of the match would surely agree that the faintly ridiculous final score couldn’t really be considered a completely accurate reflection upon the entirety of the previous ninety minutes. Mansfield Town had done their job professionally and effectively. They took their chances as the home team seized up and were more than worth their place in the next round of the competition, but this sort of scoreline is a statistical freak, and this was a statistically freakish result. The home team deserved better than this, and the warm applause that they received from their supporters at the end of the match, perhaps, reflected it. They gave it everything for as long as they were able, but ultimately it wasn’t enough.
At the end of the match, I meet briefly with Ian Rogers, Chair and Community Co-ordinator of the club’s supporters trust. He was managing the turnstile as we entered the ground in the first place. He was in the club shop by the time that the final whistle blew. “Never an 8-1 game,” he remarks with the withering familiarity of someone who has watched this club for many years. On the bright side, though, he notes that today has been successful in many ways. The club shop is almost out of scarves and shirts, and the attendance – 3,251 people – is the club’s biggest home attendance in more than twenty years and is higher than most people expected for this match. There’s always a silver lining.
There’s talk of a new ground, too. A brand new, sparkling, stadium nearer the outskirts of the city is planned, although it amounts to little more than drawings at the moment, and not all supporters are certain whether, for all of its shortcomings, the club should be leaving Clarence Park at all. And the size of the crowd this much – which around nine times the average for a league match this season – indicates that there is a glimmer that the club could build its attendances up again, that greater success in the league might yet see it back on an upward trajectory. Football is a results business, and the result on Saturday afternoon was about as bad as it could have got. It is what happens next, however, that is important. If the team can see the strengths in their performance for what they were, and if some of those who decided to turn out last Saturday – and just one in ten would almost double crowds – then St Albans City’s run in this year’s FA Cup would carry a far greater significance for the club than Saturday’s eventually heavy defeat could ever to. Perhaps it’s now down to the city of St Albans to decide whether it wants a chance of a more successful football club than that which it has at the moment.
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