St Albans City 2 Brackley Town 0 (11th October 2014)
I’d been to St Albans before, or more exactly I’d been through St Albans. I can’t say I really appreciated the town much on that occasion though. I was only there because a serious crash had shut the M1 north of the M25, and I was trying to get to Luton Airport to catch a flight. “Handily” this closure and diversion coincided with St Albans digging up the town centre and installing the drivers’ nightmare of a set of temporary traffic lights. The kind that have a sign saying “Wait here when red light shows, until you feel your life force ebb away and you visibly age waiting for the green light that seems to never come.”
To be honest though, even without the road works, driving through the centre didn’t seem much quicker. With a cathedral, a climbable 15th century clock tower, and a decent number of Tudor buildings, it was nice to have a little spare time to have a look round this time. On the other hand, a couple of hundred metres up the road, I did notice a Poundland next to a “99p Shop” and did wonder just how thrifty a person would need to be to eschew the wares on offer at Poundland as an extravagance compared to the more affordable products next door.
My own thrift stopped at parking near the ground first and walking back, rather than using a town centre car park, but that was also due to being able to park just the other side of a footbridge, across the railway racks from the ground itself. From there it was just 100m or so to a side turnstile, where a very old moss-covered turnstile hut welcomed fans in. A 2nd turnstile opposite was naked and unused, with its hut long gone.
This brought me out into a corner of the ground, where a long queue was already snaking away from the mobile tea bar. At just £3 for a “cheese dog” of male porn star proportions, it’s not difficult to see why.
Just as satisfying was finding that while St Albans’ ground only had seven or eight steps of terracing all round, each one was a chunky doorstop of a step rather than the token effort that plagues many grounds. If this ground was ever to fill again, people would actually have a decent view. The best chance of that would be an FA Cup tie, and the winners of today’s 3rd Qualifying round game would be just one game from the 1st round. St Albans last made it that far just a year ago, but the home fans wouldn’t have too many happy memories of the day, as they not only got thumped 8-1 by Mansfield, but got soaked in torrential rain all afternoon too.
Undeterred, fans were in cup mood, only slightly tainted by a steward deciding that a few bin bags full of blue and yellow balloons posed some kind of danger to life and limb, and prevented them from being released at kick off. Or maybe it was just his turn to sweep the terraces that evening, and he’d promised the wife he’d be home before Strictly Come Dancing starts.
The Brackley fans, of which there were a few, were also up for the game, and sang away loudly for most of it, with huge admirably enthusiasm. Less admirable, from a purely personal point of view, was the detail that they are fond of the appalling “…and that’s the way we like it, like it, like it…woooahh-ooh-oh-oooooh!” ultra style anthem, for which I feel public flogging should be re-introduced. Not feeling an e-petition on the matter is likely to reach the required 100,000 signatures to have it debated in the house of commons, I’ll settle for them being knocked out of the cup as punishment instead.
St Albans’ Clarence Park is one of the few non-league venues to offer a decent view from all sides. The terracing, partially covered on the side opposite the main stand, I’ve already mentioned. The main stand itself looks old, and looks like it was built in three parts. Yet it still looks tidy, and has a definite unity to it, with its liberal use of blue paint making it hard to see the join from inside. The many pillars are thin enough to only be a mild annoyance.
At the far end of the main stand is another temporary tea bar, this time in a small tent rather than a van. Handily placed to allow you to actually see the pitch while buying food, it meant I didn’t miss the game’s opening goal while queuing up. It came just four minutes in, when a dangerous ball into the box was only half cleared, and the rebound was tucked away from close range, to the delight of the fans behind the goal.
It capped a riveting four minutes of queuing, where, while waiting to get my food and make my way round to the far goal (just in case something as unlikely as an early goal should happen) I’d seen one young lad learn the hard way to read the labels on the sauce bottles and learn that tomato and chili sauce are not the same thing. I’d also seen the woman behind the counter, in all the drama, knock a bread roll onto the muddy floor, and pick it back up to one side, not to be used. At least I’d hope it was not to be used. The guy behind me who ordered a cheeseburger seemed unconcerned.
The rest of the half was pretty even. It could have been anybody’s game, but felt like nobody’s for most of it, as both sides struggled to create clear chances, although St Albans probably came closest.
The second half was better, but probably could have done with the home side showing a little less desire to just sit on the lead. St Albans come out to The Jam’s “In the City”, a song one suspects was about a large-ish city to the south of Clarence Park rather than St Albans itself. Paul Weller might have sung “In the city there are a thousand things I want to say to you” but the St Albans boss seemed to have chosen 998 fewer, with keep it tight and try to nick one on the break being sufficient.
The Brackley vocal backing thinned to two or three very determined individuals, and it did look like they were more likely to score than St Albans. My decision move to the end they were attacking coincided with the second part of my imagined team talk paying off. A nice turn in the box allowed the ball to be fired into the bottom corner to put the home side two goals clear with just over 10 minutes left.
Hopes of a comeback, which weren’t exactly sky-high, were ended when Brackley had a player sent off for a professional foul four minutes from time. They did have one last long-range shot which flashed over the crossbar, but they can’t have had too many complaints.
The home fans, with the possibly exception of one fan who might have got a slightly muddy cheeseburger, didn’t have much to complain about either. Just one more win required to get to the first round, although they’d probably prefer to avoid Mansfield this time round.