“They wanted it more than us,” was the blunt post-match assessment of St Albans City joint-manager James Gray, as the Saints kicked off their return to Conference South with a lame performance that contributed to 1-0 defeat at Clarence Park to a committed Hayes & Yeading United on Saturday.
Faults were aplenty and Gray admitted that City will have to improve if they are to get a more favourable result from a visit to Staines Town on Tuesday evening.
City were sluggish from the off and never really showed any desire to shrug off that opening malaise.
Whilst the defence was generally sound, there was some concern that the Hayes two-man strike force won more aerial challenges than the home side were comfortable with.
But it was in the middle of the park and up front that City were really found wanting. Too many passes went straight to the opposition whilst creativity bordered on virtually nil.
Given how unproductive City were in midfield strikers Loick Pires and Elliot Buchanan could, possibly, be excused for having no impact on the game whatsoever.
Sadly that would be to mask the evidence that was to be seen on the pitch, which was that neither player displayed the determination nor hunger to worry a Hayes backline that included former Saints Adam Everitt and Fabio Bufano.
If either was looking to throw down the gauntlet to the absent John Frendo to say that he will have to fight to get his place back, then this was a strange way to go about it.
St Albans failed to get a single shot on target during the opening hour, indeed the closest they came to unsettling Hayes keeper Calum Kitcha was when Pires cut in from the right and sent a left-footed drive across and over the goal.
Instead of firing City onto better things they were found dozing from the restart when Kitcha fired the goal-kick deep into the Saints half.
City failed to deal with the falling ball and the United skipper Matty Harriott seized the opportunity to run through the centre of the home defence and fire low to the left of the advancing Joe Welch for the deciding goal with just 14 minutes played.
Eight minutes later and City could have found themselves in serious trouble as Frankie Merrifield headed home in some style following a cross from right-back Ashleigh Artwell.
Fortunately for City referee Michael George, who handled a tame game very well, ruled that Merrifield had pushed defender John Kyriacou.
As the half hour mark passed there still appeared to be little urgency in City’s play.
Their main threat to the Hayes goal came from long throw-in’s by Lee Chappell, but with City taking a seeming eternity over each and every one of them the visitors were able to prepare themselves for the route one assault.
However, on 31 minutes this method almost pulled City back into the game. Buchanan flicked on a Chappell throw, the ball hit the hardworking Hayes striker Pat Cox and rebounded to Steve Wales whose half-volley clipped the head of Bufano and looped onto the roof of the net.
From Corcoran’s corner Pires glanced a header across the goal and wide.
City’s last decent chance of the half saw the unmarked Chappell send a half volley high over the crossbar after Wales had clipped an angled ball deep into the penalty area.
Whatever words that were said in the dressing room during the interval to inspire the team clearly fell on deaf ears and it was not until the 61st minute that St Albans directed a shot on target, but with John Kyriacou’s effort going straight at Kitcha there was little hope of a goal being forthcoming.
A return to the long throw of Chappell caused Hayes some problems with Kitcha missing the ball as Tom Ward jumped in front of him only for substitute Warren McBean to also kick at thin air at the back post.
In the time remaining City used their other two substitutes but it did little alter the pedestrian pace of their game and Hayes, with one-time Saint David Ijaha battling with his usual grit in midfield, held out in some comfort.
The biggest talking point of the substitutions was City’s reluctance to throw Lee Clarke into the fray but Gray intimated that the former striker, who now operates from midfield, was troubled by a slight stomach problem and was being saved for the trip to Staines.
John Frendo is also set to return for that game and Gray hinted that other changes are likely.
Kick off at Wheatsheaf Lane on Tuesday is at 7.45pm.
Saturday’s game was the first played with the new admission charge for adults of £15, which represents a 25 percent increase on last season and 50 percent on 18 months ago.
Despite this, the gate against Hayes was 16 higher than last season’s average Southern League attendance at the Park, but it was still lower than for eight of the final ten home games of last season.