St Albans City’s late season return to form ended the play-off ambitions for a second team in six days on Saturday, as a solid performance secured a 2-1 Conference South double over Gosport Borough at the Hampshire clubs smart Privett Park ground.
Save for a spell late in the second half when Alex Pike’s side threatened to overturn a two-goal deficit, City were in control for much of this sun-kissed, though windy, encounter on the south coast.
St Albans, as expected, went with the starting XI that accounted for Eastbourne on Easter Monday while the hosts made three changes from the line-up that drew with lowly Weston-super-Mare on the same day.
City, despite having collected just two points from their previous nine away games, looked confident from the start.
James Comley again excelled in his new central defensive role and next to him Darren Locke was virtually faultless.
Full-backs John Kyriacou and skipper Lee Chappell provided sound cover down the flanks.
The Green brothers, Danny and Jack, formed an unlikely but successful duo in midfield.
Danny was as dogged as ever while young Jack, 17 and in only his second Conference South start, played with the air of a far more seasoned trooper.
Sam Corcoran is currently enjoying a rich vein of good form and Gosport were in no mood to stem his creativity.
Steve Wales was less fortunate and was suffering with leg strain from the early minutes.
He last until the 17th minute when Jo N’Guessan was given a chance to reclaim a starting position and the 19-year-old took his chance well, as he created the opening goal and headed in the second.
In attack Michael Malcolm kept John Frendo on the bench and proved to be a good foil for Simon Thomas whose dominance in the air allowed the home defence no respite.
The same could not be said of Gosport and it did appear that the enormity of their situation, probably needing to win their final three games to sneak into a play-off position, got the better of them and they fell well short of expectations.
But, no matter how well City played collectively, this was not a game that is likely to linger in the memory for long. The long ball dominated for much of the day and quality passing football was at a premium.
Gosport tested City with a couple of early efforts on goal but other than for an ambitious half volley over the top by Matt Paterson the visitors goal was not put under any great threat.
Malcolm did likewise for City following a fine move involving Jack Green, Kyriacou and Corcoran.
City opened the scoring on 23 minutes with a goal that punished some slack defending.
A weak clearance was seized upon by Corcoran who then rode a challenge and slipped a short pass to the unmarked N’Guessan.
The on-loan Stevenage winger floated a delightful right-footed cross to the edge of the six-yard box where Thomas rose between two defenders to head firmly past Nathan Ashmore.
The ball appeared to follow N’Guessan around for a spell and shortly after the goal the teenager sent a looping header onto the roof of the net following a cross by Malcolm.
Gosport almost found a way back on 32 minutes when a corner landed close to the City goal but Boro defender Andy Robinson could only stab the ball gently through to Saints keeper Joe Welch.
City showed no such benevolence as they counter-attacked to devastating effect.
Welch, remarkably not penalised despite holding the ball for 18 seconds, began the attack with a long punt downfield.
Comley was twice involved in the build up before Danny Green, receiving a short lay off by Thomas, sprayed a pass out to the left to Malcolm.
His cross appeared to be on the long side but lurking at the back apex of the six-yard box was N’Guessan who scored his first goal for the Saints with a header across and over the leaping Ashmore.
St Albans saw out the remainder of the half in some comfort but Boro began the second period with a more positive outlook.
However Gosport hopes of scoring quickly were snuffed out by one of several interventions by the impeccable Comley.
But Comley, capped by England C and Montserrat this season, let his exuberance get the better of him on one occasion and, after roaming forward, conceded possession with a pass intended for Jack Green.
Robinson stepped in take the ball and fed Tom Dunford who sliced City open with a superb ball between Locke and Chappell.
Paco Saez raced clear but placed his shot too close to the advancing Welch and the City keeper got a just firm enough touch to push the ball wide of the target.
Andy Forbes met the ensuing corner well but his downward header bounced up and just over the City goal.
City went close to adding a third goal when Corcoran, after having a shot charged down, knocked the rebound wide for Chappell to chase. Chappell did well to keep the ball in play and clip a pass to Kyriacou.
The right-back rolled the ball into the feet of Jack Green who, from close to the goalline, darted wide Sam Pearce and drove a powerful drive towards the near post from an acute angle and Ashmore did well to tip it over the top for a corner.
St Albans were in full control at this point and ought to have added a third goal.
Comley hoiked the ball down the right hand side for Thomas to head it wide to N’Guessan.
The teenager wasted no time in sliding a low cross to the centre of the penalty area where the incoming Thomas completely missed his kick, but behind him Malcolm drove the ball crisply towards goal but Robinson did well to block.
Poor play at the back by the home side allowed N’Guessan to pinch possession. The ball was moved swiftly between Jack Green, Corcoran and Malcolm whose shot from 18 yards was smothered comfortably by Ashmore.
A short corner routine by the Saints caused Boro more problems as Corcoran’s deep cross was headed just over by N’Guessan.
N’Guessan has an excellent knack for getting into dangerous positions in the penalty area even if the quality of his finishing can, at times, be questionable.
With less than a quarter of the game remaining Gosport finally upped their game and when a long ball sent 32-goal striker Justin Bennett away Welch had to move smartly to deflect the shot out for a corner.
Gosport were at last forcing City back only for the pressure to be eased when Robinson slashed a shot into the car park.
Again though City hit back in force and only a misplaced pass by Thomas denied Green junior a shot on goal.
With time drifting away Gosport went very close to getting their promotion push back on track.
On 77 minutes Paterson met a Saez corner in a crowded goalmouth and somehow managed to head his 20th goal of the season into the middle of the net.
Boosted by that strike Gosport, at least for one more minute, looked every inch a side pushing for better things and 35 seconds after taking the kick-off City found the ball in the back of their net for a second time – only this time a linesman’s raised flag came to their rescue.
Substitute Lee Wort won the ball from Comley inside the penalty area and laid it back to Bennett whose cross was headed home, via an upright, by the offside Saez.
Gosport pushed to get back on level terms but Welch burst through a cluster of players to punch clear while Bennett sent a soft header through to the City keeper.
Still Boro searched for that elusive equaliser and in the fourth minute of added time Saez looked to have found a way through when a smart turn made space for a shot, but Kyriacou was perfectly placed to hook the shot out for a corner.
Home keeper Ashmore was one of 19 players inside the City penalty area when Saez floated the corner into the box.
Ashmore stayed forward as the ball was cleared then returned towards the City goal.
Once more City cleared their lines and as Ashmore darted back towards more familiar territory at the opposite end of the pitch referee Tim Wood put the home side out of their misery with a final blow of his whistle.