A patched-up St Albans City slipped to their first league defeat at Vauxhall Road on New Year’s Day as Hemel Hempstead Town climbed above their Conference South neighbours with a relatively comfortable 3-1 victory on a grey windswept afternoon.
The final few weeks of 2014 were pretty torrid for St Albans as several players left the club, loan players returned to their parent club and a growing injury list was compounded by a lack of discipline weakening the squad further through suspensions.
It was against this backdrop that City made the short journey to Hemel Hempstead with the added handicap of injury ruling out club captain James Comley, and leading goal scorer John Frendo.
Just for good measure goalkeeper Joe Welch, who has been in exceptionally good form of late, was sidelined by a potentially serious heart problem that was discovered on New Year’s Eve.
The City keeper has inflammation around his heart and necessitated a trip to hospital but, providing there is not an infection, it should be cured with several weeks rest.
With Welch ruled out, Tom Coulton came in for his Conference South debut in quite testing conditions.
Coulton was not the only change from the side defeated at Sutton the previous weekend as Steve Wales and Charlie Gorman returned from suspension.
Hemel, who were without a game last weekend, made five changes to the starting XI that played at Clarence Park on Boxing Day as they looked to extend a 12-match unbeaten home run.
The playing surface at Vauxhall Road is far from perfect and 22-year-old Coulton stood facing a strong wind for the opening 45 minutes, and it was this, that the City keeper claimed after the game, that had a hand in the opening Hemel goal on seven minutes.
Having initially thought about catching Jordan Parkes corner that swung in just under the crossbar, Coulton opted to push it away with the palm of his hand but only got it as far as the outstanding Moussa Diarra.
The Frenchman headed the ball back into the goalmouth where Oliver Hawkins, in front of the large contingent of St Albans supporters, got the ball into the net for his fourth goal of the season, although it appeared to go in via his shoulder rather than his head.
Hemel skipper Parkes has been a thorn in City’s side in recent years and he gave notice of what was to come when he sent a half volley a few yards wide after Hawkins had headed on a Diarra throw.
Playing up the slope, City struggled to make any real inroads although Wales sent an enticing ball across the face of the goal, while Darren Locke glanced a header wide from a Lee Chappell corner, and Omar Beckles flashed a half volley wide.
One of City’s better moves of the half ended with John Kyriacou drilling the ball across the goalmouth but just too far ahead of Lancaster.
Sam Corcoran, in retaliation for a foul by Hemel’s new signing from Hayes, Matt Harriott, was fortunate not to be booked for kicking out at James Potton, but it was only a temporary reprieve as the midfielder picked up his seventh booking of the season just after the half hour.
St Albans could be accused of naivety for the second goal, on 28 minutes, as they failed to stay close to Parkes while Mo Shariff and Matt Saunders played the ball around.
Beckles moved forward, as Shariff passed inside to Parkes, but it was too late and Parkes had sufficient time to switch the ball onto his left foot before beating Coulton with a clean low strike from 25 yards for his 19th goal of the season.
It was Parkes eighth goal in nine appearances for Hemel against St Albans.
Hemel were now in a position to really push home their advantage, but City so nearly reduced the deficit when a Beckles header from a Chappell free kick hit the inside of the far post and was hooked away by Diarra just before Corcoran could head home.
One of the features of the first half was the number of Hemel attacks that broke down due to passes being hit too firmly with the wind and the ball running out of play.
The positive manner in which the Tudors began the second half when playing into the wind did not bode well for St Albans, although a good chance for the visitors went begging when Beckles headed over from a corner by Chappell.
Hemel almost added a third when a cross by Shariff was headed down by Diarra to Potton’s whose shot into the ground bounced up nicely for the tall Hawkins who, somewhat wastefully, headed wide.
Coulton had his fingers warmed by a firm drive from Parkes but there was a feeling that Hemel eased up after the hour. Certainly City were not disappointed when the Tudors replaced Hawkins with Dennis Oli.
Three minutes later, the 63rd, a spell of sloppy play ended with Potton putting a clearance straight to Gorman.
The bustling City midfielder played the ball wide to Wales and from his cross on the Saints right Lancaster beat Laurie Walker with a fine header high to the keeper’s right from 12 yards.
Hemel hit back quickly with Harriott clipping a clever shot onto the roof of the City net.
But suddenly Hemel appeared uncomfortable at the back as Chappell fired well wide and the excellent Kyriacou went close to claiming his first goal for the club.
The clearest chance, though, fell to substitute Elliot Bailey.
An attempted headed clearance by Harriott went, inadvertently, towards his own goal and was seized upon by Bailey. But after doing well to shake off Arthur Lee the City striker shot weakly to Walker’s right and the opportunity to mark his Conference South debut with a goal was lost.
But it was Hemel who ended the game with an attacking flurry. Parkes had one goal bound effort deflected over for a corner and another drive beaten away by the sprawling Coulton.
The Tudors purple patch was interrupted by a crisp shot from Chappell that Walker gathered with minimal fuss, while a header into the goalmouth by Howard Hall, from a Corcoran corner, saw Wales slice an intended over-head kick wide.
In the fourth minute of added time Hemel finally put the outcome beyond doubt with a third goal.
Walker drove a free kick deep into the City half. Oli cushioned a header to Saunders who in turn found Banton.
After holding off Ian Gayle, Banton slid the ball into the path of the on-running Oli who carefully steered a left-footed shot past the outstretched Coulton for his first goal of the season.
The defeat at Vauxhall Road leaves City with a return of one point from four games since 20th December. Speaking after the game City manager Jimmy Gray, surprisingly, mentioned relegation when stating that he believes the side will not be dragged into a relation battle.
At present St Albans sit in 12th place, eight points away from a play-off position, and eight points above the relegation zone.
Gray also stressed that efforts are being made to strengthen the squad.
City are back in Conference South action on Sunday, 4 January, when promotion seeking Gosport Borough visit Clarence Park. Kick off is at 3pm.