St Albans City slipped to a fourth defeat in five Conference South outings on Saturday as Whitehawk lived up to their pre-season billing as one of the title challengers with an impressive performance and 3-2 victory at a windy Clarence Park.
Whitehawk are said to have amassed an expensive squad and, if that is the case, then it looks to be money well-spent as the side put together by the voluble Steve King were far more decisive victors than the final scoreline may suggest.
Following the midweek departures of Lee Clarke and Tom Ward, City brought in Matt Taylor for his first league start since March, and striker Geoff Mitchell to partner John Frendo.
Taylor generally showed up well while Mitchell scored his first goal for the club.
But overall this was a game in which City were very much second best. Whitehawk played good passing football, often at speed, and during the first half alone had a dozen efforts on goal.
After an attack-minded start to the game by both sides, the visitors gained the initiative and were fully deserving of a two-goal interval lead.
But it was City, in the opening minute, who threatened first with a positive run by Sean Shields leading to the first corner of the game.
Both sides made promising forays but it was City keeper Joe Welch who was called upon to make the first serious save of the afternoon when grabbing a Sergio Torres effort high to his left, following Gerardo Blanco’s astute ball into the penalty area.
By midway through the half it was evident that City had a battle on their hands. The visitors took control of the midfield and little was seen of Shields, Frendo and Mitchell for the remainder of the half.
As the home defence became increasingly stretched Welch, having received the October Player of the Month award before the game, made his best save of the match when pushing a fierce angled drive by Blanco out for a corner.
But from the ensuing corner, on 26 minutes, Whitehawk worked the ball patiently across the pitch through former Saint David Ijaha and Torres, whose defence splitting pass set up Osei Sankofa to slide a low shot through Welch’s legs for the opening goal.
City responded with a decent effort from 25 yards by Sam Corcoran that called upon Hawks keeper Craig Ross to make his only worthwhile save of the half.
It was a rare moment of optimism for City as they spent much of the rest of the half chasing the ball without a lot of success.
Welch did well to smother a dipping effort from the impressive Blanco, while a scuffed effort from Jake Robinson also had to be watched closely.
St Albans needed to keep the deficit to a single goal at the interval but on 41 minutes Whitehawk moved into a commanding position with an excellent second goal.
Blanco dispossessed Lee Chappell just inside the Hawks half and took a return pass that sent him scurrying down the right flank before cutting the ball inside to Nick Arnold.
The right-back sent a cross to beyond the back post, where Danny Mills had drifted away from Darren Locke and headed the second goal over Welch.
Mills, on the break, looked set to add a third goal before Ben Martin stepped in to touch the ball away from the Whitehawk striker.
Going in at just two-down was probably the best that City could have hoped for, while a better understanding of the offside law by the visitors would have aided Whitehawk’s cause.
St Albans added new life into the game on 53 minutes with a neatly crafted and executed goal.
Corcoran played the ball forward to Taylor who slid a fine pass out to the right into the path of John Kyriacou.
With his second touch Kyriacou took out Ross with a whipped a low cross to the back post where the unattended Mitchell stroked the ball right-footed into the Hatfield Road net from a mere three yards out.
A minute later Shields and Corcoran combined on the edge of the penalty area but the latter lashed his shot high and wide of the goal.
Whitehawk looked to have settled the match when a slip by Chappell allowed Arnold to send another wonderful cross deep into the penalty area, were Mills thumped a header past Welch only, once more, to be deemed offside.
Either side of the hour mark City withdrew Shields and Mitchell. David Keenleyside was thrown into the action along with new loan signing Joel Nouble, who has signed from Dagenham & Redbridge.
City looked to have safety in numbers as the Hawks built another patient move just outside the penalty area on 69 minutes but they were still unable to stop Robinson from scoring his tenth goal of the season with a cleanly struck right-footed effort across the diving Welch.
St Albans did well not to capitulate at this point and succeeded in pulling a goal back for a second time on 79 minutes.
Corcoran, following a good run, had a shot blocked for a corner.
Chappell’s dead ball cross was punched way by Ross to Keenleyside whose poked shot was again beaten out by the keeper.
Nouble looked to pounce on the loose ball but it bounced off his shin.
The striker then stretched to reach the ball but referee Anthony Serrano believed that Sankofa had held him back and pointed to the penalty spot. To say it was a generously awarded penalty would be to put it mildly.
Frendo stuttered in his run-up to take the kick and Kyriacou was almost alongside him by the time that he swept his 50th goal for the club high to Ross’s left.
St Albans applied pressure during the final ten minutes but the Hawks dealt most efficiently with a succession of high balls slung into their penalty area.
In fact, the biggest threat came at the opposite end of the pitch where Welch had to scamper across his goal to keep out a deflected effort from Robinson, while the same player was only inches away from scoring a sensation goal from a free kick out on the Hawks left touchline.
Another league defeat for the Saints is, obviously, not good news but there is no shame in going down to such a gifted XI as this Whitehawk side.
St Albans City return to Conference South action next Saturday with a trip to Hampshire to face second in the table Basingstoke Town. Kick off at the Camrose is at 3pm.
Prior to the kick off against Whitehawk a minute’s silence was held to mark the Remembrance weekend.
St Albans City: J.Welch, J.Kyriacou, L.Chappell, C.Gorman, B.Martin, D.Locke, M.Taylor (S.Wales 79), S.Corcoran, J.Frendo, S.Shields (D.Keenleyside 59), G.Mitchell (J.Nouble 63), unused subs; J.Kaloczi, D.Green.
Booked: Mitchell, Corcoran, Taylor.
Whitehawk: C.Ross, N.Arnold, L.Hills (P.S.Kujabi 66) D.Ijaha, O.Sankofa, T.Cadmore, G.Blanco (S.Guyonnet 80), S.Torres, J.Robinson (F.Tchonang 90), D.Mills, JP Kissock, unused subs; S.Gargan, S.Makofo.
Booked: Ross, Guyonnet.
Goals: 26 0-1 Sankofa, 41 0-1 Mills, 53 1-2 Mitchell, 69 1-3 Robinson, 79 2-3 Frendo (pen).
Referee: Anthony Serrano (Hemel Hempstead).