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Going back to St Albans to find a club easing out of near-stasis towards the Conference

St Albans City are in the National League South play-off semi-finals, a nervous end of season for a club which has made progress, this last couple of years.

 

It’s been almost 41 years since I first set foot inside Clarence Park in St Albans, a U-shaped concrete bowl of terracing on three sides, lined on the other by a wooden grandstand, the view from which was something akin to that from within the cockpit of a World War I fighter plane.

Your memory retains the strangest of details, any of which could be false memories. The orange goal nets glistening on a hot summer afternoon. My dad counting out the number of away team players at the start of the second half because they’d had one sent off during the first half and he thought they may try to “sneak ‘im back on” after the break. Nothing to worry about on that front, pops. The visiting team, Walton & Hersham, ended up with nine on the pitch but won 2-0 regardless. It turned out to be that sort of season.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, but St Albans City remain and four decades on I was there again on a Saturday afternoon for the last day of their regular National League South season, a home match against Farnborough. And this time I’m the one with kids in tow, my seven and five year-olds. It’s not often we get a weekend together – I usually have them Monday to Friday – and still less that I’m not working.

We got a train from Sussex in the morning which zipped north in a straight line from the south coast before winding its way interminably through London and popping out the other end and north towards the city in which I spent the second half of my childhood and most of my young adulthood.

The basic shape of Clarence Park remains broadly unchanged. That wooden main stand is a listed building, still usable but essentially the architectural equivalent of a museum piece. The terraces are the same shape, but scaffolding covers have been added behind each end, and segregation fences and crush barriers all painted in blue and yellow, which were liberated from Wimbledon’s Plough Lane a quarter of a century earlier, have been added. Food and drink outlets fill every available space. The roof of the stand is covered with a tarpaulin proudly proclaiming, ‘THE MOZZARELLA FELLAS STADIUM’, a loving tribute to the absurdities that football clubs will embrace in the pursuit of money. Nobody, presumably, ever actually uses that name. The Deep Pan Siro has a much better ring.

If my childhood and adolescence as a football supporter were defined by anything, it was by stasis. Nothing ever changed much at St Albans; or at least if it did, it soon found its equilibrium again. That calamitous result against Walton & Hersham was the start of a relegation season, but they were promoted straight back the following season and a further one followed in 1986. But these were only really correcting the natural order of things. St Albans City had joined the Isthmian League in 1923 and had become one of the first two clubs relegated from it when a second division was introduced in 1974. That 1986 promotion was really just restoring them to where they’d been for most of their history.

I knew that ticket sales for this game had been high, but I hadn’t expected anything like this. The queue stretched from the turnstile out past the cricket pavilion and down to the road. During my most regular years at Clarence Park, crowds had been as static as anything else. 300 on a bad Saturday afternoon or a Tuesday night, maybe 5-600 if they’d won their last couple of games, and creeping up towards four figures should they move towards the top of the table, which they did, occasionally.

The attendance for the Farnborough match was 3,698, swollen by a combination of an invitation for all the youth team players to attend, a surprisingly large away support, and the mild jeopardy of the home team playing for a play-off place; it was a big enough crowd to push the average for the season up to 1,402, the third highest in the division. Non-league crowds have risen enormously since supporters were allowed back in following the pandemic lockdowns, but this is an extraordinary number for the club that I remember.

From 1986 until 2006, City stayed almost obstinately at the same level of the game, the Isthmian League Premier Division, and then the Conference South. In 1993 they finished as runners-up to Chesham United and were entitled to apply for a place in the Football Conference along with the leaders, only for both to be failed on ground-grading.

The club reached a small degree of national fame with the claim that this had been on account of an oak tree that was built into the terrace behind one of the goals with branches overhanging the pitch (which would occasionally result in opposing goalkeepers getting pelted with acorns by the bored teenagers on the terrace behind the goal). The tree had a preservation order on it which prevented it from being destroyed but five years later, and with a haste that raised an eyebrow or two locally, the tree was declared sick and cut down. The truth was that the ground was really not ready for Conference football in several different respects.

Throughout those years excitement was seldom in the air, and when it did come it was often unwelcome. In 2002, the club was suspended by the Isthmian League for six weeks over financial difficulties that might easily have led to it being wound up. When William Verry Ltd., the company who bought them in 2002, collapsed into administration themselves in 2009, it became apparent that they had been lending substantially to the football club. More than half a million pounds, to be precise.

It was the same on the pitch, really. FA Cup upsets happened elsewhere. When they finally got to play a Football League club in the FA Cup in 1997, for the first time in my era, they were drawn away to Bristol City and lost 9-2. And Wembley felt similarly out of bounds. They reached the semi-finals of the FA Trophy in 1999, drew the first leg 1-1 at home and went 2-0 up in the second leg before losing 3-2. The disallowing of a goal from Junior McDougald – scored with 20 minutes to go and which would have have put them 4-2 up on aggregate – by referee Andy D’Urso still rankles with a certain generation of City supporter to this day.

Twenty-four years on they’ve never come that close to Wembley again, but they did finally have some success in the FA Cup. Further thumpings against League teams would follow that Bristol City walloping – four against Stockport in 2002, eight against Mansfield in 2013, five against Carlisle three years after that – but on a freezing cold Sunday afternoon in November 2021, in front of the live cameras of Match of the Day and a capacity crowd of 4,100, they beat League Two leaders Forest Green Rovers 3-2, a spoonful of revenge for that FA Trophy defeat more than two decades earlier.

I moved away from St Albans in 2003 but continued to work there for the next three years. Non-league football was changing. The Football Conference was expanding to a second tier, with a complicated system of play-offs to decide who would stay the same level and who would effectively drop by one.

City secured their place at the same level with an improbable 4-3 semi-final win at Heybridge Swifts followed by an even more unlikely 5-4 win in the final at Bedford Town. In 2006, the year that I moved sufficiently far from Hertfordshire for home matches to no longer be viable, they were promoted into the Conference for a season before getting relegated straight back from whence they came.

Back in 2023, in all truth, there wasn’t much jeopardy in the air. A win or a draw would be good enough for St Albans, and even if they lost, Havant & Waterlooville would still need to overturn a six-goal difference to sneak above them. The news came through within about five minutes of kick-off that Havant were losing. Farnborough were exactly mid-table, and a poor recent run of results had already consigned their play-off hopes to the bin for the season. But they put up reasonable resistance and this, coupled with the City forwards’ tendency to shoot straight at the Farnborough goalkeeper rather than pick a corner of the goal when presented with a chance, meant that the score remained goalless until a Callum Adebiyi header from a corner gave City the lead shortly before half-time, a goal of such simplicity that it was difficult not to wonder why they hadn’t done this earlier.

The second half played out as though in a daze, the warm weather, the slowing effects of all that lunchtime booze on the terraces, and the fact that we were all essentially counting down the clock to the final whistle slowed things down. But City controlled the game effectively and added a second from the penalty spot, a rebound which the Farnborough may have had in his grasp – how angry their players got about this goal being given was about as animated as they got all afternoon, and they may have had a point – which was converted, eventually, by Shaun Jeffers, his 28th of the season. Jeffers had started on the bench; presumably, I somewhat naively assumed, to give him some rest ahead of a potential play-off match the following Tuesday night.

There was a pitch invasion at the full-time whistle, and we left the ground to the sound of Enter Shikari thundering out over the PA system. This local band had the day before celebrated their first UK number one album. They’ve been the club’s shirt sponsors for the previous couple of years now, and while I’m now too old to be any sort of authority on this matter, their sponsorship appears to have been very good for the club in shirt sales alone. In the park next door, my kids played on the slides for half an hour while we waited for our train. There was something idyllic about this, watching my kids play on a warm, sunny afternoon in the same park that I spent so much time in a little over 30 years earlier.

The National League extended their play-offs to six clubs a few years ago, and St Albans finishing sixth guaranteed them a place in, depending on how EXTREME you like your non-league football, either the quarter-finals or the ELIMINATOR MATCH. Under the current system, second and third get a bye to the semi-finals, while fourth play seventh and fifth play sixth. A trip to Chelmsford City on a Tuesday night – an actual school night, these days – was a stretch too far, but modern technology is a wondrous thing so, in spite of my inner middle-aged dad voice screaming “Nine pounds fifty to watch a bloody non-league football match on the television? What do they take me for?”, I forked out to watch the ELIMINATOR MATCH live.

It was not, as so many play-off games are, an especially edifying affair, a tense and nervy game between two teams with a lot on the line. Shaun Jeffers was left on the bench again, but he came on to score the only goal of the game five minutes into the first period of extra-time, so who knows, perhaps manager David Noble is a football genius. Chelmsford were a little unfortunate. One superb save was made by the St Albans goalkeeper Dylan Berry, a 19-year old on loan from Norwich City, to preserve their lead while St Albans also avoided a late handball scare and a narrow offside call to deny an equaliser in the last few minutes.

For St Albans City, there now follows a semi-final away at Dartford on Sunday lunchtime. It’s unlikely that I’ll make that journey either, but train times have been checked, in case of a last-minute change of mind.

Going home after a long time away is a strange feeling. I’ve been dislocated from St Albans City for a long time, now. Sure enough, I made the occasional trip, and occasionally went when they were away from home near where I now live in West Sussex. Indeed, I was in the away end at Worthing a couple of months ago to see the Saints win 5-4 there in the league, the most remarkable game I’ve seen live in years.

They may yet play each other in the play-offs this year, too. Worthing won their ELIMINATOR MATCH against Braintree Town the following evening, and now have a semi-final of their own, away to Oxford City, also to be played on Sunday.

The things that I associate most closely with Clarence Park are an an indelible part of the patchwork of my memories. I was there on the 15th April 1989, watching a game which almost ground to a halt as news of a tragedy miles away started to spread through on people’s transistor radios.

When I was at college, we’d have our lunch in the dugouts next to the pitch because the ground was just left open all week, and it was a shortcut to class, if I was running late.

I’ve seen games in driving rain there, in burning hot weather and yes, in the snow, and been to wedding receptions and birthday parties in the clubhouse. I’ve even played football on that pitch, several times. But those days are long gone now, and for my kids it’s Worthing which may become that place, that home from home. It’s not difficult to envisage a time when we’re all headed to a match there, me in a yellow and blue scarf, and them in their red and white. It could even happen this month.

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