Gray inspires St Albans City to derby day victory

Captain scores twice in defeat of Hitchin Town

Southern Premier Division

Hitchin Town 0 St Albans City 3

JAMES Gray played a starring role at both ends of the pitch as St Albans City recorded their first league win since November 12 and only their second away from Clarence Park all season at Hitchin Town on Saturday.

The former Arlesey Town defender, made captain for the day by Saints boss David Howell, scored two sumptuous goals late in the first half that effectively killed the game as a contest but had an equally telling contribution at the other end of the pitch where he marshalled superbly a defence that snuffed out anything Hitchin Town had to offer – including former Saint Inih Effiong who joined Hitchin on a month’s loan late last week. The end result was only a third league clean sheet of the campaign.

The only sour note of the afternoon was an ankle injury to Sean Shields resulting in the winger leaving the field on a stretcher and heading for a Saturday evening spent in the local A&E. That incident came with just seven minutes of the second half left on the referee’s watch but resulted in a 11 minutes and 37 seconds of added time being tacked on at the end by referee Mark Scholes. It was a remarkable ending to an unremarkable second half, rendered that by St Albans’ strong ending to the first half.

The game began with both sides surrendering possession with alarming regularity but it was St Albans, with new signing Micah Hyde pulling the strings in midfield, who gradually began dictating the play. Hyde may be 37 now but the former Watford and Burnley man still has an eye for the pass, linking up particularly well with the marauding Michael Harriman who made full use of the space afforded him by Hitchin’s 5-3-2 set-up.

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It was that combination that presented Paul Furlong with his first sight of goal of the afternoon, Harriman delivering a good early ball into the box for the former Chelsea forward but he was only able to head tamely at goalkeeper Martin Bennett.

The opening goal of the game wasn’t long in coming though and was the result of yet more link-up play between Harriman and Furlong. The on-loan QPR defender found Furlong just inside the Hitchin penalty area from a throw-in with the 43-year-old front man rolling mark Marc Leach superbly before planting a fierce shot low past Bennett from 12 yards out.

That gave City the platform they needed to build upon but the whole course of the game could have been different had John Frendo, the league’s second most lethal marksman, not seen his volley thud off the outside of Nick Jupp’s upright just five minutes after the deadlock was broken.

Leach then saw a drilled free kick diverted over the cross bar by Jupp and from the resulting corner the big Hitchin centre-half had his header cleared off the goalline by Matt Cutchey.

That was as good as it got for the home side and after St Albans had weathered that storm they set about reasserting their dominance.

Simon Martin, given the nod ahead of French striker Sakho Bakare and Rob Haworth, repaid his manager’s faith with a strong performance, especially working in the channels. One such occasion saw the 32-year-old fight off the attentions of the home defence to feed Harriman whose cross was turned just wide of the upright by an off-balance Ryan Watts.

The game-changing spell came late in the first half when Gray scored twice in the space of three minutes. The first was a textbook volley, the Yorkshireman hanging back on the edge of the penalty area to ping Watts’ corner past the despairing dive of Bennett. The second was a powerful header, again from a Watts’ set piece, that gave the Hitchin custodian no chance.

Unfortunately for the crowd of 418, that effectively meant the second half was worthless. Hitchin enjoyed more of the ball after the break as St Albans defended the lead they had built up but as much of the ball as the Canaries had, they were unable to find a way past Gray and Cutchey.

Shields twice forced Bennett to flex his muscles with shots from the edge of the box while at the other end Callum Donnelly fired a shot straight at Jupp.

City’s main aim now was to preserve their clean sheet and Harriman had to throw himself in front of a shot from half-time substitute Zak Burke to ensure that happened. It was an act repeated by Gray in the 10th minute of added time as the Yorkshire man wrapped up a fine individual performance with a block on Frendo’s goalbound shot.

Hitchin Town: Bennett; Fontenelle, Stewart (Burke 46), Gilbert �, Leach, Pepper; Donnelly, Gregson, Lewis (King 81); Frendo, Effiong.

Subs not used: Ann, Edgerley, Williams.

St Albans City: Jupp; Harriman, Cutchey, Gray �, Bernard; Sean Shields (Lansiquot 88), Ijaha, Hyde, Watts; S Martin, Furlong (Bakare 82).

Subs not used: Matthews, Jinadu, Haworth.

Referee: Mark Scholes (Buckingham)

Att: 418.