A tale of 3 'keepers
Oxford City 2-1 St Albans City
Injuries, suspensions, and a late penalty miss could do nothing to stop Oxford City notching up their second victory of the season as Mark Jones' depleted squad earned a gritty 2-1 victory over St Albans City at Marsh Lane.
The Hoops dominated the first half, eventually taking the lead in the 25th minute through Matt Paterson, but Richard Sho-Silver's second half leveller meant it took an additional goal from Reece Fleet to ensure the points stayed in Oxfordshire for the second time this week.
Mark Jones came into the game with plenty to think about. Not only was he missing two key defenders - Ben Jefford and Luke Ruddick following their sendings off at Woking, Abraham Eze was also sidelined by a dislocated shoulder sustained in the dying seconds of Tuesday's match. Craig King retained his place in goal; protected by a new-look back four consisting of the experienced Joe Oastler and Eddie Jones, alongside two more youthful figures in Udoka Godwin-Malife and debutant Arti Krasniqi. The midfield had a more familiar feeling, comprised of Josh Ashby, Reece Fleet, Rob Sinclair, Zac McEachran and Kabby Tshimanga - all supporting lone striker Matt Paterson.
Recent history suggested that this game should offer good value for money, and the opening exchanges told very much the same story. Paterson had the first of many good chances to get his name on the scoresheet after just 9 minutes, looking to capitalise on 'keeper Dean Snedker's overexhuberence with a lob from 25 yards which failed to drop under the bar.
Ashby was the next to try his luck, firing narrowly over as the home side's characteristically patient passing forced the visiting defence onto the back foot. The Saints looked to respond through captain David Noble's effort from range which flashed just wide of the target; the first of many wayward efforts from the side in purple.
The Hoops continued to pile on the pressure, forcing increasingly frantic clearances from the imposing figure of James Sage to earn a string of corners.
Surprisingly, it was a piece of more direct play which broke the deadlock in the 25th minute. Fleet took control of the ball just inside the opposing box, working hard to hold off a defender while support arrived; and arrive it did in the shape of Paterson, steaming into the box to conect with Fleet's cutback and fire home despite a touch from Snedker.
The joy of the goal was tempered somewhat by the loss of Josh Ashby, limping off in the 28th minute to be replaced by Kyran Wiltshire.
The change disrupted City's flow temporarily, but normal service was soon resumed as Wiltshire's pinpoint pass gave Sinclair a sight of goal which sadly came to nothing. Tshimanga, whose lively presence down the right wing looked increasingly menacing as the half wore on, provided a similar standard of service to Paterson. Positioned a little wider than he may have liked, the prolific striker took aim at the near post but could only find the side netting.
Going into the break, the Hoops looked good value for their lead with their opponents having failed thus far to test Craig King.
The Saints came out for the second half an almost entirely different side. Within minutes, a trademark long throw from Merson had found its target - Ben Herd hooking his shot straight down King's throat.
Zane Banton in particular began to look dangerous, forcing an excellent last ditch tackle from Oastler in the 51st minute before drawing the very best out of King a minute later. As former Luton Town teammates the two were no strangers to each other's talents, but even Banton must have thought he had scored before the 21-year-old stopper somehow contorted himself to hook the ball clear with his right hand in what may well be the best save of his City career to date.
With just ten minutes of the half played, Mark Jones introduced his second - and final - outfield substitute as Craig Fassanmade replaced Arti Krasniqi.
Just before the hour mark, the visitors once again looked certain to equalise. Merson's leap to challenge King for a high ball was deemed legal by referee Daniel Lamport, allowing the forward a free shot on goal as the 'keeper was stricken, but the St Albans City stalwart was unable to beat the ever-reliable figure of Oastler on the line. The clearance was, however, in vain as Sho-Silva rose well to head the resulting corner home.
The Hoops' response was swift and decisive: typically smooth passing play allowing SInclair to thread a ball into Fleet's path for a routine finish under the advancing 'keeper in the 68th minute.
Buoyed by having re-established their lead, a third City goal seemed to be on the cards: McEachran dancing into the box from the left wing to unleash a curling, right-footed shot which deflected narrowly wide of the far post.
At the other end the visitors still looked dangerous, particularly from crosses and set pieces. Herd skimmed the bar with a tame but well placed back-post header from one of many corners, but the Hoops seemed to be holding firm as the game drew into its final 10 minutes.
With the game at a crucial juncture, City were struck by an injury at the worst possible time: Rob Sinclair going down with what seemed to be a hamstring problem. With both outfield substitutes already on the pitch, reserve goalkeeper Alex Grantham was forced into a quick costume change to serve as makeshift striker. Although not necessarily making the kind of debut he may have anticipated, or even dreamed of, the youngster got a warm reception and set about using his height to challenge for the odd long ball forward.
It wouldn't be entirely inaccurate to state that Grantham had a small hand in what should have been the most decisive moment of the match with just three minutes of normal time remaining. His decoy run through the middle granted Fassanmade the freedom to burst down the right channel and draw a decisive foul from Herd, leaving the referee with no choice but to award a penalty. Paterson stepped up and struck confidently, but Snedker was more than equal to his effort - not only pushing the ball onto the post but gathering safely before anybody could get to the loose ball.
Presented with yet another lifeline in this end-to-end match, the Saints looked to make the most of the 5 minutes of stoppage time. However, further resolute defending and a hint of wayward finishing ensured that the side in blue and white kept hold of the points.