Darren Locke
Darren Locke scores the opener for St. Albans. [Twitter]

On Saturday I returned to Clarence Park to watch my local team St. Albans City play Mansfield Town in the 1st round of the FA Cup. They had only ever made the second round on five occasions in their 105-year history but there was a genuine feeling of hope and expectation. The magic of the cup had arrived in Hertfordshire, and for 42 minutes we all believed.

Having grown up in the city of St. Albans I have sporadically attended games for close to twenty years. When I was in my early teens it was a great way to watch football, changing ends at half-time and standing behind the goal, so close to the action that I felt more like a ball boy than a spectator.

There was a sense of pride for the club and the players who all had full-time jobs away from football and simply gave up their evenings and weekends for the love of the game. To borrow a cliché, this was proper football, of the non-league variety.

The club gained notoriety during the 1990's when the famous oak tree that stood in one of the stands prevented us from gaining promotion to the Conference. Coincidently the same tree later contracted a disease and was subsequently removed - much to the dissatisfaction of many supporters who used it to keep dry on numerous rainy Saturday afternoons.

Still, this was modern football, the ground had to be up to scratch for when we finally reached the promised land of the Conference. It finally happened in 2006 when we beat Histon 2-0 at Stevenage's Broadhall Way ground. Goals from Lee Clarke and Paul Hakim - who have a special place in the heart of any City fan - led to me invading the pitch and celebrating with other St. Albans fans who like me, had never thought they would see the club reach this pinnacle.

We lasted just one year in the Conference, finishing bottom, but it remains the highest league position the club have ever achieved in their history. It also provided fans with the chance to see some players who have gone on to play in the Premier League, like George Boyd and Aaron McLean.

Having been to the promised land it was almost inevitable that problems would arise when players left and in 2009 St. Albans looked like they would enter administration. Financial worries crippled the club, as it did to so many other, but thankfully we survived.

Local businessman Lawrence Levy and John McGowan have since saved the club from going the same way as Hinckley United who were wound up in the courts this season with debts of over £200,000 and so to last weekend and a memorable FA Cup tie.

I was at the game back in 1996 when St. Albans lost 9-2 to Bristol City in the second round of the Cup and I feared the worst heading to Clarence Park on Saturday. Mansfield may only be a League Two side but that is three divisions higher than the Saints - and most importantly, all of their players are professionals.

But after just eight minutes it seemed a St. Albans City side made up largely of local youngsters and experienced non-league campaigners could cause an upset. David Keenleyside swung in a perfect ball for Darren Locke to head past Alan Marriott. Queue wild celebrations from more than 3000 home fans and crammed into the ground on a wet and miserable Saturday afternoon.

The Saints looked to soak up Mansfield pressure and break at speed. It was a plan devised by joint managers James Gray and Graham Golds, and it seemed to be working to perfection. There were chances for City to extend their lead as Mark Nwokeji went close and Locke missed a great chance with another powerful header.

The ground was buzzing but on 42 minutes there was near silence when Lee Stevenson equalised, and then despair just minutes later as Anthony Howell made it 2-1 right on the stroke of half-time.

Fitness was beginning to play a part and in the second half St. Albans were overrun as a clinical Mansfield racked up another six goals to make it 8-1 at the final whistle. But City supporters were not disheartened and we continued to sing our songs and show our sense of humour by chanting 'we're gonna win 9-8'.

St. Albans may have lost and the players are sure to have felt disheartened at full-time but they have done the club proud. The money made from the fixture, which saw 3,251 attend at an average price of £12, will keep the club running for some time.

The plan is for young locals to get the chance to show what they can do at a lower level. If St. Albans can produce just one player that goes on to enjoy a career as a professional footballer and thus make some money from his transfer, then they can be rightfully proud of the work they have done.

For me, having been to Wembley to watch England and the Emirates to see Arsenal play Napoli, it was a reminder of the excitement that comes with standing just metres from the pitch and watching 11 players who really care about the result. They are no agents, release clauses and outrageous wage demands, just people with a real passion for the game. And it certainly made me want to spend more time back at Clarence Park.