This is, without apology, a somewhat self-indulgent exercise. The recounting of a season which I hope will remind many of what it can be like, and that I truly hope will run in parallel with a campaign that edges Kingfield ever so slightly back towards the raucous den of parochialism that it used to be.
Early Season Form
Amid the general disappointment of our opening games it's worth considering that early season form is really not always a portent for the season as a whole. We are consistently dreadful starters. The early stages of our first season at this level were uncomfortably eye-opening. Trevor Senior ending the evening of a 5-1 defeat at Dagenham in goal remains a distressing memory.
A 5-0 August Bank Holiday spanking at Dover in 1993 is also etched in my mind, with, in particular, future KRE idol Mark Tucker indescribably inept. It took the unearthing of Kevin Rattray, a couple of astute BFG loan signings in Andy Gray and Jody Craddock, and Clive Walker to find his groove, to revive us, but nine months later the bones of the side humiliated at The Crabble won at Wembley. In more recent years Geoff Chapple's swiftly-assembled team of summer 2002 rocketed away, ending August second and unbeaten behind Doncaster. One breathtaking month-long implosion later, a side exposed as ragtag, apathetic and generally clueless were mired in the relegation scrap that they escaped only on the final day.
Front row: Steve Thompson, Clive Walker, Colin Fielder, Geoff Chapple (Manager), Lloyd Wye, Andy Ellis, Scott Steele
Middle row: Malcolm Hague (Kitman), Brian Finn (Assistant to Manager, Coach), Terry Howard, Steve Wood, Laurence Batty, Stuart Searle, Tom Jones, Simon Garner, Barry Kimber (Physio), Colin Lippiatt (Assistant Manager)
Back row: Clive Howse (Reserve Team Manager), Darran Hay, Stuart Girdler, Aiden Kilner, Junior Hunter, David Timothy
An Intoxicating Nine Months
Expectation is perhaps what a lot of us are most unsure of this year. Maybe because, after nigh on eleven seasons of general, well, flatness, it's difficult to know how to recapture it. What preceded this decade of humdrum was, simply, 1996/97: an intoxicating nine months of glorious, absurd, exhilarating theatre.
We all have our favourite years, when the circumstances of our lives allow us to become so immersed in the team that everything around the addictive pattern of Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday becomes secondary. 1996/97 is mine. It was our last truly, authentic, start-to-finish eventful season. And perhaps its sheer relentlessness is why moving away from the mediocrity that has frequently hung heavily over Kingfield since is potentially such an uncomfortable thing for a lot of us. We would all love the team to grip us like they did then: lift, disappoint, anger, frustrate and throw us out broke but drunk on euphoria and hope. But it is also daunting to think that they may - at some point - do it again.
How It All Began
1996/97 began on the back of three consecutive top three finishes for the Cards. A ram-jam cacophonous Kingfield had seen us edge to within a whisker of Stevenage the previous Easter with a momentous 3-2 win over Macclesfield, before they painfully swatted us aside at Broadhall Way two days later. There followed the messy summer of Victor Green-gate and Mark Tucker's protracted and unpopular transfer to newly-promoted Rushden & Diamonds (for a then club record of £45,000).
Our pre-season recruitment drive did little to alleviate fears of the management's increasing reliance on 'seasoned' ex-pros, with Tom Jones, Terry Howard and Steve Wood all distinctly more SAGA than Club 18-30. In fairness, all had considerable pedigree: Wood was stylish and assured, but injury-plagued and ultimately gone within a year. Jones (returning, after a spell as a pasty-faced youth in the early eighties, via Aberdeen, Swindon and Reading) and Howard (sacked, famously, at half-time by previously employers, Leyton Orient) would prove sound enough signings. As would Robin Taylor, a replacement for the departing John Crumplin. However, it was the arrival of iconic 36 year-old ex-Blackburn forward Simon Garner that was supposed to propel us towards the inevitable title. Garner, it would transpire, would have difficulty propelling himself forward one foot after the other. And certainly not before he'd extinguished his B&H!
Simon Garner appeared five times from the substitutes' bench, yet by the end of September he had arrived not at the peak of physical fitness but in HMP Kirkham in Lancashire, jailed for nine months for contempt of court during divorce proceedings. This unusual twist contrasted with a relatively uncomplicated August, with the Cards closing the month sixth, unbeaten yet relatively unspectacular. Fellow newcomer Terry Howard would not kick a ball until October due to injury, but Tom Jones and Steve Wood settled in a side that beat Morecambe and Hednesford, and took a point from Bath, Kettering and Telford respectively.
First Signs Of Trouble
September, however, saw things begin to unravel. The first signs of palpable creaking were, in retrospect, evident as the Cards rescued a barely-warranted injury-time point against Bath (in financial strife and eventually relegated) on a balmy August Kingfield evening. Then Dover (with depressing predictability, David Leworthy scored three) took us apart at The Crabble, winning 5-1. Steve Wood sustained a broken ankle that would sideline him until April, and, although Woking recovered to win at Stalybridge the following Saturday, they were clearly still rocking by the time Farnborough visited Kingfield a week later.
Catastrophe arrived when Farnborough - of all teams - inflicted Woking's first Kingfield defeat since Boxing Day 1994. There was much talk of (probably feigned) relief that the millstone of Woking's two-and-a-half year, forty match, unbeaten home run had been lifted, and indeed the team's initial reaction was reasonable: a point at Altrincham followed by a 4-2 win over Conference debutantes, Rushden & Diamonds (thanks, largely, to a Clive Walker hat-trick). David Leworthy scored again at Kingfield three days later, though this time Woking restricted him to just the one, and Dover just a point. A generally peculiar month ended with an exotic Kingfield friendly against the Kuwaiti national team in which our goalkeeper scored the winner.
End Of A Career
Woking's start had been patchy, disappointing, yet far from desperate. But discontent amongst senior players was already surfacing. Colin Fielder, nearing 200 appearances, had been dropped after the Farnborough defeat, his pedestrian defending singled out, somewhat unjustly, amongst the general mediocrity. Everyone's favourite Wembley-winning carpet salesman warmed the bench until the end of September, returning to the side on a miserable evening at Slough on 1 October. A noted Woking career was nearing an unhappy and very public end.
Terrace disenchantment was also much in evidence, particularly after a soulless 3-0 Wexham Park defeat in which Andy Ellis (from the bench, after being substituted) and Darran Hay were dismissed. My abiding memory remains a disgruntled Fielder angrily relocating a large plastic bin that had been launched over the perimeter fence amid general post-match malcontent from the travelling faithful, followed by my heading up the M4 the wrong way in my mate's decrepit Fiesta as the general sense of doom (and most probably the fug of Marlboro smoke) clouded our sense of direction. When the Cards squandered a lead against Macclesfield the next weekend, losing 3-2, a supposed crisis-point had been reached.
Geoff Shuffles The Pack
It remains illuminating as to quite what represented a trauma at this particular point. Though the first murmurs of disaffection from within were already being heard, outwardly it took a run of just three winless games and a fall to a modest twelfth in the table for Chapple to proclaim the period as the 'blackest time I've had here'. Macclesfield went on to win the title and, if Woking were beginning to disappoint, then Kingfield attendances held firm: 2849 for Sammy McIlroy's eventual-champions, 2768 for Rushden a fortnight earlier. Unusually flustered, Chapple promised to 'move on' the under-performers (for Fielder, it was his last appearance in a Woking shirt). And, true to his word, by the visit of league leaders, Stevenage, the following Tuesday evening he had shuffled the pack. Salvation arrived in the form of a spindly-legged floppy-haired future-legend from Telford Reserves and a free-scoring Italian whose name would become forever linked with what-might-have-been. It was a famed and pivotal evening.