There are decisive games in pivotal seasons and Woking's 3-1 win over Stevenage on 15 October 1996 was one such evening. Whilst it ultimately failed to prove a catalyst for the championship that their opponents had secured the previous May, it did at least kick-start a hitherto unstable campaign.
It was becoming increasingly pronounced that the BFG's hold on the dressing room could no longer be maintained by past achievement and status alone. Rumours of unease within the camp were becoming too plentiful to be dismissed and, in later years, prominent players conceded that training and preparation methods failed to reflect the Club's outward ambition.
But Chapple could not be accused of idleness in attempting to address his side's early-season failings, and the trademark bout of wheeler-dealing that preceded the Stevenage win was courageous even by his standards. From the side that had lost to Macclesfield to stretch a winless run to three games, Laurence Batty replaced his rosy-cheeked teenage understudy, John Gregory, and Player of the Year Andy Ellis (pictured) made way for Shane Wye (returning from another spell in New Zealand). Fit-at-last Terry Howard displaced departing loanee Lee Palmer, partnering new signing Steve Foster, whilst a misfiring attack was revived by Giuliano Grazioli and Grant Payne.
It was an evening of genuine significance, not least because Woking's football returned largely to its effortless and attractive best. Howard and Foster became fixtures in central defence alongside the ever-imperious Kevan Brown. Foster's signing was particularly inspired. Then 21, the all-round astuteness of his game led to a professional career (as Woking's most expensive-ever export the following summer) that continues today with Darlington, spanning over ten years and four-hundred appearances.
Ellis, whose brand of ultra-consistency in midfield had proved utterly indispensable the previous season, now struggled to re-establish himself for the best part of four months. Payne (who, at 23, must have suspected that his opportunities at his then-Premiership employees Wimbledon were diminishing) returned for a four-game spell that reinforced a reputation for an intelligence of touch and composure in front of goal already earned in a previous loan spell in 1995. He would join on a permanent basis in the summer of 1997 as John McGovern's first signing. Unexpectedly, Darran Hay was loaned back to Cambridge United, Chapple hoping that full-time training would restore bite to what had been a somewhat leaden-footed start. He was back within a month. Shane was just Shane: economical, perceptive, reassuring.
Grazioli remains, even after the removal of rose-tinted spectacles, the missing piece of the jigsaw. Itís unlikely, given the accusations of general amateurism and apathy that have often since been levelled at the 96/97 set-up, that one player could have lifted this ultimately flawed group of players to the levels of congruity that a serious championship tilt requires. But the sheer potency of Grazioli's six-game Woking career still leaves you wondering, particularly given his subsequent contribution to Stevenage's skirmish with Newcastle a year later and a career in which he consistently simply scored goals. Four days after his debut, Grazioli netted a hat-trick on an afternoon of bad-tempered brouhaha at The Shay, which ended with both the travelling faithful and the officials beating a hurried retreat amid some fairly injurious antics from the locals.
A third successive win was secured at Kingfield the following weekend. A crowd just shy of 3000 saw Grazioli and Walker score against a Kettering side for whom former-Card Richard Nugent (remembered more amongst all those who saw it for his very public and hilariously unsuccessful attempt to exit Broadhall Way discreetly, following his sending-off in the 1995 FA Trophy tie, via a locked gate behind the terrace than a one-season Woking career) had headed an equaliser. It had been a significant week for both clubs, Kettering disposing of the services of one Gary Johnson, later to lead Bristol City to within one game of the Premiership, but who, following his dismissal, took refuge as Watford's Youth Academy Director. Latvia called within two years: it would be a long and curious route to public consciousness.
The Cards had drawn Millwall in the First Round of the FA Cup, then leading the Second Division under the stewardship of Jimmy Nicholl. And, as the clamour for the management committee to bankroll the permanent signing of Giuliano Grazioli grew (fuelled further by two goals in a 3-0 win at Stevenage followed by a significant contribution towards a 3-1 home success over Northwich, watched by 3091), Kingfield prepared for the SKY cameras and a cup run in which results and accomplishment threatened to eclipse all previous adventures
A Favourite Goal
In later years the BGF described it as one of his favourite goals, perhaps because it encapsulated much that was engaging about his team's underpinning ideals. From my altitudinous station in the LGS, it was simply vintage Clive Walker (pictured): nutmegs full back, brief burst of speed, deep, immaculate cross to the far post to meet Steve Foster's head. It was two minutes into the Cards' FA Cup First Round game with Millwall, Friday 15th November, 1997. Net billows, and around me there's the incredulous, wild-eyed celebration of the Unexpected Early Goal (though, this being the LGS, the rejoicing is reined in by the bearings-finding of many of its twice-a-year Kingfield day-trippers, all Wembley '94 scarves and disorientation). It's respectful mental. Way in the distance my envious eyes watch the KRE properly let go: a narrow, cavorting Stella Artois and floodlit-Friday FA Cup-fuelled strip of uproarious life.
Cup runs, remember them? Fairly unlikely for followers of the post-McGovern era, I suppose. I appreciate that this must be absolutely infuriating for those who haven't lived it. Firstly, because fattening, responsibility-enchained thirty-somethings like myself have a tendency to over-egg the whole thing with an extraordinary smugness. Secondly, largely because of what the intervening years have brought us, it is so difficult to shake off this cynicism.
An Exceptional Side - On Their Day
But, over a decade later, the facts are incontestable. The Woking side that drew 2-2 that evening were, when the mood took them, exceptional. Sadly, the mood took them fairly infrequently, and for much of the rest of the season they were abysmal. Kingfield, aside maybe from the last day Telford bacon-saving in '03, has never really been that hugely lovable pot of boisterous provincial eccentricity since. So, it's the fault of Steve Foster's back-post header against Millwall really. Not mortgages, baby-induced sleep-deprivation, two-hour commutes, eleven-hour working days, credit cards, school league tables, too much Stella and too-little exercise. Steve Foster. Header. Far-post. Two minutes in. He started it. So, those Children of Cockerill, Gray and Grant, those of you that saw only the second coming of Chapple (and saw the rest of us looking at him the way you do when you first notice your grandparents are forgetting your name), you must bear with us. This kind of misty-eyed remembrance will always be laced with over-indulgence. No amount of analysis can deny that mine eyes have seen the glory.
Foster's early goal was countered swiftly by a Millwall side whose followers packed the length of the CLT, a number shirtless against the freezing November night, all observed by a police helicopter that encircled Kingfield throughout. They led 2-1 at half-time. But the Cards, attacking the KRE, were excellent in the second-half, Walker's equaliser from the spot scant reward for their dominance. Overall, it was a performance of patient, passing football that earned much praise from those for whom Woking only annually pricked the consciousness (this being the ninth successive season in which they had reached the second round of the cup). Chapple's ruddy-faced pride, Walker's shiny-headed 'old-fashioned' wingplay: the bandwagon was rolling once more.
Pride was markedly absent the following Saturday as Woking drew 1-1 with doomed bottom-of-the-table Bath. Scott Steele rescued a point, then laid into the management via the local press with a frustration that would become commonplace by the end of the season.
The public airing of grievance was not restricted to an apparently disparate group of players, though. Colin Lippiatt countered criticism of his methods by threatening to jump ship to assist Graham Roberts in managing Kettering (a role Roberts later declined), declaring himself 'never, ever appreciated' and famously accusing his detractors of possessing a footballing knowledge that could be written 'on the back of a postage stamp'. Departing Colin Fielder pronounced himself 'deeply hurt' at being 'frozen out'. Meanwhile, the pursuit of Giuliano Grazioli seemed at an end, the £130,000 windfall from two televised games against Millwall perhaps sufficient for Barry Fry to up the asking price from £20,000 to £35,000 (plus, allegedly, all manner of bolt-ons). Not a proposal to which Phil Ledger and then-Finance Director Bill Sutton warmed.
So, amid apparent off-field turbulence, we headed for the New Den (mindful of flying masonry along the way). The side who did little to hide their disdain for the humdrum at Bath three days previously once again found their appetite for the grand. And what more glamorous location than Bermondsey in late November!
Millwall away remains one of my most intense memories of following this club. The performance, as was generally the case was when the team were motivated enough to try, constituted that absolute FA Cup amalgam of the courageous, professional and inspired. The Cards won by virtue of Clive Walker's early arrowed right-foot drive, from Tom Jones's alert eye-of-the-needle through ball. What remained was eighty minutes of stomach-churning tension pierced by the final whistle catharsis that became so addictive throughout that decade.
Crossing the Thames that evening brought the Cards' 1500 or so followers into territory that is very, uniquely parochial. Bussed in and out with precise co-ordination by the Met, we escaped with not only the win that our peerless FA Cup reputation demanded, but also relatively unscathed, aside from some minor cosmetic damage to the fleet of Joywheels coaches that Blue Saloon used to pull from the depths of their depot on such occasions.
For me, Millwall remains a recollection of authentic Kingfield-from-Kingfield, minus the 'bandwagonism' that pervaded much of the higher-profile exploits of the era. The venue perhaps discouraged all but the truly seasoned, and I remember the night surrounded by faces that I largely knew, united by the unremitting cocktail of noise, pride and apprehension. I recall my mate Jon and I passing the evening in a customary state of chain-smoking, vehemently foul-mouthed angst, with our respective fathers (now firmly relegated to a few rows behind) grumbling contentedly. The noise, and our sheer number and the magnitude of the result make you simply grateful that you experienced it.
Jon's father, Mike, died five years ago. Jon's boyhood affection for Chelsea took hold again when we became average and they became good. We keep in touch (indeed, the last time we spoke he was slumped, odd blue cocktail in hand, debating with me which Greene brother was worse, Dennis or Dave, on the occasion of his thirtieth birthday). My Dad still goes (indeed, a great deal more than I do), and if anything his propensity to watch live football and be wholeheartedly and joyously disgruntled by the whole experience has intensified with age, to the degree that he chose to forego my mother's life-long ambition, sixtieth birthday present, balloon flight to catch us beat Grays in September (to widespread condemnation but knowing acceptance from my family). Yet all of us - keeping my sentimentalism in check as best I can - will have nights like Millwall.
Ball Juggling Mockery
Woking kept up the pretence a little towards the end of November. Immediately following our stout-hearted efforts at the New Den, the Cards thumped Altrincham 7-1 to go third, a match notable not just for the comprehensive manner of the victory, but also Scott Steele's and Clive Walker's unforgettable, though not altogether morally palatable, ball-juggling mockery of their opponents. It was as high as Woking would go in league terms all season, their preoccupation with cups too strong an infatuation for a disaffected yet hugely talented group of players to withstand.
However, Woking exited the Spalding Cup to Welling, who included venerable ex-Cards Lennie Dennis and Barry Lakin, in midweek. This chameleonic side already had one eye predictably set on FA Cup Second Round opponents, Cambridge United.
The Cards were, again, brilliant at Cambridge, their noisy support packed behind the shallow terrace at the uncovered Allotment End of the Abbey Stadium. Our then-Third Division opponents were not the victims of some FA Cup sorcery or good fortune. Woking were outstanding from top to bottom: Laurence Batty (pictured) his ebullient, commanding best in goal, Kevan Brown and Steve Foster impeccable at the back, Steve Thompson magisterial in midfield, Scott Steele his impish best darting about 'in the hole'. The Cards' passage into the Third Round was achieved by Clive's curious and much-debated cross-cum-shot and cemented by Robin Taylor's close-range second. But Woking were dominant throughout, 'indestructible' as Stevie Foster's own chant would allude, a giant-killing achieved by the professional semi-professionals.