There are - with due deference to Mark Biggins and Dereck Brown - probably only two Woking players of the last thirty years whose talents I feel went beyond the distinguished to the truly exceptional. Tim Buzaglo was one, his rare gift of graceful, languid potency so at odds with his unassuming causal on-field persona still, in my opinion, makes him the most naturally gifted Card of our time. Clive Walker was the other.
Five years, unrelentingly dominant in the way that he combined an experience that betrayed and a fitness that belied his advancing years. Without his ability to cross and shoot with routine two-footed accuracy, without his utter commitment to beating his man on the outside with pace and cunning, our achievements at this point in our history would unquestionably have been fewer. And we undoubtedly adored him. His very presence enhanced the feeling that we were, at times, untouchable as an attacking force. Simultaneously, the knowledge that being terrorised by a balding, weathered old-stager aggravated the hell out of opponents was deeply satisfying.
Rocking The Boat
Fifteen years on from his last goal for the club, over twenty from when I first witnessed the deadly laid-back artistry that lay beneath the crazy bubble-perm, I retain a deep affection for Tim Buzaglo. He was, in essence, my first footballing love. Yet - and I know I am not altogether alone in this feeling - selfishly, shamelessly, profanely I only really liked what Clive did for us. And if I am honest I know that this unforgivable smidgen of indifference was born in about November 1996, when Walker first started rocking an already unsteady ship by handing in a transfer request in the midst of the cup run.
In truth, he had strong arguments. At 39, his thoughts were inevitably turning to a time when he could no longer beat that full back over five yards. In addition, his patience must have been stretched by the contrast between an exacting individual professionalism and the club's ever-more marked lack of it. The player-coaching carrot that Rushden dangled was eventually bludgeoned at the creaking stick of the management committee, but not before the affair had been debated abjectly and grubbily in the press for five weeks. Max Griggs accused Woking of 'diabolical' amateurism in their handling of the situation, Phil Ledger countered by asserting that 'money cannot buy you everything'. Chapple was predictably detached and defensive, whilst Lawrence Batty - self-appointed spokesman for Walker's playing colleagues - appealed for a togetherness and reconciliation that by now seemed fantastical.
Already resigned to watching your club behave like a drunken loose-tongued relative at a wedding, you now watched Walker's discomfort through your hands. Hitherto outwardly restrained, his disquiet instead began manifesting itself in performance levels sliding from the routinely outstanding to half-heartedness. But here is my point, and why these years on I remain a Buzaglo man. To my mind, whatever frustrations he felt, the foundations on which his distinguished Woking career lay (namely the mastery that was so dependable) he allowed to slip. Rushden were, at the time, a kind of non-league Greggs the Bakers: shiny, snowballing, all-consuming but underneath it all a bit cheap, shallow and unpalatable. Village corner shop Woking were haphazard, but Clive's shock at our eccentricity seemed a little misplaced three years after his arrival. History will show that Walker played out the last few months of his Woking career veering between anonymity and brilliance, as frustrating to his public as he was exasperated himself. Walker was great for Woking. But - for all our shortcomings - it must be remembered that we were were just as good for him.
Besides, had he walked he would have missed Coventry, with whom we were paired in the Third Round draw in the week that we also squandered further league points at home to Halifax. In the lead up to Christmas we had also fended off interest from Rushden in Andy Ellis, who had spent much of the last seven or eight weeks passive-smoking the BFG's Benson & Hedges on the bench. Another who had briefly fallen out of favour was Junior Hunter, our increasingly erratic jet-booted centre forward. However, Junior returned to score twice as the Cards assumed a winning position on Boxing Day at a decidedly inhospitable Hayes. But slapdash Cards lost 3-2, and the Conference hopes that had been briefly revived in October, were pretty much finished amongst a barrage of acrimonious finger-pointing.
Perversely, a month in which the Cards played just two games proved the most significant of a fateful campaign. 1997 began with yet more evidence of gaping internal division as both training ground atmosphere and English winter turned decidedly cold. Woking had seen out the old year with a 2-0 home win over Slough; it would be over three weeks before the weather would allow them to play again.
The second postponement of the FA Cup tie against Coventry caused a great furore later in the month, but it is worth remembering that even the first cancellation - on 4 January - was not without incident. The game was called off at 3.30pm on the Friday, ninety minutes after a team coach containing just four players (the rest prudently awaiting the outcome of a planned pitch inspection) departed Kingfield. Inexplicably, even after the news of the inevitable postponement came through, the quartet were still driven on to their accommodation just outside Coventry. It was a curious episode, and more ammunition for a vocal dressing room clique already riled by another peculiar off-field development.
Amid the bitterness of Clive Walker's on-off move to Rushden, Chapple had firmly asserted that there was 'no coaching role available'. Yet sessions were now being jointly taken by Colin Lippiatt and midfielder Tom Jones. In what capacity Jones was working was fantastically vague, with senior players adamant that they had been told that he had been appointed till the end of the season. Chapple insisted that "Colin Lippiatt is the coach and we don't need another one," whilst Lippiatt himself seemed plain confused, admitting that he 'might have got his words slightly wrong', when explaining the decision to the squad. Whatever the agreement, it was an explicit snub to Walker and, perhaps, the beginning of an acceleration of a wider loss of faith in the management team. In basic terms, things were running away with them.
History reveals a notable contradiction. Colin Lippiatt's success at St.Albans and Yeovil, and the rescue act he performed at Kingfield using little more than raw enthusiasm and nous at the end of 1998/99 are at odds with the picture of the gaffe-prone vilified coach of 1997. Crucially non-threatening to his manager, Colin seemed overwhelmed by the demands of a tide of wily ex-pros; yet there are few who seem to command greater deference or affection within this level of the game today.
So, amid this self-created muddle a glum and rusty Cards and some 5000 followers then endured the misery of the eleventh-hour postponement of the re-scheduled midweek Coventry game. Having battled through hours of freezing motorway fog, Cards fans who made it through the turnstiles offered referee Gerald Ashby several solutions as to where he could relocate the 'long hard strip down the middle of the pitch' about which only he appeared concerned, before they trudged forlornly back to their awaiting transport. There was criticism also for a Premiership club who dismissed an afternoon pitch inspection offered by a local referee with unthinking abandon. The wretchedness of the night, however, would only heighten the euphoria of what we would achieve on our return ten days later.
Preparing For Coventry
The following Sunday the Cards began their assault on the Trophy with a solitary Thommo goal enough to see off Derek Cottrell's Wokingham. Although much of Woking's sluggish performance could be attributed to their unavoidable lay-off, another spluttering afternoon in attack (where Darran Hay had failed to score since November) regrettably only served to hasten the arrival of one Justin Jackson. The BFG had crow-barred open club coffers to acquire the 21 year-old from Morecambe, where a supposed blend of pace and productivity (we only saw the former), along with nineteen goals (we saw four in nine months), ensured a £35,000 price tag. Joylessly, more of him later.
And then - like an island of Dereck Browns in a sea of Phil Gridelets - at the third attempt, there was Coventry.
One thing that troubles me slightly about this series of incoherent ramblings is that I may come across in any way as bitter or resentful. A little frustration remains, even after all this time, that this side was so capable yet so discordant. That they achieved what they achieved amid the deafening disharmony remains remarkable. Their disintegration may have started the Club's downward spiral, but it was our utter unpreparedness that fuelled it.
So, if my tone is cynical or weary, it's not because I don't wholeheartedly appreciate that this dissonant group of players were occasionally truly exceptional. It is more a realisation that their brilliance was so intense - as it was at Highfield Road on 25 January 1997 - as to make the surrounding unremarkable so rueful. For all their deficiencies, how can you remain rancorous when they gave us afternoons like Coventry?
Provoke the nostalgic in any Cards fan of a certain age and triumphant FA Cup moments of the 90s will invariably come tumbling at you like 'terrifics' in a Glenn Cockerill post-match interview. Slough, Kidderminster, Bath, Yeovil, Barnet (twice), Merthyr, Brighton, Windsor, Millwall and Cambridge each hold a notable place in our hearts. But it is the other-worldliness of the Hawthorns, the affecting foggy romance of Goodison, and then Coventry that remain the glorious clunking heavyweights of Woking retrospection.
We each have snapshots of these occasions that remain with us, and their abundance is the greatest testimonial to the BFG era. We all know that, after a performance of measured assurance, Thommo's scruffily-finished but patiently-crafted 89th minute equaliser brought about a Kingfield replay that the downright quality of our game completely merited. We can all recall a defensive performance of unparalleled courage, in which Laurence's lovably rotund poise was illimitable. Individual to us are simply our personal freeze-frames, set amid the context of our lives, of which the prodding of your remembrance of this afternoon I hope you are indulging as you read this.
Mine, above all else, is this: being conscious of regaining some degree of composure roughly ten minutes after we had scored, propelled as I was by one of the few moments (Colin Fielder's goal at Wembley is one, Robbie Carroll's winner against Nuneaton another) when my delirium took on an unearthly nature when I simply couldn't remember how I ended up where I ended up.
"Thommo sliding in to lift the ball over Ogrizovic"
Until a photo of my godson took its place in a nod towards my supposed maturity, that picture hung in my downstairs toilet for a good three or four years. Users of my facilities were looked down upon by the glum faces of Steve Ogrizovic and Brian Burrows whilst Thommo reels away in the background post-that goal. I still possess pretty much every Sunday newspaper from 26 January 1997, most of which carry either that iconic Woking image, or that of Thommo sliding in to lift the ball over Ogrizovic, or a combination of Thommo, Scott, Fozzie, Clive and Terry Howard cavorting like loons behind the goal. Somewhere in my Dad's attic is the video of Match of the Day for that Saturday evening, which I know will confirm Lol as Match of the Day's Man of the Day, and will focus upon the deliberate way in which our absolute commitment to passing the ball led to the equaliser.
I recall also drunkenly approaching Scott Steele in Cinderellas nightclub the following Monday night because I had to (simply, had to) thank him for his efforts, fuelled as I was by umpteen plastic glasses of watered-down pound-a-pint Castlemaine XXXX. I recall also his mixture of apprehension and modesty as I lurched towards him, slurring accolades, and the noble way in which he offered this starry-eyed buffoon a drink.
Despite the way in the Club tainted this moment of triumph with wonderfully chaotic ticketing arrangements for the replay. Despite the team flaunting its utter lack of appetite for the ordinary by losing to Hednesford the following week. Despite a marked public lack of respect to their opponents in the build-up to the replay. Despite the general backdrop of this unravelling season, close on 5000 of our footballing lives were enriched by the enduring images of this afternoon. Whatever else this Club has done to us since, I remain grateful for that.