Personifying this disintegrating yet brilliant team remains an unachievable task. The closest I can probably get is some kind of lunatic, tormenting high-maintenance divorcee girlfriend. Woking were - in not always equal measure - devastating yet irrational, but always overwhelmingly draining on both emotion and wallet. In public they were impeccable, their brand of patented pass-and-move a continued drug for the floating addict. Away from the jovial glare of the FA Cup day-tripper they were maddening, sulky, apathetic.
A week after the prodigious high of Coventry (and, perhaps more tellingly, three days before the replay) they lost, ingloriously and lethargically at Hednesford, Record-signing Justin Jackson's debut was - reflecting his thankfully brief Woking career as a whole - flat and somewhat pointless. With the team now set into a rhythm of light and shade, off-the-field arrangements for the Kingfield cup replay were comfortingly chaotic. The management committee felt the wrath of the fair-weather fan when ticketing strategy collapsed. In addition, whilst committee members were allocated twenty tickets each, players received only ten, creating what the ever-strident Lawrence Batty deemed a 'tense them-and-us situation'. The club managed to fall gloriously out-of-bed with major sponsors Fox Garage too, whose hierarchy boycotted the game over the club's clunking maladroitness. As the team and its management stumbled towards foreboding Summer crossroads, so did the long-established yet creaking structure of the club itself.
And then, amid the distraction, as ever in this frankly cock-eyed campaign, there was another occasion of brilliant significance in the club's history. One persistently troubling aspect of writing this is that, not only does it bring alarmingly home to me my age and the now-distance of my most intimate times with my club, it also alienates and bores anyone - at a rough calculation - of twenty and below. My first properly ingrained Woking memory is Mark Dawber's winner against Weymouth in '86, when I would have been eight. Therefore these reminiscences either spark the kind of childhood fondness with which I recall waiting patiently for Peter Bonnetti's autograph or the authentic euphoria that I felt after Dave Lansley's late equaliser in the next round against Chelmsford, or completely baffle the Cards fan in his late teens for whom Neil Smith is in some unfathomable way legendary. If a Kingfield night like Coventry was your baptism then I simultaneously salute your fortune at your indoctrination at our zenith, whilst expressing my most heartfelt regret that we sucked you in at your most impressionable, then subjected you to what I need only describe as The Last Twelve Years.
We all, as I attempted no doubt unsuccessfully to stress previously when describing these moments of isolated legend, have memories of evenings like the Coventry replay that are deeply, lyrically personal. Mine are set against a backdrop of a teeming, uniquely cramped floodlit Kingfield, crammed and pulsing in a way that I may never experience again in my lifetime. The audible thud as Gary McAllister's free-kick veered off Kevan Brown's shin and wrong-footed Lawrence to allow the bandy-legged talent void that was Noel Whelan to gleefully edge Coventry in front. The universal clench-fisted animation of a positively heaving Moaners when Darren Huckerby and Brownie enjoyed a touch of first-half-handbags. The way Scottie adjusted his body to sidefoot home Clive's cross for an equaliser that our period of wonderfully patient and commendable tide-turning merited and the extraordinary surge of the KRE that greeted it. The one snapshot of second-half Clive Walker wingplay which ended with Steve Ogrizovic turning his shot over the bar: his Woking career in resplendent microcosm. The detached agony of Steve Foster's own goal and the rush of sadness at the final whistle that this ill-fortune has been visited on a player of such consistent excellency. And the insuperable pride in what we had achieved.
Its difficult not to see 4th February 1997 as, simply, As Good As It Got. In many ways, I hate it. I disliked the way in which our ungracious post-match response to the defeat provoked Gary McAllister and Gordon Strachan into wading into our dressing room. I was antagonised by the screaming underlining of the fact that we were brilliant only when we could be bothered. I was increasingly, childishly uncomfortable at the way in which the team was pulling against a manager who I could see was slowly losing his grip but that I still loved for all that he had given us. So if Woking were some head-turning yet slightly unhinged older woman, then the Coventry replay was the romantic weekend that made you realise that, deep-down, as infatuated as you were, it was surely over. And that reality is one from which you still await recovery.
Post-Coventry, the speed with which Woking's ageing squad moved towards their summer of reckoning increased alarmingly. The end of the cup run was the pint that tipped them over the edge of sobriety. Ever more loose-tongued and careless, they dad-danced their way through the rest of the Conference campaign, picking fights and injuring themselves along the way, before pouring themselves unceremoniously into a taxi by the end of May; awoken startled, trouserless and hungover in June by a displeased-looking Scotsman jangling the keys of a sponsored Vauxhall Vectra and muttering about discipline and honesty.
In retrospect, the game was up by mid-February; and few were making any particular effort to conceal it. Clive Walker, chipping away very slightly at the affection in which he was held, helpfully suggested that 'it does look like the club is falling apart', whilst Andy Ellis - who very nearly left the club for Brian McDermott's Slough - bemoaned a lack of 'motivation and enthusiasm'. Ellis's own Woking career was, arguably, saved by injury late that month to Tom Jones. He returned to the side in Jones's place at Bromsgrove and, by and large, stayed there until the end of the season. Home league defeat by Southport prompted a counter-blast from the BFG, who attacked both the lackadaisical attitude of the players and the 'unbelievable foul-mouthed' abuse of a faction of the evermore restless Management Committee.
The always-expressive Laurence Batty had his usual stab at the middle ground, but failed to suppress a general vexation. It was difficult not to sympathise with Lol, who reportedly conducted a one-man post-match dressing-room dissection of the Cards' latest non-performance. His vocalised disgruntlement at supposedly haphazard and poorly-attended practice sessions was born, at least partly, of a great warmth for the club he had served so well. However, perhaps it was only he (with a canny awareness of his almost unique rapport with the Kingfield faithful) that could have escaped such a public outpouring with little more than curt instruction from the BFG to 'button his lip'
Absence Of Pride
There were many factors contributing to this rapid and tempestuous self-destruction. The playing staff must - irrespective of the patent reasons for their discontent - concede some responsibility for a frequently displayed lack of motivation. An absence of (semi-) professional pride became habitual in the final four months of the season. The Club, and more notably its management team, were guilty most greatly of shabbiness in both method and communication. Rumours of cringeworthy training-ground dilettantism were too widespread to be wholly unfounded. My personal favourites included the session allegedly conducted with one, panel-less football found in the boot of Colin Lippiatt's car; and the get-together aborted when the club barred the players from using the Kingfield penalty areas.
The pace with which Woking developed from the late eighties onwards had always threatened to overtake its ability to manage its own success. 1996/1997 saw that pace of progression finally scream past the meritorious amateur ideals that had served this modest suburban club for decades. Neither the BFG, principal architect of this uncontrollable ascent, nor the Management Committee, could hold back the surge of achievement any longer. The players, for their part, let off the handbrake and pushed it down the hill.
Wembley Again But...
We would, of course, with a ridiculous combination of determination and brilliance, still have the purposefulness to negotiate a further passage to Wembley in the FA Trophy. With the contracts of Walker, Thompson, Batty, Steele, Hay, Taylor and Lloyd Wye amongst others due for close-season renewal this was to be one last magnificent collective tilt for these accomplished yet indifferent thirty-somethings. It was, however, very nearly over before it had begun. Only Batty's magnificence denied St Albans a Second Round win on the Saturday after the Coventry replay. Justin Jackson scored (re-paying at a rate of approximately £8500 per goal) as the Cards won 3-1 at the second attempt.
After Southport (watched by close on 3000), February ended with bitter-sweet victory at Bromsgrove, where Walker's brace brought about a first league win of 1997 but was overshadowed by Batty fracturing a hand in saving a late penalty. And after Bromsgrove there was March: a largely uneventful month that would see the recruitment of a goalkeeper on trial for match-rigging allegations, the abandonment of a home fixture following the partial collapse of the pitch, a touchline set-to on Tyneside and a Laurence Batty match-winner in front of 3500 at Kingfield.
So then, March. Firstly, you must remember that the month was played out to the now continual hum of disharmony. The Trophy was to breathe wheezing life back into the season, but it was the stumbling glassy eyed sentience of the desperate drinker at last orders, with a dispirited playing squad jostling shamelessly as they waved fivers at the barman.
The '94 and '95 runs have an intrinsic and durable charm. '97 was brutal, unpolished, less innocent somehow; with the Dagenham final a fittingly cheerless conclusion: hollow, unfullfilling. Yet our passage to Wembley in '97 was suitably reflective of a season of unrelenting theatre. No more so than at Dorchester, where the BFG spotlit the tie with a piece of pre-match wheeler-dealing that was simply unexampled Chapple.
With Lawrence Batty injured he procured the services of one Hans Segers, on non-contract forms from Wolves. Segers somewhat erratic performance was perhaps forgiveable given the distraction of his high-profile entanglement in match fixings charges. He, and Woking, wobbled wildly in hostile Dorset, gifting the hosts one goal, conceding, then saving, then being beaten by the rebound for their second. He bickered, memorably, with Premiership referee Mike Reed (recovering, himself, from the furore of a headline penalty award that gifted Chelsea FA Cup victory over Leicester in midweek). Then - after reacting somewhat provocatively to Scott Steele's 87th minute goal - Segers was confronted in his penalty area by a finger-wagging member of the local constabulary, admonishing him for inciting 'near riot'. Cards, courtesy of Steele's late and somewhat fortuitous intervention, won 3-2 with a display of admirable and largely uncharacteristic fortitude.
By the visit of Hayes the following Tuesday Segers had departed, his trial at Winchester Court having collapsed. Dorchester, meanwhile, much to the annoyance of the BFG ("their manager rang me on Tuesday to say 'well done' but didn't tell me the £25 cheque for an appeal was in the post to the FA") protested that discrepancies existed with Segers registration. The authorities dismissed the accusation. His place against Terry Brown's Hayes was taken by Paul Hyde, signed on a match-to-match basis from Martin O'Neill's Leicester (the manager for whom he won the title in Woking's inaugural Conference season of 1992/93). Hyde, and indeed the match, failed to last.
The Hayes game, you will recall, was abandoned twenty minutes in. Not for Woking - in this campaign of the bizarre - your standard floodlight failure or unplayable pitch. Instead, to simple bemusement, due to the emergence of a hole in the playing surface. Said hole first swallowed Kevan Brown's right leg, prompting the initial stoppage and nonplussed assessment from the officials. Further scrutinization by various parties followed. Large quantities of soil were deposited into the hole. Derek Powell shot , besuited and authoritatively from the bowels of the main stand with indelible valour, carrying a large bucket of sand, which the offending cavity sadly engorged. Some twenty minutes of general head-scratching passed. Geoff lit a Benson. In retrospect, this oddly comical evening sits comfortably, unremarkable in the overall narrative of the campaign. If Hattie Jacques had emerged from Moaners pushing Charles Hawtree's hospital bed pursued by a bedpan wielding Bernard Breslaw we would have shaken our heads and tutted quietly. As it was, somebody turned out the lights, and we all went home.
News of this peculiar curtailment brought widespread chuckling publicity, most of it accompanied by pictures of BFG stood waist deep and smiling in the hole. Collapsing drainage beneath the hallowed turf, it transpired, was responsible.
Cards made the 320 mile trip North to Gateshead the following Saturday, allowing adequate time for necessary reconstruction at Kingfield. The team, however, was past repair. Trailing 3-0 at half-time they pulled two back through Walker and Hay (his first - for those requiring evidence that his prolificity was sporadic - since November). But it was dismal, and made gloomier still by Tom Jones' sending-off and the threat of a £40,000 FA fine for failing to control our players in its aftermath. Colin Lippiatt - particularly riled - was embrangled in a bit of post-match push-and-shove in the tunnel. The month was still only eight days old.