I prefer to look upon the remainder of Woking's league season as an episode of Celebrity Dancing on Ice that my wife has Sky-Plus-ed but then proceeds to slumber her way through. Largely, it was spirit-crushing and vacuous viewing, best enjoyed on fast-forward (a technique I have developed to hoodwink my dozing other half into thinking she has been asleep for considerably longer than the two minutes it has taken me to scoot through half-an-hour of inane Z-list buffoonery). However, like the occasional instance of sequin-clad contortioned indecency from Melinda Messenger, the Cards still provoked the odd moment of head-tilting interest.
I have, perhaps, made too much of the self-inflicted nature of the breakdown of this side. There is little doubt that, even before the Dagenham Final, much of the uncertainty that surrounded both individual and collective futures was reflected strongly in the side's form. The Cards won just two of their final nine league games. But even after elimination from the FA Cup in February league form was more strongly influenced by a poverty of options than this general disaffection. By mid-April Barry Kimber installed a delicatessen ticketing system in the Kingfield treatment room.
The dishevelled Cards scraped a late draw with Gateshead at Kingfield the weekend after Watford, Steve Foster significantly claiming the equaliser over Justin Jackson, whose goal-line toe-poke carried equal validity. The attributes which prompted the BFG to so determinedly pursue Jackson were not imperceptible. Yet whereas previously he thrived on service into the channels (and would again, particularly when he and Duane Darby tormented an admittedly awful Woking defence several years later for Rushden & Diamonds), his game was patently ill-suited to our brand of metronomic passing. He was, in every sense, a misfit, and neither the Cards nor he had the wherewithal to adapt. The last game in April saw this general disharmony flare grubbily at Nene Park.
Jackson scored in a 1-1 draw, but the uncomfortable and tangible lack of enthusiasm from his colleagues that met his goal was striking. The whiff of animosity later became a stench when he and Walker testily confronted each other mid-pitch. Both the BFG and Clive were decidedly cagey after the event, Walker perhaps ruing his uncharacteristic loss of sangfroid. Jackson was the kid at school who smells faintly musty and kept pungent fish-paste sandwiches in a Tesco carrier bag; he would be gone by the autumn.
Mistrust Of Youth?
Amidst a ludicrous run of five games in ten days champions-elect Macclesfield - beaten at Kingfield the previous spring in arguably the single most enthralling game of our Conference history - emphasised the clubs' contrasting sense of subsequent purpose to unceremoniously spank a patchwork Woking 5-0. Although a side which included bit-parters John Gregory, Lloyd Wye and Junior Hunter held out to 1-0 until late on, they then conceded four more in a five minute spell of frantic ineptitude that would take Lee Sandford and his fellow Black September clodhoppers another five years to spectacularly replicate.
A frequently-levelled criticism of the BFG throughout the latter years of his tenure was his utter mistrust of the youth of the club (largely because there often wasn't any to blood). But as we weaved red-faced toward the finishing line like a well-intentioned wheezing fun-running middle manager in a Bernie Clifton ostrich costume, he had little choice. Ben Kamara, Aiden Kilner and Kevin Betsy (whose emergence the following season was the one positive legacy of the John McGovern era) all featured and impressed in away wins at Farnborough and Northwich. The Cards were perhaps at their most makeshift at Cherrywood Road, to the degree that Junior Hunter's unique gift for ferocious-paced anarchic crazed trickery was employed at right-back. Kilner, then 19, scored at Northwich and showed sufficient technique and craft to warrant greater endeavour to tame a slightly fractious temperament. He was released at the end of May - eyebrow piercing and all - despite the BFG resorting to 'meeting his mum' in an effort to harness his talent.
This fleeting youthful encouragement aside, the Cards finished with all the drive and energy of a heavily-sedated Phil Gridelet tethered to a punch-drunk Wayne Sutton bump-starting a milkfloat. They lost their final two fixtures: 4-1 at Southport and then, in a creditable attempt to drum any semblance of twin towers-centred anticipation out of us, 2-1 at home to Morecambe, who nicked fourth place on an afternoon when the BFG was famously absent 'scouting'. Uneasy, preoccupied, Woking were still a fortnight from Wembley.
The severity of contrast between our current predicament and way back then is something which, if you pause a little too long than is good for you, hits you with the ungovernable force of an Eddie Saunders clearance.
I have tried, though probably utterly unsuccessfully, not to meander unthinkingly toward unnecessary sentimentality. Yet it was an effort, as the sweeping rain clattered through the gap at the end of the KRE roof onto the huddled, dwindling and endlessly accepting congregation at the Kidderminster game last week, not to collapse under the sheer comical anguish of it all. It was also, as I grumpily pondered the £12 hole in my pocket and negotiated the waterlogged assault course that was Westfield Avenue on my way back to the car, difficult to dismiss the sense of ingratitude that I've been feeling. This is, certainly for me, one of the main factors that leaves me frustratingly and tetchily trussed to this Club: that for the decade of pretty much unremitting happiness that Woking visited upon me, I owe them now at the least my - albeit morose and mainly silent - support.
The End Of Something
Ingratitude, because when I reflect upon our third Wembley visit of the nineties I still can't register any particular affection. The Dagenham final was contested between a Woking team I had grown to mistrust and a club whic it was compulsory to dislike. It was, through the mild haze of pre-match drink, an empty game won by Darran Hay's extra-time header from Clive Walker's expertly-flighted corner. This, after Paul Gothard had spent much of the afternoon repelling the best that a weary and heavy-hearted Cards could throw at him, and any real degree of competitiveness had been removed by Tony Rogers's sending-off.
My indissoluble memory of the day is a courageous but ultimately futile attempt to try and enjoy myself. We drank too much in a number of Baker Street pubs and chanted loutishly and at embarrassing volume on the tube (I still recall the general discomfort of the casual hangers-on in our group, and remember also not much caring about it). I bellowed myself hoarse with false excitement during a turgid final of crippling slowness. I celebrated Darran's goal with a feigned hysteria which did little to dull my feeling that we had been a ridiculously long time scoring it. I tried unsuccessfully to find the lump-in-throat emotion at the end that had reduced me to a damp-eyed smiling fool after the Runcorn and Kidderminster finals. Yet all I remember being aware of, as we walked back to Wembley Park in the May sunshine that Sunday afternoon, was the sense that I had just experienced the end of something. And, whereas the palpable magic and elation of our 94 and 95 wins lifted me up and carried me drunk with goofy happiness all the way through to the following season, the joy of 97 began to dissolve by the time I reached Guildford Station.
Not The Whole Story
There is, of course, more than a suspicion that a little of this gloominess has grown legs and sprinted away with the hindsight of what befell us. Had we not made the first of many subsequent catastrophic managerial appointments weeks later, then Wembley 97 would not be so much a watershed as a momentary shift in the pace of our upward trajectory as a club. Had the figurehead upon whose unfathomable genius we had so merrily ridden for so long not walked away, then maybe that faltering momentum might have been restored by the injection of another Friel or Walker: the kind of determining BFG moment of untouchable percipience that banished doubts at previously uncertain times and made your loss of belief look comfortingly stupid. This pivotal afternoon in North London ripples negatively through our most recent history to the relegation gloop we once again find ourselves wading through today. Yet only its roots lay twelve years ago, not the innumerable factors that have fed them.
Because, however glumly I look back upon the completion of our Wembley hat-trick, I know that I do so partly because we were all horrifically spoilt. And, as you tried to find a patch on the KRE a week last Tuesday where the rain wouldn't soak you, and the gallows humour that pervades dissected Liam Marum's novel attempt at curling the ball around the goalkeeper via the bus stop on Kingfield Road, that fact could not have been more pronounced.
I still don't think that the motivation at boardroom level was wholeheartedly wrong. Ambition isn't always indecent. But, as we found to our cost again in September, sometimes dreams taste better when diluted by a little realism. Nor do I think that, if we hadn't pursued the introduction of that absent professionalism so single-mindedly, then the BFG wouldn't have walked anyway. In truth, things had probably run their course already. There were times in preceding years when faithlessness surfaced (perhaps most notably in the summer of '92.). Unease, however, was generally allayed by the BFG's repeated and peerless ability to re-build with principled acumen. But our soulless Wembley win of '97 was ineffectual in defeating these latest anxieties. Our problems were too rooted this time. Compelling change seemed inescapable.
If you set aside the personalities as best you can, there are two underpinning truths to the events of June 1997. The first is that we were unwilling to provide the certainty that the manager desired at this point in his, and more specifically his family's, life. The second was that something needed to happen, though none of us were really sure what. The facts are that the BFG resigned on 5 June, four days after Jon Davies's appointment as chairman. And, whatever your beliefs then or now, the infinite conjecture about the impulsions of the two men, the conflict of personal interest and perceived standings within the Club as a whole, the one factor that probably did more to shape our recent destiny is this: three weeks later we had appointed John McGovern. The Chapple era had to end. It is whom we chose to start the next with that trickles dolefully down the emptiness of the last twelve years.
Debating McGovern's impact might be seen as an irrelevance in the general context of a narrative about this particular campaign. Some cite (albeit to general derision) his record in his one full season in which we finished two places higher that we did in Chapple's last; his nurturing of Kevin Betsy and the more understated success of Micky Danzey and Steve West. But the relevance of McGovern's tenure to the BFG's final campaign is not the sparse smattering of minor positives he facilitated in his attempts to bring order to the relative chaos which he inherited, but the obscene haste in which he mindlessly stripped away the principles that had sustained us since the mid-eighties. Not much more than a year after our most celebrated manager departed, his successor had systematically and irreparably dismantled much that he had built. Until Kim Grant, it stood alone as a catastrophically bad appointment.
Sense Of Loss
The summer of '97 ushered in curious new feelings amongst the faithful. Our club seemed suddenly more precarious, and however hard we tried to embrace the outward sense of purpose that it projected, the trepidation made you disorientated. There was an abrupt recognition that we would now be ridiculously blessed to keep striding forwards. There was also an ineluctable grief for good times lost. Kingfield felt like someone had changed the locks.
What followed was akin to selling the 1952 Series 1 Jaguar E-Type that had thrown you merrily around corners with endearing, break-neck eccentricity and poise for the last decade, and replacing it with a Mk 5 Escort that smelt faintly of sour milk, faded vanilla-scent air freshener and unwashed sales rep. One season of dour Scot later and bits were falling off it and the bumper was cracked where we'd hit a post in Tesco's car park. There's a simple symmetry to it really. Twelve years ago Jon Davies sought steely professionalism in the face of Chapple's all-too-brittle brilliance. He got McGovern. Last August David Taylor pursued bold bellowing attacking insurgency to contrast the shrug-shouldered mediocrity of Frank Gray. He got Grant. Noble objectives both, but if you go to Blockbusters looking for something highbrow, thought-provoking, subtitled and preferably Hungarian you don't come out clutching The Chuckle Brothers Summer Roadshow. We didn't need revolution. We needed someone who was any good.
Our relationship is different now, Woking and me. Altered, probably, from the moment the BFG left first time around. There ended my dependence on them. There also, I suppose, concluded the simplicity of it. We tolerate each other now, but sleep in separate beds. But we nevertheless cohabit and every now and again, share a reluctant, quickly-dismissed peck-on-the-cheek and secretly worry about each other's health. I despise and remain utterly in love with them in absurd equal measure. 96/97 was, in its fantastic, glorious and preposterous poignancy, everything that feeds that infatuation.