Neil concludes his review of the 1996-97 season with a look at the fortunes of Woking's rivals in that eventful campaign
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Promotion And Relegation
- Macclesfield Town (to the Football League Third Division)
- Leek Town (from the Northern Premier League)
- Cheltenham Town (from the Southern Premier League)
- Yeovil Town (from the Isthmian League)
- Hereford United (from the Football League Third Division)
- Bath City (to the Southern Premier League)
- Bromsgrove Rovers (to the Southern Premier League)
- Altrincham (to the Northern Premier League)
It took Macclesfield a year to recuperate after the Football League barred their entrance after their first title in 1994. The momentum of their 1996/97 success carried them through the Third Division in their first season, a level they briefly shared with Manchester City before the clubs exited via opposite ends of the table. Sammy McIlroy departed to manage Northern Ireland in '99, and though they will begin a thirteenth year as a league club in August, it was an end to this traditionally non-league heavyweight's most successful era. Pre-play-offs, runners-up Kidderminster had to wait to 2000 for their promotion under Jan Molby. They were back five seasons later but are knocking fairly forcefully on the door again this spring.
Other notable escapees were Morecambe; fourth in this only their second campaign at Conference level, Play-Off winners a decade later under McIlroy; reward for a dedication to aesthetically-pleasing football (mainly under the excellent Jim Harvey). Rushden's cash-heavy juggernaut had only rolled in in August, and briefly threatened to stall altogether after a dreadful start. They revived to mid-table safety under Brian Talbot, who later won them an inevitable title in 2001; and later a further promotion to League Two. But minus Max Griggs's financial input they slipped quietly back five years later.
Perhaps the club who have endured most turmoil are the late Halifax Town, who narrowly avoided relegation, only to win a hugely unexpected championship the following year, inspired largely by the goals of Geoff Horsfield. They became the first club to be relegated twice to the Conference in 2002, eventually collapsing under the weight of tax debt last year before emerging as FC Halifax Town, three divisions below in the Northern Premier League Division One North. Of Town's fellow strugglers twelve years ago Altrincham have endured similar turmoil. Rock bottom in '97, they yo-yo'd between Conference North (or Northern Premier) until their last promotion in 2005. Then, despite three successive 'relegations', the demise of, first, Scarborough and Canvey Island, then Boston, then Halifax themselves last year maintained their present status. Bath City and Bromsgrove are yet to return. Rovers - promoted alongside the Cards in '92 and whose most successful era ran parallel with ours - seem unlikely to do so anytime soon, having free fallen through three divisions. Beset by obligatory financial woes, they play at Southern League Division One level in front of sub-400 crowds. Bath - stabilised after crippling money worries of their own - are nevertheless well-established at Conference South Level.
Telford United, 12th that year and one of the Conference's elder statesmen, ceased to be in 2004. Forced into liquidation, they stand to re-enter the top level next year after the swift ascent of the re-formed AFC Telford.
Others to fall through the trapdoor include Dover, 6th in 2000, relegated in 2002. Dropping two further divisions, they enter BSS next season revitalised as Ryman Premier Champions under Andy Hessenthaler. Boom and bust followed for Farnborough also, league opponents as recently as 2005. Farnborough Town suffered Westley, administration and liquidation, the re-formed Farnborough FC competitive again and vying for promotion to BSS. Gateshead enjoyed their last successful season at Conference level in 96/97, relegated the following year, but could return via the play-offs this May, which they may contest with Southport (relegated at our expense in 2003, then again in '07). Hayes - who survived at the top level until 2002 - could also return as Hayes & Yeading, play-off contenders as they are in Conference South. Welling (another playing just a division below us) lasted another two years. Stalybridge - alongside Bromsgrove the third newcomer in our inaugural season - fell back to the NPL in 1998, bouncing back for just one season in 2001.
Hednesford, another club with much mid-nineties outward ambition, peaked at 8th; beginning a descent which saw the loss of their Conference status in 2000. They now play in the NPL. Kettering and Northwich enjoyed lengthy unbroken spells in non-League's top flight, the latter ever present from the 1975 formation of the Alliance Premier to their voluntary demotion following administration in 2005. Whilst Kettering have re-established themselves as a force in the last twelve months, troubled Vics will drop again this year.
Slough's is perhaps the most chastening tale of all. Vibrant in the early to mid-nineties they were demoted in 1998 after refusing to meet ground grading requirements. From here they spiralled into the Isthmian League and administration, leaving their now derelict Wexham Park home, bottoming out in the Southern League Division One South & West where they groundshare with Beaconsfield SYCOB.
Which leaves us, standing these years later with our feet dangling over the precipice; seventeen years of unbroken membership of this competition resting on two games and events outside of our control in Essex, Dorset, Yorkshire and Cumbria. It's worth remembering that somewhere, underneath the rubble of this season, there's our football club. Perhaps it's as much about persistence and obduracy as it is stagnation and self-destruction. We might have been treading water for longer than is healthy, and it may well be that this time we are just too knackered to keep sucking air. If we do go under then - whilst our own role in our descent is undeniable - there might also be an element of natural gravitational pull. Glance quickly at the finishing table twelve years ago and many of the names are familiar. Only when you dissect it do you discover that (before this afternoon at least - and maybe a little longer) only ourselves and our friends from Hertfordshire remain a constant.
Wherever we end up, it would be nice to start in August without a heavy heart and trepidation. Keep the faith one and all.