Woking Football Club, The Laithwaite Community Stadium, Kingfield, Woking, Surrey, GU22 9AA01483 772470
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Woking History

A Season To Remember - 1996/97

By Neil Bennett

The following appeared in the matchday programme during the 2008/09 season.
With thanks to Mark Doyle for kindly providing the pictures.

Part Twelve

It is, ultimately, cyclical. Those around in the early eighties will remember a club at pretty much rock-bottom, fumbling its way around the pitch black of the lower reaches of the Isthmian in search of the light switch, cursing as we clumped our heads on Billericays, Purfleets and Wivenhoes. A decade later and we were almost at the front of the nightclub queue for the Football League, harbouring unrealistic expectations that our forged ID might steer us past the bouncers, full of puffed-up arrogance and chutzpah. And now here we are once again waiting for It (whatever It might be) - shuffling our feet and eyeing diffidently our indeterminate future. With only this unhappy love for the club which you can't shake - whatever indignities are thrown at us - and the exhausted insight that there must be good times again to sustain you. It is, as they say, the hope that kills you. Full circle.

Laboured Wins

I spout this over-analytical clap-trap, I suppose, to prove only a minor point. After ill-tempered defeat at Gateshead had seen them drop to ninth (ninth, ninth I say, oh for the grandeur of ninth!), Woking's next two fixtures were both at the - now fully restored - Kingfield against modest opposition. Welling (2-1 by virtue of goals from Jones and Hay) and Stalybridge (3-2 courtesy of Steve Thompson's 93rd minute goal) were both beaten. Yet both wins were uninspiring and laboured. The individual excellence of Steele and Hay built Woking a comfortable 2-0 lead against Stalybridge which their collective listlessness had contrived to surrender by the 87th minute. A typical piece of Thommo puff-cheeked propulsion, close control and economy of finish won the game in injury time, but the Cards were drifting. Even the impeccable Thompson now traded terse words with the management: "From a player's point of view, you've just got to go out and do your best and if other things are on players' minds then it shouldn't be. Although that might be hard for certain people." The BFG, from somewhere inside an increasing lonely portakabin, dismissed this latest public declaration of unrest as 'complete rubbish'.

Contrasting Times

But they were wins nevertheless (consecutive ones at that) and the impassioned reaction to merely the nature of them only underlines further how far we have allowed our expectations to slide these years later. The Welling game was watched by a Tuesday night crowd of 1664, our lowest attendance of the season, a figure that provoked head-shaking concern back then, but might prompt eye-brow raising contentment in these days of barely four-figure scraping. The reasons for this contrast in Kingfield's decade-apart attractions are many and complex: the relative affordability and generally good standard of viewing product, the five or six consistently outstanding players, fledgling Aldershot's relative anonymity. Mostly, there was still enough of a glow of parochial incorruptibility to warm you. And there was always a cup run bandwagon of some sort, spewing out the fumes of fervent intrigue that bound a consistently high level of support to the club for the best part of fifteen years. Until John McGovern and Southend killed it stone-dead later that year.

Woking's next opponents were Heybridge Swifts, managed by Gary Hill, in the Trophy Quarter Finals. Hill's side had disposed of Kidderminster (trading blows with Macclesfield at the top of the Conference) 3-0 in the previous round. The Cards would need to re-acquire at least some degree of backbone to proceed. Amid a bruisingly hostile Essex atmosphere the Cards found just such tenacity, winning 1-0 through Andy Ellis's second-half goal. Heybridge was uncomfortable, unpleasant, but further demonstration of Woking's untouchable supremacy as the cup side of the era.

Feet-Up Attitude

Supplementary proof came three days later when relegation-haunted Hayes exposed our 'feet-up' attitude towards the league, winning 2-1 in the fixture rearranged after subsidence stopped play earlier in the month. Their goalscorers included whirling maniacal future-Card Martin Randall, but it was a young Jason Roberts (at the start of a career which continues today in the Premiership for Blackburn) whose pace and directness most impressed.

The Heybridge win had teed up a semi-final with Stevenage, three games which would see our rivalry at its most intense. Two further league wins followed: 2-1 at Telford, then by the odd goal in three again, this time at home to Kidderminster. A Bank Holiday crowd of 3420 saw Laurence Batty (who had returned at Telford after able deputation from John Gregory) score from the spot in a game which elevated spirits as the Stevenage tie approached but also did much to scupper the visitors' pursuit of the title. If March had been epic, then April was biblical.

Part Thirteen

The 'Woking/Stevenage' Thing - particularly when the leaden melancholy that has immersed us this season contrasts so pointedly with the latest bout of chest-beating destiny-grasping in Hertfordshire - must be unfathomable to the outsider.

Boyd To Our Berquez

After all, genuinely meaningful confrontation, with both clubs at their vivid, strutting best ended the best part of a decade ago. We've had our moments since then (Fergie in the 88th) but largely we've been the footballing equivalent of a couple of middle-aged car salesmen who roll up their sports jacket sleeves in a sartorial nod to Chris de Burgh, ostentatiously read Men's Health in train carriages and keep a copy of Only by the Night in their Lexus which they only play when picking up their teenage son and his mates from parties. The difference post-Cockerill is that, whilst Stevenage have acquired a twenty-something's shark-fin haircut and a lithe girlfriend called Trudy who works in promotions, we sit in pubs and slur at uninterested barmaids, fall over in the toilets and return to our bedsit to eat Pot Noodles and cry a little. Lately, Boro are Boyd to our Berquez.

Chapple And Fairclough

It's not, in short, as if we've gone toe-to-toe for a while. Nor is it uncomplicated conventional geography (Salisbury and Gravesend, for example, are only a Raphael Nade cross further away). The Woking/Stevenage Thing is born from, I believe, that brief precious age of parallel achievement and ambition. Both clubs were propelled by untouchable figureheads: Chapple, miraculously regenerative, Fairclough combatively developmental. By the mid-nineties both were lifted by richly-gifted talismanic forwards: Barry Hayles at the inception of a notable professional career, Clive Walker at the radiant conclusion of his. We shared noisy snowballing followings and shouting manifesto of Wimbledon-aping aspiration.

Aside from the patent cheapness of Victor-Green gate as Stevenage tore to the Conference title the previous year, animosity was overridingly fuelled more by a nagging unspoken sense of mutual envy. Boro's 1996 title-winners possessed the exact virtues that escaped Woking's fitfully brilliant runners-up: unstinting, relentless consistency and discipline. In contrast, the Cards' flickering moody excellence ensured that their record (aside, pivotally, and forever mournfully from Easter Monday 1996) against Stevenage was distinguished. Not only did we beat them frequently, we mostly beat them well (as a 6-1 aggregate league double in 96/97 underlines).

The Build-Up

We were - though this would have made my nineteen year-old self flinch - a little too alike. And from this co-ordinate avarice came an intensity of rivalry that positively blistered in April 1997 during a three-match Trophy semi-final epic. The build-up to the first leg at Kingfield was - in order not to distinguish from the tumult that unceremoniously ushered Woking's season untidily along - not without incident.
Walker had sustained an injury in the home defeat by Hayes ten days previously which would sideline him until the return at Broadhall Way (though Fairclough - famously, fantastically and hilariously paranoid of all things Woking - branded his injury a 'fake' before later backtracking). Then, the BFG openly bemoaned the lack of Boardroom funding to replenish a squad that would come close to breaking point by the end of the month, failing in an attempt to lure erstwhile Card Kevin Rattray from Barnet prior to deadline day. The first murmurings of unrest surrounding Club record signing, Justin Jackson, had also begun. Jackson - in recent years accused of general loutish dimwittery after his move down South - was clearly disliked by his colleagues, a fact openly demonstrated at Rushden weeks later.

The First Leg

Yet it was Jackson's tenacity in chasing a ball down the right flank in the first minute of the semi that paved the way for Robin Taylor's unexpected long-range opener. It was a strike that pierced the immense tension of a sun-drenched Kingfield with breathless, head-spinning suddenness. This early exocet proved the only goal. Terry Howard swiped Cards' best, and perhaps only, opportunity of the rest of the game wide as the LGS rose in choked delight. But it was Steve Foster, and more specifically his impeccable marshalling of Barry Hayles (a performance, it transpired, that would persuade the watching Ian Holloway to bring him to Bristol Rovers in the summer) that did most to edge Cards into the second leg a goal to the good. That, and an instinctive low Laurence Batty save from Corey Browne in front of a fraught KRE as good as any in his Woking career. Stuart Beevor helpfully deposited Steve Thompson painfully over a perimeter fence to provide the afternoon's other major talking point.

The plan, of course, was to keep things tight early on in the second leg. A strategy that lasted about forty seconds.

Part Fourteen

There are cavernous gaps in my Woking-watching that remain inexcusable. I didn't go to Broadhall Way for the second leg, although I can't recall precisely why.

I wasn't restricted by girlfriends or career (my risible part-time bar job existed purely to fund a rhythm of utter irresponsibility) yet, despite my life revolving around a reckless and destructive consumption of alcohol and Woking, I know that I simply wasn't there. I did, on occasion, used to work Saturday afternoons, although I also recall that I released myself from these duties with relative ease by swapping shifts or pitifully begging favours. So, I know that, had I wanted to go, I probably could have done, and that my absence was most likely a conscious decision not to get hurt.

Woking, more than at any other time before and certainly since, was unrestrained escapism. If I am brutally and sordidly honest with myself I realise that my decision not to go to university in the summer of 1996, not to leave the home comforts that my parents stoically and wearily financed, had far too much to do with the signing of Simon Garner. I absorbed myself in Woking so wholeheartedly simply because no one stopped me and because I hated the prospect that if I was to turn my back then I would miss the fulfilment of what we had all worked towards for the previous decade.

It never came, of course, although the degree of separation and clarity eventually did. In truth, the Trophy semi-final second leg was another example of my abominable cowardice. The prospect not only of defeat, but having lived that defeat was too much. History shows that we lost 2-1, the first leg lead surrendered within a minute to a Barry Hayles goal. Despite Kevan Brown's sending-off, we submitted a performance of unparalleled valour and pride - embodied by the indomitable Lloyd Wye - and came within a whisker of winning it over two legs.

I suppose, in hindsight, I justified my gutlessness by convincing myself that I had done enough to sit the second leg out. I had, after all, watched the Cards' latest glum surrender in the league: a pitiful 3-1 home reverse to a doomed Bromsgrove, which a slightly-weakened side mid-semi-final could barely explain away. But my defence was a hollow and unsubstantial one: I had bottled it.

As further demonstration of the demands placed on an already wearying side, I forget that the Cards lost 1-0 - with remarkable fortitude and no degree of misfortune - at Kidderminster two days after that epic second leg and two before the replay at Watford. Thompson, Steele, Hay and Walker were either hurt or rested, Batty was forced off with injury. This, after a request to be left out was ignored.

The Vicarage Road replay, by contrast, remains a captivating recollection. Though, again, definitively explaining my (unnecessarily rowdy, slightly drink-fuelled) attendance is perplexing. I reflect on that spring evening with genuine endearment, unblinkered and unbiased. Woking really were (for the second time in days, had I had the courage to experience it) exceptional. Where bravery and commitment had been the qualities that had seen them through at the weekend, the invigorated Cards now rediscovered the freedom and cadence of their passing, edging deservedly into a 2-0 lead before Boro pegged them back unsuccessfully late on. Woking's opener, in particular, remains a beautiful vignette of mid-nineties Woking: Walker's flawless left-footed finish, sublime in the cleanness and simplicity of its obvious path into the corner of the net. The unalloyed rapture of his and our celebration as he wheeled gleefully away towards the clutch of Cards fans in Watford's East Stand as we danced like idiots in the Rookery.

Lloyd Wye's late appearance - his 500th in a Cards shirt - was confirmation only that the evening had been about nothing other than this Club's uncomplicated addiction to the romantic. Watford was - the strangely stilted poignancy of the Wembley visit that it assured aside - the last great titanic Cards' away day.

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