IT’S supposed to be a good sign. As we drove down to Kingfield from Lancashire last Saturday morning, Tony Blackburn was playing The Jam as we hit Victoria Way traffic.
Some kind of time warp? Almost. It was Pick of the Pops on (ssshhh!) Radio 2 and we were re-living mid-February 1981, when I was 13, with the wondrous That’s Entertainment riding high in the charts and Woking about to go down to a 3-2 London Senior Cup second-round defeat at the hands of Carshalton Athletic (goals by Leather and Levy, stats fans).
It always seems a good omen to hear Woking boys Weller, Foxton and Buckler on a match day, but with Newport’s past reputation, it didn’t bode so well to hear Slade’s We’ll Bring the House Down and the Stray Cats’ Rock This Town (“Turn it inside out”) soon after.
Well, you probably know how it turned out, one of my rare Kingfield trips ending in a 3-1 home defeat, sub Gavin McCallum giving us hope as we went into stoppage time, but the Exiles the more professional outfit on the day and our best chances (just before the break) kept out by ex-Cardinal Lenny Pidgeley.
But that was just part one, for I had two more trips to see the mighty Cards planned for the same week (three in a week – a real rarity for me these days), with Garry Hill’s side passing through the North-West for further Conference Premier dates with Barrow and Southport too.
Note that I don’t say ‘just up the road’ from me. For Barrow is just up the road from Ulverston maybe (the birthplace of Stan Laurel), and Kendal Town at a push, but very few other places. We’re talking the most extreme of cul-de-sacs here. A remote tip of the North West you really have to go out of your way to find.
Furness isn’t the kind of place you go to by mistake, not even with my poor sense of direction, and Barrow AFC are somewhat out there – on a limb. But – despite scare stories of the Barrow boys causing havoc on their FA Trophy quarter-final trip to Woking in 1980 (a 3-1 Cards win, with goals from Field, Fletcher and Eggie James), I’ve found myself pretty well received in this outpost of Cumbria (traditionally Lancashire of course, but that’s another story).
On our last match of the winning 91/92 Diadora League season, our 1-0 defeat at Enfield, a few home fans gave us top tips on the dos and don’ts of the Conference, from which I recall the advice to ‘watch yourself at Barrow – the home fans chase you around with loose bits of concrete’. Thankfully, that never proved to be the case, and I tend to find fans of such remote clubs give you the time of day if you’ve made all that effort to get there.
I was toying with the practicalities of my Cumbrian day-trip throughout Tuesday, having only returned from Surrey to my Lancashire base the night before, but after such gloriously unseasonal February sunshine and a day chilling in the back garden, I decided I would go after all.
And while the temperature dropped to two degrees that night and felt colder in the first half as the wind seemed to blow straight off the Irish Sea, I was glad I made the effort. Well, kind of. For while it only involved a 90-minute drive each way for me, it was a shocking 12-hour round trip for most Cards fans, and with precious little to cheer about for the 25 or so of us behind home keeper Danny Hurst’s goal.
Those listening to the BBC Radio Cumbria commentary might not believe that, with all those raucous ‘Yellows’ chants early on. But for all our early promise, we were soon hit on the break and found ourselves behind, with Danny Rowe the scorer, one of two players of the same name on the pitch bizarrely enough, the other one scoring their second from a free-kick early in the second half. And what with that and Lee Sawyer’s straight red-dismissal for a crude tackle on ex-Morecambe man Garry Hunter, we were done for.
The optimists among us had looked to the same side’s mighty defeats to Mansfield and Southport (shipping eight and five goals respectively), but the nagging doubt was that – like us – they’d also seen off Luton Town at home and Newport County away in the past few weeks. And those of us who visited Holker Street last time around in April 2009 knew they always had plenty of fight about them, despite their lowly position.
As it was, their keeper had bugger all to do all night, the much-travelled Efe Sodje supreme in defence, with every well-timed tackle and race to the ball won with supreme confidence and professionalism. Was he spurred on by the boos he received from the visiting fans for his past days at (whisper it) Stevenage? I doubt it. He just did his job.
It might have helped if we’d managed to get a shot on target of course, but only Kevin Betsy looked like he had the nous to unlock their defence, the Cards clearly missing Billy Knott after his injury against Newport, and finally undone by Sawyer’s dismissal.
We stuck around of course, but it was not to be, and I really felt for Cards press officer John Moore as he went to search out Garry Hill for a post-match interview. That wasn’t going to be pretty. I flippantly dropped into the conversation that at least I’d be home by half eleven, and Mooresie added that he hoped to be back by four in the morning. That’s dedication for you.
As for Barrow, I can see them staying up after all. They showed plenty of mettle on the night, perhaps forever destined to defy their peers and cling on to national status. In the old days, the open to ridicule re-election process did for them as a Football League club, but when it comes to staying up on merit, they had enough about them on this evidence.
As I weaved my way back up the dark old A590, past Ulverston and gradually back towards the M6, I was listening to Bluebirds assistant boss Ash Hoskin giving his thoughts to BBC Radio Cumbria on that night’s 2-0 victory. These days, the ex-Burnley and Accrington striker is No.2 to ex-Rochdale and Luton player Dave Bayliss at Holker Street, and word has it that a lot of those Bluebirds players come up from Manchester for matches. No mean feat in itself when you think of the miles involved.
It was a similar tale for Workington, I seem to recall, but in their case a lot of their players came from the North-East, not least under ex-Newcastle United star Tommy Cassidy. The same could be said for Gretna too when they graced the lower reaches of the UniBond League, before a brief financially-driven flirt with mainstream Scottish glory.
Hoskin spoke on the radio about a determination to bounce back from a poor display at home to fellow strugglers Nuneaton Town, which explained why so many home fans stayed away that night, resulting in their lowest gate of the season (officially 624, and we’ll claim at least the 24).
After a similar dog-fight at Holker Street between the same sides four seasons ago, the Bluebirds somehow stayed up while we floundered, despite winning 1-0 on the day (with Liam Marum on target for Graham Baker’s doomed Cards).
It looks like we’ve already done enough to stay up this time around, just one win away from equalling that 2009/10 haul, although recent whispers about play-offs seemed to die a death after the Newport and Barrow defeats. But who knows. It’s Southport next, and the season’s still young.
It’ll come as no great comfort for those who made the long trip to Holker Street, but we’re heading in the right direction. And while Hill’s side might show occasional flaws, you have to remind yourself that’s always likely to be the case when you’re talking about Conference football. That’s why a lot of these occasionally great players aren’t in the Premier League or Championship.As long as we learn from our mistakes, and keep playing the right way … the Woking way.
Teams like Newport show we’ve got a fair way to go yet, and we can’t compete financially with them, Wrexham, Luton or Grimsby for starters. But on our day we offer so much more, and can give any team a battle, as I witnessed first hand on New Year’s Day at Kingfield against Luton, and at Edgeley Park and Rodney Parade earlier in the season. Sermon over. Come on you Cardinals. So, anyone up for a trip to Haig Avenue (snow permitting)?