After six goals in two Conference Premier matches and two wins on the trot for the first time since April, there’s – whisper it – an element of optimism at Kingfield again, as this Cardinal blogger duly acknowledges.
But when Reece Gray put Hyde 2-0 up at the mid-point of the first half at Woking on Saturday, doubts crept back in.
The Cards were according to my commentary all over their North-West opponents, yet two lapses led to the visitors’ only chances and a two-goal deficit. And although we would never have outwardly acknowledged it, memories of December 1, 2012, sprang to mind.
On that occasion, as you can re-live here if you dare, I swear Tameside’s Tigers barely had 10 shots on goal yet won 7-0. And now it looked like we were about to succumb to a bottom-of-the-table team still awaiting their first league win, at the 20th attempt.
Too many times I’ve seen teams finally break their duck against us then push on, but surely not Hyde too? Well, thankfully not this time, two goals from new loan star Jack Marriott and one from another, Scott Rendell, proving enough, to the delight of highly-impassioned Jon Howick and John Moore on BBC Radio Surrey.
Listening on the internet? Yes. I wasn’t there, which I guess drags me down with all the other ‘supporters’ I slate who moan about their big clubs on Radio 5 Live’s 606 phone-in yet seem to be calling from home while the true fans are still shuffling back to their cars.
But I’ve seen a fair few Woking games this season, and travelled plenty of miles in the process, so at least feel qualified to speak out. Besides, the video footage of those last two matches looked good too.
There was a lot riding on Ipswich Town’s 19-year-old Marriott being what we needed after a largely fruitless first three months. And from the highlights I’ve seen of the last two matches, and the reaction of the broadcast and print media and fellow fans, I’d say that was well founded.
And after two games it seems that Mick McCarthy’s deal with Garry Hill, initially for one month, might just be the catalyst we need, as it proved when we brought in Sunderland’s Billy Knott last term.
The problem is that Woking have suffered what seasoned medical experts diagnose as second-term syndrome, the over-reaching of us part-timers in securing a first-time top-half finish weighing heavily upon our charges.
But I always respected Hill’s contribution to everything Woking FC, and these past months have somehow only strengthened that belief.
While based around 230 miles from Kingfield, I’ve had the chance to see the gaffer and his deputy, Cards legend Steve Thompson, at close quarters a few times in this (so far) stuttering 2013/14 season.
And although the previous results and lowly position might give us a few worries going into the end of the year, I’ve no doubt we’re turning.
Let’s face it, my first six matches of the season – five loosely in the North-West and another back down in Surrey – have not been altogether defining. Yet they were the kind of games that strengthen your resolve as a committed fan (and some might say I deserve to be committed for my unflagging support).
That’s not just blind worship. I’m only too aware we’ve sailed close to the mire and need to somehow pull through this to retain our top-flight non-league status.
And from victories at Chester and Hyde to near misses at Southport and in the FA Cup against Luton, as well as defeats of varying levels at Macclesfield and Wrexham, I’ve seen enough from Garry H to suggest we can do that.
My first sighting this season involved us making up for a lack-lustre first half to win 2-0 at fellow strugglers Chester, a Gavin Williams wonder-volley and a powerful Joe ‘Beast’ McNerney header sending us home happy – even if I was diverted south rather than north on the way back home because of problems on the M6.
As it turned out, Kevin Betsy’s first goals of the season secured a valuable mid-week win on my next sighting at Hyde a month later, another 2-0 win after an end-to-end Ewen Fields affair.
It wasn’t all roses, with our first-half display pretty poor. But an inspired substitution proved our salvation, the former Fulham midfielder’s goals capping an impressive second period for the Cards.
On 74 minutes, Betsy was there at the back post to bundle home sub Anthony McNamee’s deep free-kick, then – when a Scott Rendell strike proved too hot for the keeper – he was first to react.
It was no more than we deserved for our endeavour, the bottom-of-the-table East Manchester hosts – despite plenty of spirit – appearing to have less stamina to succeed.
That was also the start of Sam Beasant’s run in the net, and while there have been plenty of defensive hiccups before and since, Big Dave’s lad can be proud of his contribution.
The catalyst at Hyde proved to be Hill’s somewhat-harsh sacrifice of Lee Sawyer for McNamee before the break, a far more potent Cardinals performance following.
McNamee made that right channel his own, giving Rendell the service he craved, the away defence doing just enough to keep the hosts out before the tide turned, courtesy of our 35-year-old stalwart.
Debutant John Goddard also impressed in a game which seemed to give us belief and leave Hyde in the doldrums, where they remain all these weeks on.
But all the positives were undone just four days later when we were out-played by a Macclesfield Town side who used that performance to push on to far better things.
It was a poor performance at the Moss Rose, to say the least, even though the Cards almost pulled off an unlikely draw after two more late goals. But a point would have been flattery in the circumstances.
Instead, John Askey’s hosts gained their first win of the season, deservedly, offering fluid movement and plenty of pace while we looked languid and somewhat disinterested.
In late September sunshine, Chris Holroyd and Connor Jennings positively sizzled for the hosts, showing the travelling faithful just what we were missing.
A lack of creativity and far too many basic errors scarred us, despite a bright start, the first home goal following a poor back-pass, with chances of our own missed while Beasant was exposed time and again, his defence repeatedly undone or out-run.
From poor speculative finishing to a routine stifling of Rendell, we were poor, with little imagination shown, never looking capable of undoing a first-half two-goal deficit, another mistake leading to a third before our late (false) rally.
I’ll never forget Hill’s post-match rant, John Moore doing his best to remain positive while the Essex exocet launched into a performance that he told us left him ‘feeling dirty’.
Meanwhile, a few of us who stayed – including BBC Radio 5 Live’s Garry Richardson – stood there a little embarrassed, wishing we were anywhere else.
Fact remained though that Garry H – for all his ranting – somehow retained his dignity among it all. If anything, he just came over as a genuine fan, disgusted by what he’d seen from his team, and wanting far, far better.
It was clear from there that our under-performing players weren’t likely to get a top hotel stop-over next time, so I wasn’t too surprised when I heard the following big awayday would instead involve a train ride.
I quite liked that idea. There was something a bit pre-war about the concept, conjuring up the picture of be-suited, Brylcreemed Cardinals having cigarette breaks in the carriage corridors between Euston and Wigan before a coach took them on to Southport.
If only I’d known the Rendell finish I witnessed within three minutes at Haig Avenue would be the last league goal Woking fans would witness for another eight hours of play.
It was a perfect start, but if the idea was for the train to take the strain, the resultant frenetic 90 minutes in late summer sunshine on the Lancashire coast certainly didn’t do the health of the travelling support much good.
This was a belting match, with incidents galore and plenty to talk about on the long trip home. But there were hairy moments for both sides in a not-for-the-faint-hearted end-to-end thriller which neither side deserved to lose.
While the visitors had a great chance to end Port’s unbeaten home record, they might as easily have come home empty-handed.
Port were not deterred by that early blow, and in time ex-Fleetwood Town midfielder and main threat Jamie Milligan scored from a fluke free-kick.
It was like watching Andy Ellis in his pomp, not just for his looks but his passing game too. While Woking struggled to create openings, Milligan sprayed it around.
But there were many positives that day, and while we were lacking in certain areas, the implication was that Macc was a one-off.
The same could be said of the defeat at Wrexham in mid-October, one of those rare afternoons where we felt among the higher echelons of football, soaking up an impressive setting and giving our all against a club we hadn’t really expected to find in those lower reaches.
In the end, like Macclesfield, I felt the North Walians would use their inspirational victory as a springboard to greater things, something I’m just hoping we’ll do pretty soon too.
There was no doubting Andy Morrell’s team spirit, while – despite being in this game right to the death – Woking’s goal drought increased to six hours and we became further embroiled in a relegation fight.
It was no easier to watch a couple of days later on S4C’s Sgorio Welsh football highlights show, and I still couldn’t quite see where our goals were going to come from, not least with lots of difficult fixtures ahead. But at least our second-half display at the Racecourse Ground suggested an appetite to finally climb that table.
I put that to Garry as he wandered past at full time to speak to Jon Howick, and got short shrift – the gaffer batting down my praise for the closing 45 minutes with a blunt comment about this being a 90-minute game. He was right of course.
Again, the Cards were poor in that first half, something we can’t afford in what’s proving a much-higher standard league than that we left a few years before – our weaknesses too often exposed.
On the day, Dean Keates took a leaf out of Jamie Milligan’s book with a crowded box drilled finish, Beasant deceived by his own defenders, rousing a commendable 3,000-plus crowd.
Woking’s main attacking option Rendell was again isolated and boxed in while Wrexham’s Andy Bishop and Brett Ormerod gained confidence. Needless to say, harsh words followed in the dressing room.
To their credit, the Cards fought the Dragons at their own game from there – with fire in the belly. Betsy was at the heart of that revival, as was Giuseppe Sole and Mike Cestor, as heavy rain gave rise to sunshine and renewed hope.
But it wasn’t to be, another creative midfielder – Joe Clarke – showing us how it should be done in the late stages to ensure a 2-0 Reds victory.
However, in all those performances there were signs that we had the ability, if only we could stay switched on for 90 minutes and show the spirit and imagination Macc and Wrexham had.
There was further proof of that in our underdog FA Cup display against big-spending Luton Town on my first Kingfield visit of the season a week later, enjoying the lion’s share of possession on the day, worthy of at least a replay.
But – like the 4-0 Hatters home drubbing a few weeks before – a set-piece ultimately undid us – Dave Martin’s corner teeing up Mark Cullen’s first-half header (just after a great one-on-one opportunity spurned by Sole) for John Still’s side.
We joked that we didn’t want Welling in the next round anyway, but it hurt to go out at that stage yet again. At the same time, there was a certain inevitability that we were clutching at straws, not least as we were reliant at the end on putting our bearded centre-half up front for the added six minutes the ref kindly offered.
As it was, the misery continued at home to Grimsby the following week, despite us finally scoring – courtesy of Betsy again. This time a sickening stoppage-time strike from Craig Disley left us deflated and defeated.
But then came that turn-around, a 3-0 win over Dartford followed by us clawing our way back against Hyde to ensure our first double of the season.
What’s more, Marriott’s arrival has taken the pressure off Rendell, who’s refound his form, and Josh Payne has started to finally make the impact that led to his England C call-up.
It’s not going to get any easier, our next matches involving visits to top-of-the-table Cambridge United then Hereford United in the FA Trophy before December 7’s visit to Halifax Town.
All being well, I’ll be there at The Shay, and have every confidence we should create enough chances to make up for the odd squeaky moment at the other end.
That’s what it’s all about for us hard-done-by Cards fans. You have to take the crunchy with the smooth. And there’s been plenty of crunch this season.
We’ve seen glimpses, now we just need to see a lot more. But with Garry H and Thommo leading from the sidelines, I reckon we’ll get there.