I wasn’t ready for the new season. It arrived far too early. I didn’t doubt that Garry Hill and Steve Thompson had put our new-look squad through its paces, but I hadn’t even had my summer holiday.
Could it really have been 16 weeks since my last Cards outing, the final away game of the 2014/15 season at Liberty Way, the day our play-off hopes finally evaporated? Our hosts, Nuneaton Town, had already been jettisoned to the Conference North, my photos on the way out of the ground that late Spring evening suggesting a club needing a fresh start, a knackered sign outside the social club threatening to fall on unsuspecting punters any moment.
But it was a friendly set-up, and I was sad to lose them, so it’s good to see Liam Daish’s replacement Kevin Wilson has started the new campaign as brightly as us, dropping just two points from their first five games in the National League North.
As for Woking, four months on we started against another club facing a rebuild, Tranmere Rovers, outside the Football League for the first time in 94 years. To get a handle on that, I’ll add that 22 years ago we finished eighth in our first Conference season while they were fourth in Division One, only missing out on the Premiership at the play-off stage.
I’d been to Prenton Park before, but there was little worth remembering from our 2006 FA Cup defeat save for a cracking Craig McAllister consolation strike in a 4-2 drubbing. Incidentally, I asked my better half what she recalled about our first visit, and all she could (sheepishly) mention was that Jason McAteer was playing for them. Once a Red …
Like Nuneaton, Tranmere proved properly friendly. It was a professional set-up too, not dissimilar to Wrexham in both respects. As a player it must give you a lift running out at a ‘big club’. As a fan – albeit one with a 2/6 hat on – it’s pretty special too, even if the malfunctioning wi-fi suggested I might as well be back on that cramped press bench at Liberty Way.
It seems somewhat ironic if, like me, you live so far away from your club that you pass within a few miles of several others – many admittedly bigger – en route to matches. And on this occasion, Goodison Park was briefly glimpsed down the end of Winslow Street as I headed for the Mersey Tunnel, with blue shirts in all directions before and after Everton’s Premier League clash with Stoke. But that’s just how it is.
As it turns out I was about to witness our only defeat in the first five matches, but four straight wins followed as the Cards climbed to second place at time of going to press, only upstaged by a 100% Forest Green outfit. And considering the wider implications of that opening fixture, that was something we really hadn’t expected.
That following week proved truly memorable, story-wise, with major national and international press interest in the fund started by club chaplain Ian Nicholson to aid the recuperation of star striker Scott Rendell, following his first-half anterior cruciate ligament injury at Prenton Park.
It took a while to realise the magnitude of that unfortunate challenge, players initially coming to the dug-outs way below our lofty press box for a drinks break that hot afternoon while Scott was treated with gas and air in our penalty area.
Eventually, he was stretchered off, to touchingly-warm applause from around the ground, on a day when 170 away fans got their first competitive viewing of the new-look Cards among an impressive 5,583 gate, the Wirral getting well and truly behind the hosts in their new league surroundings.
While we had no idea how bad Scott’s knee injury was, a photo of the incident by fellow press boxer Nick Shaw suggested it was grim. As it turned out, the most feared striker in the newly-renamed National League was unlikely to play any further part this season, but the resultant crowd-funding campaign to cover his medical, rehab and other costs topped £12,000 within a week or so, bucket collections at the Altrincham and Bromley home games accounting for £2,800, and large contributions coming in from across the football world – from fellow clubs, players and fans.
At a time when it seems that the mainstream ‘soccer’ empire is all about greed and big business, it was a humbling turn-up for the books. And you can find out more about the Rendell rehab fund, including a fundraising evening on October 15th where all proceeds beyond costs go to the appeal, here.
In that respect, the result that day was insignificant, but for the record we were undone by a quality 25-yard second-half free-kick from Jay Harris, the ex-Wrexham midfielder giving new boss Gary Brabin a perfect start after a nicely-worked routine that suggested a full-time side with plenty of time to tinker on the training ground.
As Garry Hill had hinted, this was likely to be a period of transition for the Cards after several changes over the summer. But as it turned out we made a positive start, those encouraging signs in Birkenhead soon bearing fruit.
Some 16 weeks earlier, my match report from that April day-trip to Nuneaton suggested the end of term had come too soon for Garry, Kevin Betsy’s second-half strike saving our blushes – securing a draw – but signalling the end of an era.
Don’t get me wrong, the seventh-place finish we ensured that day was a mighty achievement, proving us to be the highest-performing part-timers. Yet our ride on the coat-tails of the play-off race was over, and while that was arguably a good thing in the long run, we’d enjoyed the chase up to then. But seeing as I’ve not updated my own WFC travel blog since last November, I best get up to date first, filling in a few gaps from the last six months of that 2014/15 season.
While we amassed four wins from five games between the last day of September and the end of the next month, we only managed one more in the next seven games, some notably-poor showings seeing us exit the FA Cup and Surrey Senior Cup with little more than a whimper. The fact that the former was caught on the box, albeit via S4C, made it all the more galling. There was no disgrace in losing to Wrexham, a fine footballing side, but the manner of the defeat hurt. We failed to put up a proper fight.
Then came the night everything seemed to transpire against us in a 2nd vs 3rd tussle at Grimsby. With the mercurial Joe McNerney suspended, we then lost in-form keeper Jake Cole and top scorer/all-round inspiration Rendell on the night. You can factor in three league draws around then too, and while two contained many positives, a goalless encounter with Alan Devonshire’s Braintree in deepest Essex at the start of the month was largely forgettable judging by BBC Surrey’s commentary. I don’t do pessimism and grouchiness too well though, so I’ll concentrate instead on our televised success at Halifax and rousing home draw with leaders Barnet.
The old Wyatt motoring curse struck again for the former, despite leaving in plenty of time from a Sunday morning work date to head over the Pennines from Preston, Lancs. The fellas I were with sucked in their teeth and poured doubt on my plan to head ‘over the top’ and avoid the M61 and M62, but I felt vindicated as I sped past Burnley’s Turf Moor and over the Yorkshire border with ease. What’s more, it was far more scenic. But then, on the approach to Hebden Bridge – eight miles from my destination – I encountered one of those frustrating mid-town roadwork nightmares, the sort where chancers drive across yellow box junctions to block all exits when the lights eventually change.
Before I knew it, I’d sat there around 45 minutes and was left with a mighty challenge to reach The Shay in time for kick-off. And with the car park full, I ended up parking down the road a bit, running up that hill in Kate Bush style, my laptop bouncing on my hip. I made it, just about, but by then the press seats were full and I found myself perched on the back row alongside a few locals, with barely enough room to flip my computer. Thankfully this old stager still knows how to work a proper notebook.
Very friendly those Shaymen proved, I might add, although one told me with relish ‘Marriott’s out’ as I sat down – no doubt pleased to avoid another potential Jack treble following his heroics at the same venue last season. Yes, it was a blow, not least as he’d impressed against Wrexham in our midweek league draw at Kingfield. But the sight of Giuseppe Sole in his place allayed those concerns.
And lo and behold, within 25 minutes, a certain free-kick from his stand-in gave the home keeper no chance, at which point I nudged my neighbour, pointed at the celebrating Gez and co, and informed him that he’d done that a few times before (intimating it was his side’s fault for putting less than eight men in their wall). What a cracking strike too, as purred over by BT Sport commentators and viewers alike, in what soon went pretty much viral online.
We were superb that afternoon, with at least half a dozen man-of-the-match contenders, but stand-in midfielder Adam Newton saw them all off with his match-winning double – one with each peg. And you know the locals are getting restless in West Yorkshire when you hear one shout at a home midfielder, “You’re a luxury you are, lad – chuffing hell!”
A week later I was still on a high, back at Kingfield, a 480-mile solo round-trip almost leading to a further victory against ‘Mad Dog’ Allen’s top-of-the-table Bees. It didn’t start well, a cagey, stop-start first half suggesting we could barely string a few passes together, finding ourselves a goal down within 90 seconds. But the last half-hour was sheer edge-of-the-pants (I wasn’t sitting down, so it wasn’t edge-of-the-seat) drama, and I was chuffed (not in a Yorkshire sense) when Mike Cestor popped up with the equaliser – having scored in the same net earlier for Barnet.
That set up a pulsating finish, and with more than 2,600 inside Kingfield, there was a great atmosphere, the KRE chanting non-stop as we strove to find a winner. It didn’t quite happen, but not for the want of trying. It was just a shame that the wind was taken out of our sails the following Tuesday in Cleethorpes, although even then there was an inspired period in which we pulled back through the returning Dean Morgan before the Mariners finished us off. It was no doubt a long way home for the team and 22 hardy away souls.
Two home wins in four days followed, Braintree and Alty seen off 1-0 and 2-0 respectively, and I was looking to stretch my record of four out of four away wins at fellow play-off hopefuls Macclesfield that weekend. It wasn’t to be though, my unbeaten away record – stretching back to our sorry FA Trophy exit at North Ferriby the previous December – finally over. A penultimate-minute long-range strike from home skipper Paul Turnbull dealt the killer blow, the hosts drawing level on points with their spirited guests as we dropped to third. But we looked the better side in an absorbing second half.
Hill later defended his decision to leave three strikers on the bench and play the first 70 minutes with Morgan – our scorer – alone up top. There was certainly no lack of chances or commitment, but as the gaffer put it, “It just wouldn’t go into the back of their net. Then they counter-attack, the boy hits the ball, gets a deflection, and it goes in the corner.”
As it turned out, the rot started to set in, and three days later we went down 2-1 at Forest Green, December’s only bright point a 2-0 FA Trophy first-round win over Eastleigh, amid 2-1 home defeats to Southport then old foes Aldershot. There were also home and away draws with Eastleigh on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, and until the end of January we only had one more league win, a 3-0 home success over Alfreton following an FA Trophy replay success against Conference South outfit Oxford City.
Even that Trophy run was soon over, a 1-0 defeat at Dover following a 3-3 draw at Kingfield seeing our Wembley dream burst for another year. And during that home defeat to Southport, we lost dependable defender Mike Cestor for the rest of the term, the French centre-half carried off on a stretcher before half time with a serious knee injury. Seem familiar?
There were good signs though, not least a goalless draw in front of a 3,853 home gate against Bristol Rovers, the Gasheads making plenty of noise on the Chris Lane Terrace, bringing a welcome big match atmosphere to Kingfield.
There was another promising display in mid-February as we drew 1-1 at Kidderminster, after a slim 2-1 defeat at champions-in-waiting Barnet, my next fix of the Cards seeing a much-improved second-half display at Aggborough as we reached the 50-point mark.
Amid occasional rolling puffs of smoke behind the ground from the Severn Valley Railway, we finally got up a head of steam, despite going behind to a first-half strike by Lee Hughes. Yep, him again, and while there was clearly no love lost between the 80-plus travelling fans and the veteran striker in this Valentine’s Day fixture, the boos that rang out from the away end did not deter the 38-year-old ex-West Brom, Coventry and Forest marksman.
Thankfully, the lively Yemi Odubade pulled us level in the 68th minute, finding a gap in a crowded area from a Josh Payne corner for his second strike in two matches, inspiring a wobble from a Worcestershire outfit who lost their last four home games, subs Sole and Betsy at the heart of a re-energised Woking. Yet Gary Whild’s hosts stood their ground, and might have won themselves but for a great late save by Jake Cole.
But Woking were ultimately good value for a draw as both sides remained within five points of the play-offs. And assistant boss Steve Thompson, a lone figure on the touchline after Garry Hill’s one-match ban following the previous weekend’s fall-out at Barnet, had a prophetic line for the press, saying, “Since the turn of the year we’ve turned performances around. What we need now is results to follow. And we’ve been showing the signs of going on that winning run.”
He was right of course, and on the last day of February a 2-0 success at Lincoln City proved to be the first win of six over the next four weeks, the next at Dartford followed by March’s only blip, a 2-1 loss at Grimsby.
I was there for the following encounter at Telford, a buoyant Garry Hill saying after our 3-1 win he was targeting eight wins from eight as we approached the climax, the play-offs still firmly in sight, our no-nonsense boss inspired by a rousing second-half in Shropshire against a battling basement outfit.
I hadn’t managed a Telford trip since September ’92, our first Conference season, when to quote from my musings in Wubble Yoo at the time, “This was football, pure football, and Biggo’s 10th-minute self-made goal (already Woking folklore) was one of the best I’m ever likely to see. The fact that I saw it unfold a few yards in front of me and not from the depths of the settee on a lethargic Sunday after a few too many roast spuds only made it better. As Lol Batty’s free-kick bounced over the halfway line, Mark outwitted his marker, wrong-footed two more and outran another only for the last to trip him up. He started to go down but somehow got the inspiration to brush himself off, polish his boots, comb his hair then set off again, nipping past more stranded Telford backs (having beaten at least 19 men by now) before burying the ball in the back of the net. Or something like that.”
There was no Laurence Batty or Mark Biggins on the team sheet this time, but late goals from Betsy and Sole – both set up by Antigua and Barbuda international Keiran Murtagh, during something of a midfield master-class – did the trick, bringing our third successive away win and the ninth on our travels that season. Meanwhile, the battle-scarred Bucks edged closer to the drop after a sixth loss in seven games left them 14 points adrift, Steve Kittrick chasing a first home win since November.
For all their early industry, Jake Cole hardly had a save to make, well protected by new-look back four Aswad Thomas, Brian Saah, Joey Jones and Adam Newton, while John Goddard was typically busy in midfield and a set-piece specialist in Payne’s absence as a cold wind permeated around the New Buck’s Head. Soon, Odubade and Rendell’s pace and Betsy, Murtagh and Goddard’s service left Telford quaking, Rendell putting us ahead from the penalty spot. The Bucks weren’t finished, and levelled after further rousing renditions from behind the goal of Slade classic Cum On Feel The Noize, good work on the right by Godfrey Poku – who would join us within a few months – leading to a corner headed home at the near-post.
On a pudding of a pitch we fought back though, Murtagh putting Rendell away, the earlier scorer showing great timing to release Betsy to his right, the latter keeping his cool then firing powerfully beyond the keeper on 81 minutes. And five minutes later, Murtagh beat his marker again then threaded through to Sole, who showed similar poise as he hit home.
There was at least one more moment of note, Aswad Thomas’s brief return to our line-up halted by an injury that Garry Hill later put down to a ‘discolated thumb’. I can’t remember any dance celebrations out there after Rendell’s goal, but perhaps that’s when it happened.
Further home wins followed over Forest Green, a 1-0 win after a further Rendell penalty, then Torquay, when a stunning second-half fight-back saw us overcome a two-goal half-time deficit, with Odubade, Payne and Rendell on target in a lethal half-hour spell. And another then followed at Chester at the end of the month, two further Rendell finishes cancelled out before a spectacular late Payne finish settled it. On all three occasions, I was reliant on the BBC Surrey radio coverage and the aural landscapes painted by Jon Howick, Gary Smith and gloriously-biased summariser John Moore, the dream remaining and this Cards fan feeling part of it.
Beyond that, we stayed on the play-off fringes with a home draw against Welling, and despite a 2-1 Easter Monday defeat at Crabble – yes, bloody Dover again – after Yemi had put us ahead, we gave ourselves further hope with a 3-0 home victory over Gateshead, Rendell and Payne (twice) again on target, before that candle-snuffing draw at Nuneaton.
That just left a semi-celebratory last-day thriller against Halifax, our late 3-2 win proving a perfect send-off for Cards legend Kevin Betsy. I was listening in on the radio this time, Garry Smith highly excitable as we turned around a 2-1 deficit in dramatic circumstances, Payne’s earlier strike followed by mesmeric Rendell and Odubade finishes deep in injury time.
Much had changed by the time of that opening afternoon of the 2015/16 season, but we went toe-to-toe with our Birkenhead hosts all afternoon, arguably deserving a draw but for that fine winner. And we seemed more at ease three days later, seeing off last year’s regional champions Bromley after a double from John Goddard, my Tranmere man of the match, both goals provided by Sole, who then got our opener that Saturday at home to Altrincham, new loanee and star performer Dan Holman then ensuring a 2-0 victory.
As the onslaught of early fixtures continued we had the perfect night out on the English Riviera, Kadell Daniel’s late delivery finding Ismail Yakubu at the far post, the impressive central defender heading home. And then came a thrilling 5-2 home victory over Chester that take us up to second. A first-half foul on Holman led to a sending off for Ben Heneghan which would leave the visitors stretched on a baking hot afternoon, that initial incident leading to stand-in penalty-taker Goddard putting us ahead. Holman and Daniel then put us in the driving seat shortly after the break, with late strikes by Joey Jones and Ben Pattie making sure on a day of quality finishes, not least Chester’s second from Wayne’s brother John.
From what I’ve seen and heard so far, there’s certainly been no lack of spirit so far, our initial fears over Rendell’s injury perhaps allayed. In fact, Scott’s misfortune seemed to galvanise the squad’s togetherness. If the Chris Ingram bail-out years have chiefly been about prudence and sensibly cutting the cloth to make the best of what we’ve got, we’ve stuck to that brief. I remain impressed at how well we do without some of the silly money being thrown at other clubs around us. A big-up for Hill and Thommo for their part in that.
As Garry H basked in sunshine in the dug-out after our stalemate at Liberty Way back on April 18th, he was somewhat chilled and philosophical, while hinting at big changes in his bid to take us to the next level. There was plenty about our ability to punch above our weight too, and a few months on that remains the case. The gaffer clearly felt he’d reached a watershed moment, not least with a few players set to disembark. Betsy’s decision wasn’t a big surprise, sad as it was to see him go. The same went for Adam Newton, although he was soon back, and we happily welcomed his return.
At Nuneaton, Hill spoke of clubs like Luton, Crawley, Fleetwood and Stevenage buying their way out of this league. We’ll never be in that position as far as I can tell, but thank goodness, I say. It’s a big ask for our backers to keep us firing at this level, but we get by. Perhaps we’ll never be a big club like Tranmere, Bristol Rovers or Grimsby, but that won’ty bother me if we show plenty of fight and quality and occasionally upset the odds.
As long as that continues, I’ll happily get behind and have pride in Woking FC. Since early 2011, it’s been a remarkable ride, and long may that continue. This time I’d like to see more of the same please … plus a little FA Cup and FA Trophy joy. Is that too much to ask?
There was a memorable Garry H quote at Nuneaton, the Home Counties Confusius musing, Cantona-like, “A changing room’s like your own front room at home when it needs redecorating. And there will be fresh paint in the changing rooms and fresh players for next year.”
As it was, I don’t think anyone predicted Rendell tripping on a prised-open tin of Dulux as he tracked back at Tranmere on day one. His injury hit us hard, but I didn’t doubt that Messrs Hill and Thompson would find us quality cover, and Colchester United loanee Dan Holman was soon impressing up top.
Incidentally, there was another great ‘Hillism’ from Mystic Garry at Liberty Way, telling BBC Surrey’s Gavin Dennison, “We’ve taken the club to heights far greater than anybody expected. The aeroplane’s up there now, and there’s going to be a bit of turbulence unless someone’s going to give us a few quid to push on.”
In that respect, our Tranmere opener suggested we were firmly back on terra firma. But the following fortnight told a different tale, and we were soon flying again. Yes, we lost crowd favourite Joe Mac and England C cap Payne, but Saah and Yakubu look great defensive prospects, and you need look no further than Joey J and Murtagh to ease Payne’s parting.
All in all, our established players continue to lead by example, while the new boys show definite promise. It’s early days, but I’m looking up rather than down, eager for my next away fix at the Moss Rose in Macclesfield and at Nethermoor, Guiseley, confident that Sqn. Ldr. Hill and Flt. Lt. Thommo will see us through any flak.
If you liked this, try:
Taking the crunchy with the smooth, Cardinals style Nov 18, 2013
Rec recollections as Shots ring out again July 31, 2013
Cardinal deliberations and Garry’s magic 50 Mar 19, 2013
A lubbly Bubbly awayday at Haig Avenue Feb 28, 2013
Out of town and out of sorts with the Cardinals Feb 21, 2013
A poor return and the not so magnificent seven Dec 6, 2012
Remembering England’s Evelyn Nov 11, 2012
Return to the big time (kind of) Sep 20, 2012
Back to reality – the road from Stratford to Woking Aug 22, 2012