Woking’s National League defeat at Altrincham on Tuesday, January 26th, 2016, won’t stay in the memory bank for long for too many Cardinals fans, despite the latest party-piece goal from free-kick maestro Giuseppe Sole.
For a moment there in the second half, Gez’s strike suggested my team might get something from this midweek away fixture, stretching an unbeaten run to 12 matches. It wasn’t to be though, and the lowly Robins – the team papier-mâché big-head Frank Sidebottom once told us he was ‘bobbins’ about – soon finished us off amid swirling rain in Cheshire. But there was at least one other moment that resonated for me on the night, and it happened almost an hour before kick-off as this part-time reporter managed a brief chinwag with a non-league legend.
You can get blasé about meeting your heroes, and I’m lucky enough to be in a career where I get to interview a few of the big figures that have made an impression on my life so far. For the most part that involves musicians, authors or comedians. But now and again there are sporting heroes too, and Geoff Chapple falls nicely into that category.
I knew little of Geoff, who turns 70 this year, until I was around 19, but his achievements in football over the next two decades put him up there with the stars of my childhood, not least through overseeing a record number of FA Trophy victories (five in seven seasons, three with Woking) and a few notable FA Cup scalps. And passing the time of day with him today still gives me a warm glow, even if it’s just a few shared words on a miserable winter’s day at Grange Lane, North Ferriby, or a rainy night at Moss Lane, Altrincham.
What’s more, when myself, photographer David Holmes and club director/ambassador Geoff chatted in Cheshire this week, I had the pleasure of reminding the latter exactly where he was a quarter of a century before, with a few memories stoked just days before this season’s FA Cup fourth round fixtures.
Let’s face it – Geoff, his coaching team and players have given this scribe and WFC terrace devotee plenty to savour down the years, from memorable league encounters to crucial cup games. But there’s one particular campaign he will be forever associated with on a wider scale, and that took place in that 1990/91 football season.
So cast your mind back to the days of yore, before the birth of the Premier League, Justin Bieber and Harry Styles, and even before Jurassic Park’s velociraptors roamed the cinemas. I’m talking about an era pre-dating the whole Strictly Come X-Factor Talent circus, when the Manchester Ratepayers’ Stadium was just wasteland and ISIS were just something that helped you cool down on hot summer days. For in early 1991 the road to Wembley was temporarily re-routed via Kingfield, Aggborough, The Hawthorns and Goodison Park, and errant coach drivers couldn’t even blame satellite navigation.
In many ways, I can’t quite get my head around the fact that Woking’s famous FA Cup run was 25 years ago. Yet while I can’t readily recall much about what happened a few days before Christmas 2015, I remember a fair bit about that campaign, despite my absence from these shores at the time. You see, at the time of my club’s most memorable spell in the national spotlight I was in Australia – 10,000 or so miles from Kingfield, so this feature might as well be sub-titled, ‘I wasn’t there!’
Let’s back up a bit first. To properly put you in the picture I’ll transport you to November 1986 and a 1-1 first round proper home draw with Chelmsford City, my Kingfield terrace debut, the Cards having made their way through all five qualifying rounds for the first time since late 1978 (when we went out to John Toshack’s Swansea City after a replay, having held the Third Division side – during their meteoric rise to the top flight – 2-2 at the Vetch Field before a 5-3 extra-time defeat at Kingfield, our best-ever post-war showing).
The abiding recollection for this first-timer was keeping half an eye on the skirmishes around us on the terraces. But – with no repeats of trouble I recall – I was showing up a lot more by the time we fought through all the qualifying rounds again two seasons later. This time we crashed out 4-1 at home to Cambridge United, a Chris Turner team languishing in Division Four. It was a great occasion all the same, this teen somewhere within what we thought of as the ‘bus shelter’ which in late 1995 made way for the Leslie Gosden Stand.
The following season Geoff’s outfit reached the first round again, winning 2-1 at Conference-bound Slough Town, Tim Buzaglo and Paul Mulvaney scoring, only to go out in the next round to … yes, Cambridge again, 3-1 at the Abbey Stadium. However, it was another big day (the only time I travelled to a game by supporters’ coach), and we got the odd mention nationwide plus a healthy pay-off. But the best was still to come.
On the whole that ‘89/’90 season was a great success with our FA Cup run, reaching the FA Trophy last 16 and league and county cup semi-finals, and winning promotion to the Isthmian League Premier (just one tier off non-league football’s top flight). But I tried not to take too much interest in our ‘90/’91 prospects, having just paid out for my world trip.
I had few qualms about leaving Blighty the night of my final match of 1990, a 2-1 home win over Enfield on a cold Tuesday in late October. That included a cracking goal from the occasionally-sublime Mark ‘Biggo’ Biggins, and we not only stayed top but also underlined our prospects for a real shout at that year’s title. However, as a bitter wind rattled around us, the absence of romantic fixtures in our division was never more clear as the fans sang, ‘If you all went to Dagenham, clap your hands’.
As I later wrote, ‘You know how it is. The days get colder and the terraces are subjected to the foggy breaths and stamping feet of diehard fans, clapping the feeblest of efforts in an attempt to keep warm on a freezing night. But for the non-league teams that make it to the first round of the world’s greatest knock-out competition, there is still a slim hope that national stardom and pride of place are just around the corner’. That said, I was set to fly to Thailand later that week, en route for a trek across South-East Asia towards Australia and New Zealand, the thought of which helped keep me insulated as the blood stopped circulating, gloating as I pictured the hard English winter sure to follow, one I wouldn’t have to endure.
However, I had last-minute concerns about leaving my Lancashire-based better half behind, and a nagging doubt that something big was going to happen, having seen us knock out Conference side Bath City that previous Saturday to earn a first-round tie with another team from England’s fifth flight, Kidderminster Harriers. I can’t recall too much about that match, but my diary mentions a nail-biting last 20 minutes, a couple of pre-match pints at my old Shalford local, and a visit to a sports shop in Knaphill, this departee contemplating shelling out on a club top for my travels. But with my budget already stretched, a £21 price tag – which would pay for a week’s accommodation and food on Koh Samui at the time – seemed too steep.
I also felt I could survive without football for a while. Besides, as I later put in writing (think of it as therapy), ‘What would you choose? A Thai Airlines 747 to the mystical East, or a day-trip in Alan’s Talbot Sunbeam to Worcestershire?’ I was interested in the outcome, but knew my best bet was to put all thoughts of ‘soccer’ out of my head as I headed Down Under.
Yes – soccer. We may speak the same language, but the average blue-eyed Aussie clearly didn’t give a XXXX about real football, as I was about to find out. Things might have changed since, but when I was over there the balls were definitely a different shape (so to speak). When they talked about ‘footie’, it involved something we knew better as rugby league, without so many bad Eddie Waring impressions.
There was plenty of animated discussion about State of Origin test matches (Queensland vs New South Wales) or league battles involving that year’s champions Penrith Panthers, runners-up Canberra Raiders, my cousin’s team Brisbane Broncos and even the intriguing Manly-Warringah. But you had to work harder to find out about those who didn’t pick it up and run with it (so to speak).
I visited the Kogarah Oval once, watching an impassioned derby between St George Dragons and South Sydney Rabbitohs as a guest of a home team sponsor, for whom I was helping renovate a 1920s house in the suburbs. But while I enjoyed the experience, it made me feel all the more homesick for those cold terraces back home. Thankfully, there was so much going on for me that, apart from the odd cold beer-fuelled argument about the Beautiful Game, I was managing to avoid it all, other than occasional sneaky looks at the Sydney Morning Herald results column.
But then l I blew my cover in Newcastle, and we’re talking the home of New South Wales RL outfit Newcastle Knights rather than the Newcastle United I left behind. Names like John Burridge, Roy Aitken, Gavin Peacock and Mickey Quinn meant nothing to locals I met. Folk in Newcastle-upon-Tyne may pride themselves on their love of football, but those based in and around the Aussie namesake town seemed more interested in the merits of coach Allan ‘Macca’ McMahon and dependable skipper Michael Hagan.
I was staying in a hostel on the outskirts, among a gang of building site labourers, and at first I was oblivious to the fact that they didn’t have the remotest interest in the soccer highlights being shown on TV. I nonchalantly asked who was playing and got little by way of a response but for a worrying remark that it was ‘some wog side from Melbourne against some other wog side from Sydney’ (the derogatory term in their eyes relating to anyone with a better tan than themselves at the time – for the most part Lebanese, Greek, Italian, Chinese or Bosnian settlers).
Without their help, I eventually sussed I was watching an ill-tempered grudge match between Sydney Olympic and Melbourne Croatia, and got quite involved until a fellow guest proclaimed, ‘We ain’t watching this crap!’ and turned over to a Lassie film. My flabber was suitably ghasted, but it was pointless making something of it. For a start, the bloke with the remote control was built like a proverbial outside dunny. I decided there and then there was little hope for these ill-bred sons of convicts, the conversation turning to ‘proper footie’ as I drifted off while half-watching this tired old MGM blockbuster.
“What’s that, Lassie? These fellas don’t know who Timmy Buzaglo is and are stuck down a cultural well?’
Meanwhile, back in the real world as I knew it, Woking overcame Kidderminster after two replays (none of this one replay followed by a shoot-out format in those days), going on to thrash Merthyr Tydfil 5-1 at Kingfield, on a day when even JRR Tolkien fans would have appreciated Biggo bagging a hat-trick to set up a West Midlands awayday.
Chances are you know the rest, ‘Scuffer’ Buzaglo on spectacular form as the Cards stuffed their Division Two hosts 4-2 at The Hawthorns to book a dream fourth-round tie at Everton, going on to give Howard Kendall’s outfit a mighty scare before a solitary Kevin Sheedy second-half decider in front of a 34,724 gate, around 10,000 supporters cheering on the Cards. And by then I wasn’t only getting cock-eyed news about ‘Woking Town’ from British Soccer Weekly, but also from my nearest Aussie daily. For these were heady days, a great deal of the world taking an interest in ‘tiny Woking Football Club from the Home Counties’ commuter belt’.
By the time of the West Brom game, I’d shelled out the last of my savings on an old VW Kombi van with a fellow traveller, and that day embarked on a return run to Noosa on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, joining my cousin Dave. Within a few weeks I’d be tackling 12-hour stretches along remote bush roads at the wheel of our ‘big bus’, but this was our maiden voyage and I was a nervous wreck by the time we re-crossed the imposing Gateway Bridge back towards Manly West in the early hours.
Our van eventually ground to a halt outside my aunt’s house, and I stumbled up the steps to the front door, still going through the motions of driving, concentrating on nothing but my bed. Yet I managed to focus just long enough to see a huge homemade paper banner strung on the wall, proclaiming the legend ‘Woking For The Cup’. It didn’t seem to make sense. I don’t think I’d even mentioned the tie to my Mum’s sister. But a second banner to the side read, ‘Newsflash from Mark: Woking 4 West Bromwich Albion 2’. And there on the table was a further cryptic clue – a scribbled note mentioning a late-night call from my brother, including several attempts by Auntie Lesley to spell ‘Buzaglo’.
Suddenly I was very much awake again, spending the next couple of hours alone at the kitchen table, downing Castlemaine stubbies, never before feeling quite so far from home. The next day there were even a couple of paragraphs about it all in The Courier Mail. I soon set off for pastures new, taking the inland highways this time, heading slowly back to Sydney, giving our ‘Brisee Belle’ a proper road test. But the ghost of my soccer past was never far behind, with Woking’s mighty performance at Everton just three weeks ahead.
On the day in question I was slowly recovering from a heavy night in Sydney, drinking too much Toohey’s Red on Australia Day, part-celebrating an offer of work – cash in hand – that would give us a chance to move on and semi-circumnavigate this huge island-continent. So while Geoff Chapple’s side played the game of their lives on Merseyside, all I could do was sit there, almost comatose, watching England cling grimly on in the Fourth Test at Adelaide via Channel 9, paying the price for my drunken indulgence.
I finally managed to pick up the phone at nine that next morning (eight the previous evening in the UK) to call my beloved, who was celebrating her 26th birthday. It wasn’t a great line, the two of us struggling with the time delay, our own voices echoing, but she soon asked, ‘Is there another reason you’re ringing?’ There was, of course, and she soon told me all she knew about that 1-0 defeat at Goodison Park. In a sense I was relieved we’d gone out. I’m not sure I could have taken another round, not least as the Toffees were set to face Liverpool in the next round.
It’s difficult to get your head around all that in our modern age of broadband internet, Skype calls and so on, but it wasn’t until February 5th that I got a letter from my Mum including a page spread on that match. I never got to see all the newspaper reports she gathered over that period until I returned home in June for my big sister’s wedding. And at that stage it all still seemed a little surreal, comparing the great Surrey Advertiser coverage by Chris Dyke with less-accurate pieces in the nationals that Mum – working in a village newsagent’s then – had riffled through.
The public clearly fell in love with my team and the many personalities within that classic Cards line-up. Less salubrious rags were full of tales of ‘Bonking’ Bradley Pratt’s appetite for rumpy-pumpy on match days, and laidback Gibraltarian Buzaglo being fed grapes by his wife Rita. It seemed that ‘Effin’ Fred’ Callaghan and co. were more than happy to supply a few spicy stories to the hacks in exchange for national headlines, the tabloids finding new spins on those Crazy Gang tales featuring Dave Bassett’s Wimbledon.
I soon left Sydney, headed for Melbourne, Adelaide, Uluru, Darwen and all points between, traversing outback Australia and only occasionally picking up mail. So it was seven weeks before I had my next first-handwritten reports of that amazing Cup run, while on a remote campsite north of Alice Springs in mid-March, among a batch of letters collected from the nearby Poste Restante. For once I was content to have a night in the van, a stack of reading and feeling homesick ahead of me.
It’s a strange thing: I loved my travel adventures, but at times like that all you can do is rue what you’ve left behind – in my case my Lancashire lass, my Surrey family, my mates and my old social life. All you’ve seen and experienced doesn’t mean a thing, however beautiful the sunsets. And you know you’re truly missing something special when you get a long letter from someone who normally had trouble writing, ‘Gone to the pub’, let alone three whole pages. But as I picked up fellow Cards fan Al’s letter, the situation seemed even bleaker. There I was, 1,000 miles from the nearest town, and all he could do was rub it in:
I’m sitting here in my dimly-lit bedroom, listening to my Joy Division records, with the snow falling and the temperature well below freezing. The economy is in recession, unemployment rising, there’s war in the Gulf, Poll Tax … you get the picture. But am I depressed? No! Why? BECAUSE I WAS THERE! …..”
Alan went on to catalogue those special moments at the Hawthorns and Goodison Park, and all I could wonder was what I was doing there while Timmy Buz knocked seven shades out of the Baggies. He added how we’d really taken the pee by bringing on a ‘growbag’ as a sub and how he ended up scoring our fourth. Belated apologies to Terry Worsfold there, but my unlikely correspondent went on to marvel at the memory of Bradley Pratt, Trevor ‘Smokin’ Joe’ Baron, Biggo, Mark ‘Frilly’ Franks and co. on the same pitch as all those Merseyside-based internationals, giving them a proper battle.
No doubt aware of the damage he was doing, he at least added a touch of gritty realism with his concluding line, writing ‘the League and AC Delco Cup shall now be concentrated on’. He also included admission ticket number 177, inscribed with the not-so-legendary caption ‘Woking 0 Barking 0’.
It was the story of my life. I thought of all the matches I witnessed in previous seasons, against the likes of Dorking, Dulwich Hamlet, Southwick and Seaham Red Star. Yet the moment I turned my back on Blighty, the Cardinals did this. To add insult to injury, British Soccer Weekly reported that Aussie TV would show highlights of the FA Cup, round by round, that following season.
Things weren’t the same on the home front after that. A backlog of fixtures spoiled our promotion hopes, Redbridge Forest taking the title in front of barely 300 jubilant fans. And I was secretly pleased I hadn’t missed out on anything else. Things returned to normal and I basked in the sun on a holiday of a lifetime, the Cards eventually settling for fourth place and an AC Delco and Surrey Demolition cup double after a mighty 66-game season.
As I put in a feature in the late ‘90s, ‘Now it all seems a long time ago, the days of boring everyone with my travel tales and photos long since passed. And after that next term’s league title, our Conference glory days, further FA Cup triumphs and three FA Trophy wins at Wembley, I had no cause to complain. But I could still do without hearing all those nostalgic rambles about our Midlands and Merseyside epics before a pitying, “But of course, you weren’t there, were you?” Sick as a cockatoo, Brian’.
Everton went on to draw twice with Liverpool (0-0 sand 4-4) before a 1-0 win one month after the same outcome against Woking saw them into the last eight. From there, it was a negative run, the Toffees losing to West Ham, who lost to Nottingham Forest, who in turn went down 2-1 after extra time at Wembley to Spurs in a classic final.
Coincidentally, myself and Everton fan Mick Stack, from Crosby, planned to watch the final live from a hostel in Queenstown, New Zealand after a night on the beer and a little clubbing. But our 2am viewing was ruled out as we were in a remote part of South Island where Channel 3 didn’t quite reach. Faced with that disappointment we decided instead to take a Likely Lads approach, avoiding the result until we’d tracked down a repeat showing in Dunedin. But we hadn’t figured on having local radio piped into our rooms at 8am, hearing the outcome on the news.
Incidentally, that was the day Paul Gascoigne suffered his cruciate ligament injury, the same injury that ultimately wrecked Tim Buzaglo’s playing career three months earlier – barely a fortnight after the Everton tie – following an X-rated St Albans City tackle. Buz finally returned and played a minor part in our early Conference adventures, but was never really the same player.
As it turned out, we were only really getting going, Geoff Chapple, Fred Callaghan (who left that following season) and Colin Lippiatt’s side gathering momentum. I was back by June, 1991, and witnessed plenty of key moments during the following promotion-winning season – after just two terms in the Isthmian League top flight. That led to a 17-season first spell in the Conference, nine of those involving top-10 finishes, including two second-places and two third-places in the era before play-offs at that level.
We also won the FA Trophy at Wembley three times – to add to 1958’s FA Amateur Cup success there – by seeing off Runcorn, Kidderminster and Dagenham and Redbridge respectively in 1994, 1995 and 1997, and enjoyed a few more FA Cup highlights, including taking Brighton to a replay in late ’92 (repeated 18 years later) and winning at Millwall and Cambridge United (revenge at last) in late ’96 to set up another day that will always remain with me, a 1-1 third-round draw at Coventry City in late January ’97 (followed by a narrow defeat in the replay at ours).
In fact, we made it to the third round three times in the following six seasons, as opposed to progressing beyond the first round only twice in the next 18 seasons. I guess it’s human nature that we don’t appreciate something until it’s gone, but we’re surely due more national headlines by now. This season’s early exit at Maidenhead United – getting piss-soaked in the process – was a case in point. We haven’t impressed in the FA Trophy either, our last best campaign a defeat in the final to Grays at Upton Park in 2006, another day that didn’t quite go to plan.
But I can’t complain. I’ve got my VHS tapes from those wonder years backed on to disc, and all these years on we’re back on the fringes of the Football League, these last five years under Garry Hill and Steve Thompson (our goal hero at Coventry) seeing us on a high again. And despite our 2015/16 FA Cup no-show, this could be our year, with the National League play-offs in reach and a last-16 FA Trophy home tie coming on February 6th.
No pressure of course, but I’ve been waiting to visit the rebuilt Wembley Stadium for nine years now. And if the current gaffer needs any advice on those big occasions, he just needs to have a quiet word with Geoff, our in-house legend. I can’t promise I’ll be out of the way Down Under this time though.
With thanks to the various photographers and publications included in the scrapbook pages above. Where credits are needed, please let me know.
To rewind the years and relive some of those heady Woking FC moments from 1991 and other key Cards clashes down the years, I heartily recommend the Cardinal Tales’ YouTube channel here.