Thursday, December 6, 2018

On the way to Wembley with Woking

NON-LEAGUE DREAMS FACE THE PREMIER LEAGUE IN THE F.A. CUP

Clubs five leagues apart facing off? The F.A. Cup must still retain some magic.

Last Sunday I watched my home town team, Woking, a team from the sixth level of English football, beat Swindon Town, a team from the fourth, 1-0 away to reach the third round of the F.A. Cup.

On the way to Wembley with Woking

Swindon had made four changes and their fans were far from excited at the prospect of playing a non-league team, even if it meant a plum tie in the next round.

Out of the 3,654 in attendance around 1,000 were from Woking. The tickets were a steal at only £10, around half of what Woking charge as a matter of fact, but the locals were still not up for it.

A true supporter always feels empathy with fans of other teams and there was something melancholic about visiting a stadium barely a fifth full, when at the start of the nineties there had been a lot of excitement about the place as stylish passing football flourished under Ossie Ardiles and then Glenn Hoddle.

With such paltry crowds and takings, one could only wonder how Swindon could hope to thrive again.

Playing two divisions below in the semi-professional National League South, Woking's win was an act of (modest) giant-killing. For little teams a cup run is only a temporary fillip; in the case of the Cardinals the main battle remains getting out of the division into which they were relegated last season.

Despite a drizzly, gloomy day in the West Country, the Cards' 54th minute goal from Jake Hyde, a former trainee at the County Ground as it happened, sparked an explosion of bliss in one corner of the County Ground. The final whistle was the cue for more delirium.

So the reward for our 15 minutes of fame is a home tie with Watford in the 4th Round in January. The Hornets are not the Gunners or the Red Devils it is true but nobody in Woking is moaning about bagging a Premier League side.

If Ruud Gullit or Paul Ince had drawn Arsenal or Manchester United out of the urn instead then the  little tiled roof of Woking's Kingfield Stadium would surely have been taken off.

Memories of our greatest day resound. In January 1991 Woking were also playing in the sixth tier of English football but defeated West Bromwich Albion, then in the second, 4-2 away in the third round of the F.A. Cup.

Talk about delirium, that day for Woking fans was an ecstatic trip to heaven and beyond.

That chilly day in the West Midlands remains probably the happiest day of my life, when my dismal, concrete home town suddenly and fleetingly became, mirabile dictu, the toast of the nation.

On the way to Wembley with Woking

In a dusty drawer, I still have the yellowing sports pages of every Sunday newspaper from that weekend as Woking led the headlines and I continue to believe that the council should erect a statue of our Gibraltarian hat-trick hero that day at the Hawthorns, Tim Buzaglo.

When I met the real Mr Buzaglo in the flesh a year or so later I was truly star-struck.

For those who grew up with professional teams for their local clubs it is hard to grasp the non-league fan mindset.

Our clubs are not on the telly and our supporting lives consist of treks to rackety little stadia in peripheral settings and hunting around for news and results. Sometimes we used to travel on the same coach as the players to games, so small was our away following.

My formative football years as a teenager were spent watching the Surrey Senior Cup, F.A. Trophy et al and I felt inside at the time that all those freezing Tuesday nights on terraces with my acrylic red and white scarf for comfort were something special, although I could not quite articulate why.

On the way to Wembley with Woking

As a teenager, football appealed to my burgeoning masculinity and sense of tribe and at lower levels of the pyramid, supporters feel more deeply connected to their team. I felt pride and belonging chalking up as many Woking games as I could. Football was my favourite thing so the 1991 win at the Hawthorns was the apex of my life hitherto.

Surrey itself is a football backwater, despite its proximity to London. It has no professional sides so the F.A. Cup affords us our only moments in the sun.

Sutton United's 2-1 win over top-flight Coventry City in 1989 is generally considered the pinnacle of Surrey football history and the go-to example of non-league giant killing but in Woking we would argue our win at West Brom was the greater.

Four divisions separated the teams in both those games but while Sutton won 2-1 at home, Woking won 4-2 away. In the next round we both played top-level teams on the road: Woking lost 0-1 to Everton and Sutton lost 0-8 to Norwich City. In beating a top-flight side however, Sutton retain their claim to fame.

On the way to Wembley with Woking

Non-league football has not changed as much as the professional game since. The terrace culture of standing and surging when you score is still alive, as is running up and down steps to berate or celebrate, while the ability to move away easily from idiots is a great advantage over all-seat stadia.

Even the luxury of switching ends at half time remains common. You feel closer to the players because you physically are.

There is still something very endearing about the simply-produced programmes, parochial sponsors, cheap food and drink stalls, damp and rotting wooden stands, hospitality suites in otherwise condemned buildings and perhaps above all the loyal, decrepit old timers who still hobble to every match come rain or shine.

The English football season is largely a winter one, played in the worst weather of a country with a notoriously bad climate anyway. To subject yourself to 90 minutes of crap football in that environment so regularly says something about the powerful draw of the sport.

In 1991 after our miracle in the Midlands we were drawn at home to Everton but switched the tie for financial reasons. Our towering £1 million stand remains as the legacy of that controversial but in the end probably wise move.

We lost 1-0 away at Goodison Park to a Kevin Sheedy shot in the fourth round, unable to repeat the magic of the Hawthorns but with fond memories of an unlikely trip to Merseyside one January Sunday for a tenth of our population.

There will be five divisions' difference again for Woking in the next round of 2019's F.A. Cup.

Impossible again? Nah, we are only four wins from Wembley.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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