55 Football Nations is about different footballing cultures, meeting people who travel or commit to their team. Few epitomise this more than Robert, one of a pack of Dutch Cards who regularly travel from the Netherlands to watch Woking play. I visited Surrey to meet Robert and experience the penultimate National League match between relegation candidates Woking and York City.
Robert, a lifelong fan of PSV and Mexican beer, explained his interest in Woking was piqued by playing the computer game Football Manager. His first Woking match, against Lewes, was part of the disappointing 2008-09 season which saw both clubs relegated to the Conference South. However, despite Woking’s travails, this provoked a long-distance love affair. It has become personal. “Woking is a family, everyone knows you … at some clubs you are just a number, here you are a person.”
Woking is indeed homely. There is a knowing and dedicated buzz amidst the home fans, a familiarity that Robert enjoys. The Cardinals’ Bar once homed a Style Council video and, three decades on from Paul Weller, houses keenly-priced drinks in a casual, retrospective, atmosphere. Framed pictures and the player of the season plaque are proudly displayed. Kevin Betsy, a bit-part player for Fulham, is much loved at Woking, winning the award twice with fourteen years of league football in between.
Three sides of Kingfield are a pleasingly ramshackle collection of mostly standing areas. Sponsorship reflects National League staples amidst a leafy Surrey backdrop, Pukka Pies rubbing shoulders with DoubleTree by Hilton. The main stand seems a symbol of higher division intent. Robert is keen that any long-term progress at Woking is driven by people, the strong community behind the club, not an erstwhile benefactor. Woking can draw on a relatively large population who enjoy watching football on a local scale, but are a part-time club battling against others’ full time budgets.
Fifth division football mixes the aspiring with the near expired. Jon Parkin, veteran of countless Championship campaigns, now carefully conserves his energy. York, nerveless at first, worked on harnessing his experience, a shot that was sliced out for a throw hardly the desired outcome. Gozie Ugwu, Woking’s leading striker, is a decade Parkin’s junior, his early movement betrayed by a diffident touch. A goalless first half increased the tension.
Robert, a true European, enjoys freedom of movement whilst watching Woking. The Kingfield Road End hardcore, with their vivid repertoire of songs and a rogue flare, dissipate into the main stand for the second half. The sun dipped and both Parkin and Ugwu shined greater. Parkin struck a fine free-kick, no running required, that the accomplished Poke tipped over. Woking began to exploit midfield space. Delano Sam-Yorke attacked, a sprightly run, another halted. Ugwu stuttered his approach, his penalty was straight and true. Sam-Yorke and Ugwu both had good opportunities, saved and skewed wide.
Woking seemed content. Connor Hall was substituted, surprising few nor Hall himself as he coyly ran towards the Chris Lane Terrace as the board was raised, gently limping across the breadth of the pitch to discard seconds when minutes remained. York had their own ace, substitute Sam Muggleton’s arcing throws were swift and accurate. The first was a good sighter. Parkin turned on the second and equalised for York. A third throw caused more mayhem. Poke made a final save from Vadaine Oliver. A merited draw.
Both teams remain unsafe. Woking need four results to turn against them, York a win and prayers. The genial atmosphere continued after the game, players mixing, injured Woking captain, Ismail Yakubu, beaming in the late afternoon light. A few frayed comments directed by Woking supporters at York players merely reflected the game’s importance.
Woking are affordable. Robert and his Dutch Cards have signed up for £99 season tickets and will surely be watching more National League football. They will spend much more money on ferry tickets and Coronas, but their English hearts will remain in deepest Surrey.