CARDS’ disappointed followers were left to return their fancy dress costumes and oversized flags to the loft for another year as Woking slipped to a timid 2-0 quarter-final exit at the hands of Grimsby Town.
The Mariners look strong favourites to lift the FA Trophy in May’s final after forward Nathan Arnold fired them into the semi-final draw – which includes lower league sides Nantwich Town and Bognor Regis (Halifax Town and Gateshead will replay their tie after a playing out a goalless draw on Saturday).
An encouraging opening 10-minute spell to their last eight tie aside, Garry Hill and his players will have left Blundell Park with major regrets as they registered just a handful of efforts on goal throughout the afternoon.
It was the second time in a week that Hill and his men had been forced to board the team bus in Cleethorpes after defeat by a two-goal margin – the Cards having lost 3-1 in Vanarama National League action last Tuesday evening.
In fairness to the visitors, despite their goal-shy form of late – Woking have scored just twice in their past four games in all competitions – the odds looked stacked against them from the moment these sides were paired together in last month’s draw.
Hosts Grimsby are flying high in third place in the National League and look nailed on for a play-off place. Woking, meanwhile, will cling to the faint hope of gatecrashing the top five league spots having dropped out of contention after a winless league run stretching back to 9 January.
Cards’ management team of Hill and Steve Thompson have made no secret that a tilt at the FA Trophy had become this term’s priority – Hill saying after that midweek loss at Blundell Park that his side were now ‘a mid-table team who can’t go up or down’ this season.
Despite leading Woking to the Conference South championship in 2012 and having two Surrey Senior Cups to their names since taking over at the Kingfield in 2011, were an FA Trophy winners medal, or a final appearance, to evade Hill and Thompson it would leave a frustrating void on their CVs.
As three-times holders of ‘Non-League football’s FA Cup’, as fans refer to the Trophy, those fans who made one if not both of last week’s 400-mile round treks up and down the A1 will ask why their side were unable to evoke the kind of memories that the club must surely aspire to recapture under its most successful management team since Geoff Chapple – the man who last led the side out under the old twin towers almost two decades ago.
But Woking fans’ wait to once again stroll down Wembley Way in the spring sunshine now stretches back 19 years to when Chapple’s Cards beat Rushden & Diamonds 1-0 in 1997 – a final which Thompson played in – and it’s almost a decade since they were beaten finalists (2-0) at West Ham United’s Boleyn Ground against Grays Athletic.
On the evidence of this latest exit at the last eight stage of the tournament, a place in May’s play-off final under the famous arch seems a long shot for Hill’s men – barring a late return to form over the final 11 league games of the season, which begins on Saturday when fellow promotion outside bets Dover Athletic – currently three points ahead of the Cards – visit Kingfield.
With his own attacking options dented by Dan Holman’s January departure to Cheltenham Town, how Hill would love to be able to call upon as potent a forward trio as Grimsby’s Arnold, Padraig Amond and Jon-Paul Pittman.
Between them the fearsome threesome have banked 42 goals this term in all competitions – Arnold contributing a large chunk of that number, with 28 of those alone for Paul Hurst’s Mariners. Arnold knows what it takes to go all the way to Wembley having been part of the Cambridge United squad who were promoted via the play-offs in 2014.
Goal number 27 of this campaign arrived for Arnold after a promising start from the Cards, in which Giuseppe Sole had a couple of sights of James McKeown in the Grimsby goal. But it was Arnold who struck the opener when he met a cross from the byline from marauding wideman Andy Monkhouse.
Having conceded so early, the remaining 78 minutes were always likely to be an uphill task for the away side – an assignment made doubly hard when Arnold fired a low, left-footed second past Jake Cole; the Cards keeper getting a touch but unable to keep the ball out.
Playing second fiddle to strong opposition and two goals behind at the start of the second half, Hill threw on tall targetman Joe Quigley after 55 minutes in place of Keiran Murtagh.
Experienced midfielder Murtagh, playing alongside young debutant Matt Butcher, were simply being dominated in the midfield exchanges by Town’s Jon Nolan. But with Sole and Quigley blunted at the sharp end of the field, and John Goddard and Bruno Andrade unusually quiet on the flanks, any realistic hopes of forcing an in-form home side back to Kingfield for a replay faded as the minutes ticked by.
Indeed, as the BBC pundit Mark Lawrenson often quips, Grimsby’s centre-half pairing of Shaun Pearson and Josh Gowling could have ‘had a cigar on’, so little action were the pair called in to as the Cards failed to lay a glove on their comfortable opponents.
A nasty cut to the shin of captain Mark Ricketts, filling in at the centre of the Cards’ back line in place of the injured Brian Saah, further compounded an increasingly dire day for the visitors. The Woking skipper hobbled off the field with 20 minutes to go with a blood-stained left sock and three stitches in the wound for his troubles.
One final chance came and went as full-back Chris Arthur fired a fierce cross-shot through a packed penalty area – but, without a telling touch to prod the ball home, Woking’s Trophy road was at an end for another season.