Forest Green 1
THE wait is over Cards fans! A sun-soaked New Lawn, Gloucestershire, was the venue as Woking ended their 13 games of hurt in typically dramatic style.
What has all the fuss been about over the last winless three months, the neutral may ask as Woking came from a goal down – after Kieffer Moore’s 10th-minute opener – to net a first league ‘double’ in a decade over their old foes Forest Green Rovers.
Striker Danny Carr had quietened the quaint village of Nailsworth with a penalty twenty minutes from time – but the locals were well and truly silenced as Cameron Norman’s last-gasp drive ensured a rare three points were heading back to Kingfield.
Wipe most of the intervening 32 matches between September’s win over Rovers – also by a 2-1 scoreline – and this April epiphany in the West Country felt like (if not quite a title decider) at least, a play-off clincher between two of Non-League’s
Neither Woking nor Green have ever tasted promotion to the Football League and, as it transpired, Garry Hill’s men were to play the 2015/16 kingmakers. Just on the other side of The Cotswolds, Cheltenham Town’s 2-0 defeat of FC Halifax Town – courtesy of a brace from ex-Card Dan Holman – coupled with Woking overcoming the Robins’ nearest title challengers, decreed that the National League trophy will wing its way to Whaddon Road.
With their title dreams ended in the final throws of an end-to-end encounter – and ex-Woking man Holman adding the final nail in the Nailsworth trophy parade, it’s safe to say the villagers were glad to see the back of the Woking team – turned party – bus as Hill and his men returned back down the M4.
A commute to Gloucestershire is one of the shortest for Yeovil-based Cards assistant boss Steve Thompson, while it was Clacton-bound for an ecstatic Hill.
It has been said a thousand times in pubs from Clacton to Carlisle: ‘It’s a funny old game’ …not that Hill’s opposite number, Forest Green boss Ady Penock was laughing on Saturday evening as he wrestled with the task of geeing up his downcast players to try and follow their El Glosico rivals – as the Cheltenham v Rovers derby is dubbed – up to League Two via the end of season lottery of the play-offs.
Indeed, Hill – who would love to have his own play-off headache this month – offered some sympathy: “Ady’s got a very good team here; any team that gets 90 points [Forest Green have 86 points with two games remaining] over the course of the season are very unlucky not to go up as champions,” adding that he expects his side to finish off this turbulent season strongly to claim a top 12 finish – just as his side have achieved in each season since returning to the division as Conference South champions in 2012.
Two changes were made by Hill and Thompson to their starting XI – Alex Smith replaced out wide by Bruno Andrade; and match winner Norman coming in to the backline.
The challenge for Norman and co was stark, however, as they faced up to the likes of – scorer at Kingfield – striker Kurtis Guthrie; skilful provider Elliott Frear – level with Cards’ Andrade in the assists chart (12); and Keanu Marsh-Brown, a champion with Barnet last season.
But with any lingering threat of relegation having been put to bed during the midweek round of fixtures – and the shackles off – Woking started brightly; Keiran Murtagh and Andrade matching their much vaunted opponents, the pair combining well in the opposition half to draw a save from Green keeper Steve Arnold in the fifth minute.
Ironically, Norwich City loanee Norman – in for Jones after a clash of heads in the 1-1 draw with Gateshead seven days earlier – was forced off with a cut to his head of his own but, thankfully, returned to the action, albeit with no name on his changed shirt.
That interruption was ultimately to cost the visitors dear as, with Norman out of his central defensive slot, forward Moore latched on to Darren Carter’s through ball to break the deadlock after 10 minutes.
After a strong start, it was a tough break for Woking – as was the sight of an effort by Murtagh finding the car park rather than testing Arnold minutes later.
The youthful exuberance of Penock’s jet-heeled side has thrilled – and, perhaps, proved their Achilles Heel – this term, with Frear, Guthrie, Marsh-Brown and Moore all laying in wait to punish any mistakes from Cards’ young side.
That fear factor, and a tentative touch in the final third, belied Woking’s crisp approach play, with Murtagh again pulling the strings.
As Hill admitted as much post-match, Woking rode their luck at the close of the first 45 minutes – Marsh-Brown and Guthrie
making a mess of a one-on-one chance with Jake Cole, before Cards’ on-song stopper kept out the latter once again to keep the deficit to just the one goal at the break.
Kicking towards their small huddle of fans, Woking upped the tempo at the start of the second period – Andrade asking questions of Forest Green full-back David Pipe.
With news of Cheltenham’s lead filtering its way from the stands on to the field, Woking seized on the change of mood at the New Lawn – Andrade racing on to Murtagh’s delightfully flighted through ball only to be bundled over by the scrambling Pipe.
Despite a big hand from Arnold diverting the resulting spot-kick on to his right-hand post, Carr’s effort squirmed its way into the back of the net to set up a grandstand last 20 minutes.
Once again, a combination of Cole and the Cards’ new-found rub of the green kept Frear and Carter out at close quarters as Rovers saw their title aspirations dying a slow death.
But as the clock ticked into four minutes of added time, one last gamble paid off as the ‘man with no number’ Norman, drilled Andrade’s cross low past Arnold from inside a packed penalty area – sealing that evasive first victory since 9 January.