WOKING’S battle-hardened troops had to don their tin hats on Saturday to secure a point against FC Halifax Town, playing for more than an hour with 10 men.
Those supporters who ventured out to a crisp but bright Kingfield were always likely to be in for a hotly-contested clash between two of the Vanarama National League’s in-form sides.
Since the Cards’ comprehensive 3-0 win over the Shaymen in Yorkshire in October, these sides have charged up the division’s standings – Woking unbeaten in six league games before kick-off; Halifax eight.
But rather than seeing a fierce first-round knockout, chilled fans were forced to stick with this slow-burner of a tussle, which had gently bubbled under until 25 minutes in when full-back Chris Arthur was shown a straight red card by referee Adam Hopkins.
Given his sprinter’s build, Arthur is hardly inconspicuous – but when hurtling airborne into a two-footed lunge on Town defender James Bolton the Woking man was sure to draw a condemning eye from the officials.
It was all a far cry from seven days earlier when Arthur grabbed the headlines for his blockbuster 35-yard strike in the FA Trophy against Maidenhead United.
Woking manager Garry Hill was quick to condemn the visitors’ pressure tactics to ensure Arthur was sent for an early bath – with the whole away side, bar goalkeeper Sam Johnson, rushing to berate the man in the middle.
Quizzically, Mr Hopkins then failed to appear for the second half; the official line being he had picked up an injury – thus putting him on fourth official duties after the interval.
Whether that muscle twinge was more painful than spending the second 45 minutes stood yards from a disgruntled Hill, who knows?
“You were exactly having a good afternoon out there were you?” Hill was heard asking at one point. The Cards’ boss also confirmed he will request the FA’s disciplinary panel review the incident.
Any hopes of a reprieve for Arthur may be erring on the side of wishful thinking given the lunging nature of the challenge, plus the handbags that followed with Town’s Scott McManus in the mass melee.
Meanwhile, the overzealous cries of foul play from Halifax boss Jim Harvey and his side may make for interesting viewing for the FA’s judge and jury, and could yet land the Shaymen in hot water.
Hill said: “I would honestly say that if the Halifax players had shown as much desire in the first half of the season as they did in trying to get a player sent off today then they wouldn’t be sitting at the bottom of the league, where they are now.
“They were very persuasive and quickly surrounded the referee to put him under pressure.”
Whoever was in the right or wrong, Hill praised his Woking side for facing a gruelling 65 minutes a man light with ‘character and commitment’.
“When you lose a player against any team in this league, it’s tough for 20 minutes, 30 minutes.
“But to play with 10 players for 65 minutes against a team that hasn’t lost in eight league games, and show the character, commitment and discipline to restrict them to very limited opportunities – in respect of Jake Cole didn’t have too much to do after some great defending – they’ve done very well today the lads,” surmised Hill.
Town’s fall from grace is one of the big surprises of the season. As Hill alluded to, the Yorkshire side have languished towards the foot of the National League amid financial problems and a fire sale of the squad who helped them to a ninth-place finish last term.
But since taking over the hotseat, new chief Harvey has transformed the Shaymen from the whipping boys of the division – both Cheltenham and Grimsby had put seven goals past the relegation-threatened side this term – with their unbeaten run stretching back to late November.
It was always going to take a special goal to break the deadlock in an end-to-end but tight affair – and both sides duly supplied one apiece before the interval.
Cards’ flying winger Bruno Andrade opened the scoring with a trademark lightening counter attack. Picking up the ball from a Halifax corner, the Portuguese sprinted two thirds of the field at breakneck speed before supplying an arrow-like drive, right-to-left, low across keeper Sam Johnson from the edge of the penalty area.
Andrade’s mix of composure, speed and precision in landing the first blow earned praise from his boss: “Bruno has shown a great bit of quality and skill, running and power, and it was a great goal.”
The question was, could Woking hold on to their lead for the best part of an hour against a physical Halifax outfit with just 10 men?
The answer, sadly, was no. In fact that lead lasted just two minutes as Sam Walker pulled the visitors level with a sublime curling free-kick.
Despite vocal protests from players and supporters at what they saw as another rough call from the officials, Walker picked himself up from a sliding Keiran Murtagh challenge on the edge of the penalty area to skilfully curl the ball up and over the wall and past a rooted Jake Cole in the home goal.
Hill echoed the sentiments of the irked home crowd afterwards, summing up how the emotions of a match can quickly change: “Keiran didn’t think it was a foul, but it was frustrating because it was a cheap free kick to give away – the boy’s put it away well, so we’ve got no complaints.”
Level at the break, from then onwards it was a case of stick rather than twist for the Cards as, to a man, Hill’s players fought doggedly to keep what they held, although they did carve out some half-chances to nick an unlikely winner.
Back for a second loan stint, Luton Town midfielder Matt Robinson came off the bench to rattle the crossbar as he produced a shot out of nothing four minutes into the second period.
While Robinson is a relatively new addition to the Woking set-up, a fixture in Hill’s starting XI, John Goddard, continued to impress with some jinking runs down the left flank.
On this occasion, the Cards’ top scorer was unable to add to the impressive haul of 13 goals already banked this season – an effort into the side netting as close as he would get.
The change of referee hardly appeased a bemused Kingfield crowd, who were left furious when Cameron Norman and Murtagh were cautioned, while Halifax’s strong-arm tactics appeared to go unpunished.
But credit the likes of Brian Saah and Joey Jones, who marshalled Woking’s defensive lines manfully to get the better of Shaymen strikers Shaun Tuton and Jordan Burrow and see out the game for a hard-fought draw.
That valuable point consolidated the Cards in sixth position in the standings ahead of their Tuesday night trip to Altrincham.