niallb on The story of a support band.
This is an extended version of a post I wrote a couple of years ago. Think of it as the 12” remix.
If I could have jumped on any band wagon in my 34th year, then the FA Cup run of non-league Woking FC, in 1990, was as good as any tiny little band wagon around. It turned out that the little band wagon became a runaway train.
The date was Saturday 8th December 1990. A few friends had been following Isthmian Premier League team, Woking FC, throughout the Qualifying rounds. The Isthmian Prem was one division down from the Conference, the Holy Grail of non-league football. My mates had been to the home game against Bath City, from the Conference, in the 4th Qualifying round. Woking had won 2-1.
In the First Round Proper, The Cards (short for Cardinals, from the Cardinal Red colour of their red & white halves shirt,) drew high flying Conference side Kidderminster Harriers, again at home. It was a 0-0 draw and the replay, at Kiddy, was 1-1. The second replay (remember them?) also at Kiddy, was 1-1 until Woking scored in the dying minutes. I was listening on local radio, at my home, 20 minutes from Woking’s Kingfield Ground, and decided then that I would go to the next round.
I parked my car quite a bit away from the ground, on that cold, drizzly December day. Having never been there before, I actually had a street map in my pocket as I set off to walk it. I needn’t have worried. By the time I got to the main road, the pavement was full of people in red & white scarves, all heading in the same direction. I paid my few quid at the turnstiles, bought a programme, turned right (no idea why) and walked around the back of the two small stands, to a section of terracing, in one corner. The ground was already packed, and I found myself a spot, about three steps up, near the corner flag. My mates were all over the other side of the ground, on the terracing that ran the length of the pitch, but I wanted to do this on my own. I had no idea if I was going to enjoy it, no idea if I would enjoy the crowds. I am a very solitary person. Even now 27 years later, when all my mates have moved away, or simply stopped going, I’ll sit in the stand, and not speak to anyone – just concentrate on what’s in front of my, soaking up the conversations around me about Joe’s performance on Tuesday night, or the sitter that Iffy missed last Saturday.
Merthyr Tydfil were another Conference side, another side of hardened semi-pros, big lads at the back, big lad up front, kick anything that moves. The pitch was shocking, by today’s standards. The ball kept sticking in the mud and Woking’s passing game proved difficult to maintain. Manager Geoff Chapple, a successful forward for Woking in the late 1970’s, had stuck to his guns all through this Cup run. Every interview in the Surrey Advertiser had him talking about ‘proper football’, ‘passing football’, ‘playing the game the right way.’ Over the next 7 years, for that very reason, I followed him and his team just about everywhere.
Over 4,000 were packed into Woking’s small ground that day, about 3,300 more than on an average Saturday.
Mark Biggins was from Middlesbrough. I don’t mean the football club, just the town. He was 27 years old in 1990 and had been at Woking for 3 years. His fee from Windsor & Eton had been £2,000. He never played League football, spending all of his career in the lower leagues with clubs like Feltham, Maidenhead United, Harrow and Hampton.
Woking fans loved him. Biggo was small, wiry and could turn the big, lumbering defenders in the Isthmian League inside out. I had never seen him before that day but I instantly fell in love with him. How could you not? To be fair, the game turned out to be his crowning glory in a Woking shirt. He had many great games after it, influenced big results and scored a few terrific goals. But, on this day, the 8th December 1990, he was playing a type of football that would have graced White Hart Lane, Old Trafford or Anfield. He was that good.
Merthyr Tydfil were having a poor run in the Conference. Woking had already beaten 3 other Conference sides in the earlier rounds of that season’s FA Cup, so an upset was, as they say, on the cards. Woking full back, Lloyd Wye, scored the first goal, a great header from a cross by his brother, Shane. Biggo scored the second, a scruffy, deflected shot into the corner of the Merthyr goal. Woking went into half-time 2-0 up. Tim Buzaglo, whose father had taught me History at school, got a 3rd goal and, shortly after, was fouled by Merthyr’s Williams, who was sent off. Biggo got the 4th, after another flowing move, before Merthyr got what was surely just a consolation goal. Merthyr had another player sent off, for a terrible foul on Shane Wye, and the game was over as a contest. But it wasn’t over as a spectacle. Biggo’s hat trick came with a shot from 25 yards out, curled around a defender, into the top corner of the Merthyr goal. He just turned away, applauding, as his team mates surrounded him.
With just moments to go in the game, the ball dribbled off the pitch, right in front of me. Woking were 5-1 up and Biggo had 3 of them.
Mark Biggins trudged over to take the throw-in, with that distinctive bow legged gait, and bent down to pick up the ball. As he did so, a huge voice from the terrace behind me, boomed out.
“Pull your finger out, Biggo. You’ve done fuck all today.”
Mark looked up, ball in hand, searching for the owner of the voice. For a second his face was wracked with pain, scowling. But the few hundred adoring fans in front of him were roaring laughing and, a second later, so was Mark. He stood looking at us, just for 2 or 3 seconds, as we applauded, sang, cheered, no, screamed his name, “Biggo, Biggo, Biggo…” He shook his head, as if he couldn’t quite believe what had happened in the past 100 minutes, and turned to take the throw.
On the way home, I thought about gigs, playing in the band, girlfriends, even the birth of my daughter. I couldn’t remember being happier.
The rest is history. Away to West Brom, beat them 4-2 and Timmy Buzz scored a hat-trick and was on Match of the Day. Everton away, lost 1-0, hit the post in the last minutes and the Goodison fans stood and applauded the Woking players all the way round the pitch. I cried tears of joy and pride.
The game at West Brom is, still, one of the happiest days of my life.
I was working in the morning, in Byfleet. Shut up the warehouse at 12.30pm, set the alarm, on the road by 12.45. Drove like a b out of h, through some shocking weather, and got to the ground at 3.05pm (I know.) Dumped the car in a side street and legged it. My ticket was a seat in the main stand, right up the back, with a load of Woking fans. I hurtled up about 30 flights of stairs and breathlessly gave my ticket to a steward to check. I tapped a bloke in the back row and asked the score.
“One nil down. Hello bruv.” It was my brother. I had no idea he was going.
Great memories. After the Merthyr game I was hooked. Every home game for the next 5 years, and loads of away trips, including the first 2 seasons in the Conference, where a bunch of us did every away game, all competitions.
I now know that I was chucking myself into a new passion because my marriage was falling apart. I was taking her eldest boy with me, so she didn’t mind the Saturday’s out, but I obviously needed something to absorb me.
Some of the favourite days of my life have been supporting Woking.
Turning up in Boston in that first Conference season and finding the best chippy I have ever been in, before or since. We were gutted when they got relegated!
Arriving early at Gateshead (I drove all the way there, and back) and getting into their Supporters Club bar. The ref and linesmen arrived, in their FA blazers and stood next to us, examining the programme.
Ref: “Ah, the Wye brothers. Which one’s the nutter.”
Lino: “Lloyd, the full back.”
Ref: “Okay. Good.”
Lloyd Wye was sent off, for his very first tackle, 3 minutes in.
Away at Billingham, Middlesbrough, midweek, in the FA Trophy. I took the afternoon off, picked up Big Stevie (a dustman) who had just finished his early shift, and set off. I drove, Stevie slept. A six hour drive, into a pub, grab a burger, walk to the ground. A copper shows us down to a side entrance, away from the queueing Cards fans, and we find ourselves in the Kids & Family section, right on the halfway line. We win the game, but nearly get thrown out, twice, as Big Stevie’s industrial pleadings to the officials, Geoff Chapple, Kevan Brown and anyone else within ear shot, offend the families around us. Finally, a copper piles in and grabs Stevie’s Hi-Vis jacket (he’d come straight from work, and anyway, he wore it everywhere.) at the neck.
“Right, you Southern poofter. This is the family section. Out!”
“Oi! It was you that put us in here, mate.” Cue red faced member of the Constabulary.
“Right, well just keep it down, eh?”
Woking win and I drive the 6 hours back home, drop off Big Stevie at the depot, for work, and get home to my poky, newly divorced, one bedroom flat at 4am. I opened up the warehouse at 7.30am.
Happy, happy days.
Not so much in 1994 when my marriage finally broke down, I found out she was having an affair, confronted her and then took 300 paracetamol, washed down with a bottle of brandy, and lay down on a frozen, January hillside, to die.
I didn’t die.
I was so fucking angry that I was still alive. “You stupid wanker! You can’t even do that properly.”
Even through the foggy haze in my brain, I knew I was ill. I almost crawled back to the car, drove to hospital (I know! It was about 6.30am, thank God, so there wasn’t much traffic in Guildford, luckily,) and fell into the A&E Department. The next few days were a blur of Secure Unit, my crying Mum, interviews with a psychiatrist and a white-coated doctor signing a clipboard for the lad in the next bed, and saying “Section.”
I lived at my Mum’s for a few months before I found my “poky, newly divorced, one bedroom flat “ and, after nearly 4 months away from football, travelled to Enfield for the FA Trophy Semi-Final replay. It had been 1-1 at our place, and this was a hard, sometimes nasty affair, the game ending at 0-0. So, to a 2nd replay, at a neutral ground, Adams Park, the home of last year’s Conference Champions, and FA Trophy winners, Wycombe Wanderers.
“You fucking beauty,” screamed Big Stevie, right in my face, holding my head in both hands. I thought he was going to kiss me. Thankfully, no. He turned and ran down the terrace, with hundreds of other fans, to roar his approval at our little team, the bunch of part-timers and amateurs, the sparky, the plumber, the labourer, the taxi driver, who had just beaten Enfield 3-0 and were going to Wembley. Me? I stayed rooted to the spot. The rain had been pouring down throughout the game, covering my glasses in thick spots, blurring my vision. For once, I was glad of the rain – just now, at this wonderful, joyous, glorious moment – because I was sobbing my heart out. All of the hurt, the pain, the mental problems and the heartache poured out of me on that sodden terrace. I cried so hard that my shoulders shook, huge gulps of air hitting the back of my throat as I let it all out. After a few moments I was aware of someone hugging me. Not with joy at what we had just witnessed but with love. Big Stevie had come back up the terrace and just hugged me, for several minutes, his huge arms wrapped around me, his hi-vis coat pulling me in, his sharp beard rubbing against my face. After a while, he pulled his face back and looked into my eyes.
“You nearly missed it,” he whispered. We both knew what he meant – he was one of the few people I had told what happened – and he was right. I was crying for everything I had lost, including my sanity. But I was also crying for the joy of being alive, the joy of going to Wembley.
The joy of beating Runcorn 2-1, at Wembley, just 42 months after Biggo and the 5-1.
Biggo and The Life Savers sound like a support band. In so many ways, they were.