Non-League Football

Life in the National League: “A battleground of fear and curiosity” *

Woking enjoy their goal

HARTLEPOOL UNITED fans on the journey back to central London were celebrating a 1-1 draw at Woking, crowding the tube at Waterloo (“what team are you?” asked bag-carrying shoppers, claiming they had never heard of them) and proclaiming how their north-east town is close to “heaven”. One of their number turned and commented: “It tells you where we are these days that we are happy about a point at Woking.” Meanwhile, the Surrey side’s manager, Anthony Limbrick, in his post-match analysis said: “It shows how far we have come when we can get a draw with Hartlepool and we are disappointed with it.” All things are relative.

Woking was once a club you felt were heading for the Football League. They were certainly one of non-league football’s big noises, three times FA Trophy winners in the 1990s when it really meant something and FA Cup giant-killers. They may have missed that boat, but the name still carries significant weight. Hartlepool are getting to grips with the National League and given the tightness of the league this season, they could still make a stab at getting back to the EFL at the first attempt.

The visit of a team with a Football League pedigree drew almost 2,500 people to the Laithwaite Community Stadium, the second highest gate of the season at Woking. They’ve had a reasonable start to the campaign and before the arrival of Hartlepool, but it had been a case of win or bust, with seven wins and five defeats in 12 games. As for the so-called “monkey-hangers”, it’s been a difficult start to life outside the 92. “It’s a different world,” said one Hartlepool fan at Kings Cross on his way back to the far north. “But in a way, I’ve enjoyed going to places I’ve never thought of going before – like Woking.”

Talking of worlds, Woking has a claim to fame in being referenced in H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi novel, The War of the Worlds. In fact, inside the stadium, there is an advertising hoarding for H.G. Wells, which is either a bizarre coincidence or some clever marketing in play.

Woking’s ground has always been a curious place for me. A corporation green stand that would not out of place in a 1950s Isthmian League environment, alongside a huge structure that is more akin to League One or Two. It makes for a good spectator experience.

After spending much of this season in small crowds, watching low-level non-league, it was refreshing to watch a game of the quality of Woking v Hartlepool. It underlined the difference a decent attendance can make to the most run-of-the-mill contests.

Hartlepool started better, but Woking had the best early chance when Charlie Carter’s effort was blocked by Hartlepool keeper Scott Loach. Carter then tried his best to get a penalty but saw two vain attempts ignored by the referee.

The visitors went ahead after 26 minutes when a Jon Franks’ cross found the head of Ryan Donaldson at the far post and his effort sailed beyond Woking keeper Nathan Baxter.

Woking equalised seconds before half-time, Chez Isaac’s cross causing some panic and Jamie Philpot almost casually side-footed home from close range. 1-1 at half-time with the promise of a better second period. That didn’t quite happen.

Hartlepool almost grabbed a second when the Woking defence slipped up and substitute Devante Rodney’s speculative lob rolled against the outside of the post.

Like many games, the final minutes produced a sense of urgency in both sides, and in the dying embers, Inih Effiong struck the crossbar. Interesting to see Effiong, a player I felt was over-rated when he was at Hitchin and other step three clubs, playing at National League level.

Honours even, then, but a game of reasonable quality. If the Laithwaite was on my doorstep, I’d be a regular.

*Taken from War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

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