With Euro 2020 now behind us and Woking’s pre-season starting later this week, CardsCast host Glen Harrington previews new hope, full-time football, big signings, and a redemption arc.
When the full-time whistle blew on the final Saturday in May 2021, it was met with a sense of relief amongst the sparsely populated, socially distanced crowd at the Laithwaite Community Stadium. A 4-2 defeat against a Wealdstone team, who had themselves come into the game off the back of a 10-match winless run and conceding a near record-breaking 97 league goals in just 41 fixtures, capping off arguably the worst season in the club’s history.
If not the worst, it was certainly the most difficult: just two home matches played in front of supporters, games which themselves were even greater logistical nightmares than those played behind closed doors, an unenviable injury list which ravaged a squad already short on quality and experience during the second-half of the season, whilst many of the top earners from a squad put together on a shoestring budget were later furloughed with a view towards protecting the club’s interests for next season.
The Cards finished the season with 33 points from their 42 games, with just one win (and five points) from their final 20 fixtures. The one highlight was the cup performances, a rare win over neighbours Aldershot Town in the FA Cup and a run to the FA Trophy semi-final, the club’s best performance in the competition since 2006, but even that ended in disappointment with defeat to National League North side Hereford – who would then, ironically, go on to lose the Wembley showpiece to Isthmian Premier Division side AFC Hornchurch.
Despite the obvious challenges, a vocal percentage of the fanbase (including this writer) were far from sympathetic, heaping pressure on manager Alan Dowson during the final two months of the season – pointing towards a turgid style of play, uninspiring signings, and an increasingly tetchy attitude in interviews. But in stark contrast to many of football’s decision-makers, the board led by chair Rosemary Johnson and new investor John Katz valiantly stuck by their man, citing a successful two plus years in charge pre-pandemic. They even went as far as to reward the management team with new two-year contracts in April, effectively putting an end to any debate or speculation on their future. For them, the season had purely been about survival, and survive they had.
But whilst most of the country’s attentions have been on the Euros, the top brass at Woking have been having a busy summer. The club has returned to working full-time for the first time in more than a decade, there are new training facilities, a new Adidas-produced kit, even a new club website and online shop which all gives the impression of a more professionally run outfit. Katz and partner Drew Volpe’s marketing expertise are certainly being put to good use.
True to their word, the playing staff has also seen heavy investment, with eight new signings thus far, whilst several of Dowse’s former ‘dressing room generals’ have said their goodbyes – Ben Gerring (Bath City), Jack Cook (Wealdstone), and Nathan Collier (retired) chief among them. In fact, only goalkeeper Craig Ross, defender Moussa Diarra, and winger Jamar Loza – who were all already contracted at the end of the season – have been retained thus far, in addition to academy players Leo Hamblin, Selim Saied, and Sam Evans, who have been added to with fellow graduates Jake Rumble and Louis Evans – a huge credit to academy manager Scott Harrison and his team. They could yet be joined by club captain Josh Casey, who is widely anticipated to sign a new deal, after publicly expressing his desire to stay.
There may be some eyebrows raised if the Cards end up retaining four of last season’s back five, after buying in former loanee Kyran Lofthouse from Oxford United on a two-year deal. After all, the Cards endured a torrid end to the season and finished the campaign having conceded 69 goals, but Dowse will likely be confident with his defensive options regardless. Lofthouse, who featured at both right-back and left-back last season, is still only 20. If he continues to develop at the same rate he did last season, given an ongoing exposure to first-team football, then Dowse will be smelling a profitable sale to a Football League side in the future.
To add to that, two-time Player of the Year winner Ross, who spent a busy season continuing to establish himself as one of the National League’s finest goalkeepers; Casey, who missed much of the horror end to the season through injury, but remains vital with his experience and leadership; Diarra, who returned midway through the campaign after a spell with Havant & Waterlooville, endured a mixed season alongside a succession of centre-back partners, but remains a big presence in both boxes; and the returning Joe McNerney, back at Kingfield after six-years away, and with more than 120 Football League appearances to show for it.
The Cards have also captured the versatile and hugely experienced Tom Champion, most recently of Boreham Wood, but who has Football League experience with both Cambridge United and Barnet. A defensive midfielder by trade but deployed on the right of a back three for the Wood, he gives Dowse much-needed options for how to setup his team.
Two other midfielders are currently awaiting their Woking debuts. Rohan Ince could be the shrewdest signing of the summer after joining from Maidenhead United. The 28-year-old has played Championship football for Brighton & Hove Albion and Fulham in the past, but a bad injury which caused him to miss close to two years of football, saw him drop into non-league. But after proving his fitness over 30 uninterrupted games with the Magpies, Woking supporters will be hoping the Montserrat international is back to somewhere approaching his best. The Cards have also added the exciting Solomon Nwabuokei, something of an unknown quantity after two interrupted seasons in the National League South with St Albans City, but another player who comes with glowing reviews from his former fanbase, while four goals in 11 league games last season also suggests he knows where the goal is.
Further forward, Woking fans will be delighted to see the return of Tyreke Johnson. The then Southampton player shone in a short loan spell with the Cards two seasons ago, and after seeing his career stall at Gillingham over the last 12 months, the winger has returned on a permanent basis. Goals remain the biggest worry, the returning Inih Effiong and fellow new signing George Oakley only managed two league goals between them last season. Effiong, who scored 10 times for Woking in 2017 before joining Ross County, started least season at Stevenage before loan spells with Barnet and Notts County. Oakley, who has enjoyed more clinical spells at Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Hamilton Academical, went goalless for Bulgarian side Pirin Blagoevgrad and later Kilmarnock. After a season in which 10 Woking strikers managed just 14 league goals between them, Dowse will be hoping that his two new additions can find their shooting boots once again.
There are 16 players signed on in all, although of the academy players signed so far only Hamblin will likely be in around the matchday squad, meaning that there remain 6-8 spots still available for new signings, including any possible loan signings, between now and the season starting at Wealdstone in late August. The most obvious deficit appears to be in midfield, with the Cards still lacking a playmaker in the mould of an Armani Little (remaining at Torquay) or Keiran Murtagh (recently signed for Dartford). The futures of Charlie Cooper, Max Kretzschmar and Tommy Block are all still to be resolved, but none look the ideal solution to that problem.
Dowse will also want more attacking reinforcements, particularly out wide, with Malachi Napa moving on and Loza still recovery from injury. With Johnson and Loza both favouring the left-hand side, a natural right winger would be a positive addition. At the back, the signing of Casey should complete the first-choice defensive unit, but a back-up centre-back and a reserve goalkeeper are still needed. The boss will have a busy pre-season to test out his new look squad, along with any possible trialists, with seven pre-season games currently scheduled, starting at home to West Bromwich Albion on Friday – a celebration of the famous FA Cup game of 1991.
Whilst the Cards might not have kicked a ball in more than six weeks, a mood of resigned despair has been replaced by one of genuine optimism. For many, a return to stadiums and some sense of normality for the first time in 18 months is enough to make the prospect of the new season ahead an exciting one, but for those who have kept an eye on the club’s quiet progress off the pitch this summer, there is a genuine feeling of excitement for the first time in many a year. And whilst it might be too soon to talk of play-offs and promotions, this is a journey that we all want to be on from the start.
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