Brown ale ready and town abuzz as Woking savour sell-out M25 derby
National League South side are preparing to cash in on the visit of Watford, writes Jeremy Wilson
Woking’s relegation to the National League South was confirmed. The squad had disintegrated. There had been three managers in a year and the formal interview with the next prospective incumbent, Alan Dowson, was taking an unusual turn.
“I told them, ‘I’ve got promoted at my three clubs, but count the cup out because I’m c--p at it – useless, absolutely minging’,” recalls Dowson. “First round every single time. Hopeless. I probably didn’t sell myself too well.”
Fast forward seven months, and not only did Dowson get the job, but Woking now stand only 90 minutes from reaching the FA Cup fourth round for only the second time in their 130-year history.
They have also won their past seven league matches, and after the secondround scalp of Swindon Town, Premier League opposition in Watford await in today’s big “M25 derby”. All 5,700 tickets for Woking’s Laithwaite Community Stadium tie are sold, and the £150,000 live television fee will cover about half of the club’s estimated annual player budget.
The chairman, Rosemary Johnson, a long-standing shareholder and fan, whose day job is split between working for the tribunal service and Citizens’ Advice Bureau, sanctioned the arrival of two new loan signings on Friday but is adamant that the windfall should be held to fund the club’s bid to reach the Football League. Planning for a new 10,000-capacity stadium on the site of a ground first built in 1922 has begun.
For the Premier League players of Watford, including Tom Cleverley, whose great uncle, Reg Stratton, is one of Woking’s most iconic players after scoring at Wembley in their 1958 FA Amateur Cup win, it will be a novel experience. Only one team can fit into a tunnel that is the width of a door, and while “basic” would be a fair description of the facilities, it is a ground that oozes character. It has a dedicated area called “Moaner’s Corner” for any disgruntled fan.
The club is run by volunteers. Many, like club chaplain, director and trust representative Ian Nicholson have been working around the clock to ensure today goes smoothly.
“The town is buzzing,” says Johnson, a former Woking mayor, who credits the charismatic Dowson with “putting together the team from nothing” at the start of the season. “You couldn’t have someone better,” she says. “He is brilliant – when you can understand him.”
Dowson was born in Gateshead, is an avid Sunderland fan and played his one and only match for Millwall against Watford.
The past 14 years successfully managing non-League clubs in and around Surrey have hardly blunted his accent.
The sign outside his office door was only removed this week. “Please note, mention of the W word (Watford) is banned,” it read. Dowson has been determined to maintain the club’s focus on their league matches – they are second with two games in hand – amid an FA Cup run certain to go down in club folklore.
“I can’t wait until it all finishes. I think it is the biggest pain I’ve had to deal with,” he says, laughing as he describes the difficulty he had during Thursday’s televised training session. “It was the worst we have ever had. I was dying to shout and swear but I was all miked up.”
Dowson, who recounts how he once avoided a touchline ban because the officials could not understand what he was saying when he swore at them, says Watford manager Javi Gracia can expect a “nice bottle of brown ale” rather than fine wine. “I don’t watch Premier League football,” he adds. “I watch two leagues up and two leagues down and can tell you everything about that.”
His captain, Josh Casey, is a tax accountant and forward Paul Hodges is an English teacher at a local school. They train twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday nights. “This has all been down to the players and their dedication,” says Dowson. “In previous clubs, I have had to breathalyse them after Christmas. One of my players nearly blew the thing up. This lot are honest, straight and kind. Absolutely proper. They do everything we ask.”
That “we” includes assistant managers Ian Dyer and Martin Tyler, the 73-year-old Sky Sports commentator, who attended his first Woking match in 1953. They burst out laughing at the memory of Tyler’s first session when he had to oversee the running, and some of the more seasoned players tried to convince him it was too hard. When Tyler politely relayed their concerns to Dowson, the manager’s reply was blunt. “Tell them to ---- off ”.
Dowson says that it took several years to teach Tyler to swear and their partnership – “good cop and bad cop” – has spanned 13 years at four clubs. He adds that Tyler’s “passion” and dedication to be “the best commentator in the world” shine through in all he does. Tyler describes his friend as someone with “honesty, integrity, passion, energy and an eye for players” who shares many qualities with Premier League managers.
Tyler was at Friday’s press call just hours after commentating on Manchester City’s 2-1 win against Liverpool. “I was on the phone to Dows straight after to find out how training went,” he says. “I was privileged to be watching perhaps the game of the season. Now we have got the match of a lifetime.”
Odd couple: Alan Dowson (left) with his assistant, Sky commentator Martin Tyler