First Team 04/01/2019

Team News: Woking

Watch Javi Gracia's pre-match press conference above, or read on below.

By Kevin Affleck

Javi Gracia looks set to use the depth of his talented squad on Sunday after admitting the FA Cup game with Woking provides an ideal chance to give some game time to some of his underused players.

The Head Coach has found it really difficult to leave internationals out of his Premier League matchday squad, but accepts that it comes with the territory when coaching a near fully-fit squad of players all with experience of playing in the top leagues in Europe.

Now he has the perfect opportunity to rest those who have played four demanding Premier League games in 11 days and select others who are chomping at the bit for some action. Only Sebastian Prödl, Christian Kabasele and Andre Gray are unavailable through injury while Marvin Zeegelaar and Stefano Okaka will also not be considered as Gracia confirmed they are in negotiations over loan moves to Udinese.

"The rest of the players are available," declared Gracia.

That means the likes of Nathaniel Chalobah, Daryl Janmaat, Marc Navarro, Miguel Britos, Ben Wilmot, Adalberto Peñaranda, Domingos Quina, Tom Cleverley, Heurelho Gomes and Pontus Dahlberg are all under consideration to start against Woking.

“I agree, it is a good chance to respect the competition and know it is an important game, but maybe it will be a good option to see players in the last four games that didn't play. Maybe they have the chance to play.”

Peñaranda will be desperate to play having seen his introduction to English football delayed by the application process for a work permit and then a foot problem. 

“He's available and is improving,” said Gracia. “He is in a fit condition and I think he will be available. He is improving day by day and in this moment he is an option.”

Chalobah is also pushing to make his third start of the season and his first since the home game with Manchester City at the start of December.

“He is in a right moment, at the right level,” said Gracia, before going on to explain how difficult it is selecting his midfield two. “When you have to choose players in that position you have Cleverley, Quina, Capoue and Doucouré, but Chalobah is ready and is training very well and will be ready to play in the next game.”

Do not try and tell Gracia this would be a second-string team, though. He is treating this game with the utmost seriousness and does not feel the team would be weaker for the changes.

“The mentality is most important,” he said. “The players are ready. In all of the games we have played, the team has kept a very good level. It won't be any different. The players are ready and I'm sure they will be trying very hard.”

Okaka has never been anything other than wholehearted since he signed from Anderlecht in the summer of 2016 and Gracia wanted to give thanks to the seemingly outgoing forward.

“It's true, I know they are talking about that,” said Gracia. “I'm not sure if it is close or not but I would like to say Stefano - in all the time he has been with us - he has had an excellent attitude and excellent commitment. He is a top-class man. I wish him the best because he deserves it.”

The departure of Okaka would free up a spot in the club's 25-man squad submitted to the Premier League, but Gracia isn't overly anxious about filling it. 

“I am happy with the players we have in this moment,” said Gracia. “I would like to keep all these important players. I think we are competing well in all the games we have played and now I prefer to be focused on preparing for the FA Cup and after that the Premier League game against Palace because it's the best way to achieve good things for us. In this moment, I don't know is what going to happen, but I would like to keep the players we have.”

Gracia is not one to scour social media or pore over newspapers to find out which of his players are in demand, but he knows Abdoulaye Doucouré is a player coveted by others.

“It is nothing new because in the windows last season we were talking about him,” said Gracia. “But I know the club, the owner wants to keep our important players. We'll see what happens as you never know but, in this moment, I am thinking Doucouré will be with us for the rest of the season.”

First Team 04/01/2019

Cards Commentary: Woking Management Duo Speak

Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler is only too happy to let someone else do more of the talking, when it comes to discussing the prospects of Watford’s Emirates FA Cup Round Three hosts Woking this Sunday afternoon.

Live on BT Sport, it’s more than just a match to most associated with the Cards – the former FA Amateur Cup and three-time FA Trophy winners pushing for a return to non-league’s top-flight with a current seven-game winning run in the Vanarama National League South (a division they won back in 2011/12 before relegation back to this level in the summer).

But not so for boss Alan Dowson, whose ambition as a manager remains unchecked and driven by a need to succeed.

“For me, it starts and ends with getting three points every weekend,” said the Geordie, as he and Tyler spoke to Watford FC’s Richard Walker earlier this week.

José Holebas plays against Woking in pre-season in 2016

They’ve been in post at The Laithwaite Community Stadium since summer 2018, having enjoyed great success as a management team in post at their last club, Hampton & Richmond Borough.

Exhibiting an impressively thick north-east brogue given he’s been down south for many years, Dowson maintained: “It’s pointless being a manager if you’re not here to win football matches. You can try and get credit in other ways but the only thing that’ll make me happy this Sunday is if we beat Watford.”

A task he knows is going to take all the skill and tactical acumen Woking can muster, plus a sprinkling of FA Cup magic along the way. They did it away to West Bromwich Albion in the early 1990s at this Third Round stage, so what will it take this time?

“We’ve got to believe we can win the game on Sunday,” said Dowson. “We’re not daft; we’re well aware of the difference in quality of the players. So can we find a way to win it? What can we do that gives us our best chance? Along with the coaching staff, I’ve got to try and help the players answer those questions so they’re ready.”

Watford fans watch on at a pre-season friendly against Woking in 2017

The coaching staff which includes the iconic voice of the Premier League, Martin Tyler, who is on the touchline with Dowson at as many Cards’ games as his commentary schedule allows.

“We’ve not been able to think about playing Watford because of the Christmas fixtures,” says the life-long Woking fan. “So I think that’s been a good thing for us.”
Tyler references the promotion-chaser’s “12 points of Christmas”.

“We’ve scored 12 goals too in those four games,” he chuckles, referencing a run which has now seen them win seven straight league games and set up a challenge to the full-timers of Torquay United atop the National League South.

“There are other challenges for us here at the club but ‘Dowse’ and I have always worked well together and I’m just privileged to be getting this chance to share this big day with him at the home of what is my club.”

Tyler has supported Woking since the 1950s, first attending as a lad and aware as a child of their FA Amateur Cup triumph late in that decade.

In times since, they’ve been three-time FA Trophy winners in the 1990s and have also come tantalisingly close to reaching the Football League with two Conference runners-up finishes.

Having first got together at Walton & Hersham in the summer of 2005, they sound like a pair so comfortable in each other’s company.

“We’ve worked at Kingstonian and Hampton & Richmond together as well before here,” Dowson points out, modestly neglecting to recount successes at both of those clubs.

“Woking is one job I always thought would be great because of the potential round here in Surrey. We’ve been down the local pubs and to the local schools, trying to get the whole community into the club a bit more this season and it seems to be working.”

The FA Cup run will have done no harm in capturing the imagination of locals, of course, but Dowson – when asked – is happy to point out that he would love to manage in the Football League.

“I’ve not been asked, I’ve not had that opportunity,” he said, with a brutal honesty that will have been honed over many years in the non-league scene.

“I’m very happy here of course, and you can get to know everyone at a non-league club that much better.”

Tyler added: “We took the clubhouse staff out for a drink in the first few weeks here, just to get to know them better. I think that helps build ties which can be really important at a smaller club.”

Essentially, there’s no room for false dawns or fairytales when you’re managing part-time players who look to supplement their income with hard-earned wins and the respect that comes with combining a job and a semi-pro football career.

“We’ve genuinely got a selection headache for this weekend,” Dowson explained. “You’d think there would have been lads trying not to get injured but it’s been the complete opposite across these matches – and that goes for the whole squad, because they’ve all had to pitch in with so many games.”

Dowson played his only game for Millwall against Watford in the early 1990s. “I remember we lost at the old Den to two goals from Paul Wilkinson, I think,” he said with a wry smile.

“I was a lot better player at Conference level really, before I had to pack in due to injury.”

Dowson became Walton & Hersham’s player-boss in 2005, and asked Tyler to help with the coaching.

The commentator picks up the story. “Dowse had been coaching my son and they’d finished as a youth team at 18s, so I thought he wanted a hand with the press stuff at first.

“But not so, and I’ve enjoyed working for him ever since. He’s probably the only person stupid enough to ask me, I guess!

“I think the standard at this level now is probably as high as it’s ever been. We’ve got lads on loan from Forest and Derby here, so clubs know the value of placing a player and getting that loan experience.”

Dowson added: “You’ve got Torquay full-time at this level, then there’s clubs like York and Stockport in the northern half, so there’s plenty of ambition and ability.

“The potential at this club is incredible. I used to come and watch Glenn Cockerill managing Woking when we were at Walton and they did great things then. There’s no reason it can’t come round again here, if everything’s done right.”

And while this FA Cup tie isn’t going to define their whole season, it is a moment in time to acknowledge a great individual achievement.

“I’m looking forward to shaking the hands of the lads I’m lucky enough to meet through my work but in different circumstances this time,” smiled Tyler.

“This Woking team we started from scratch in the summer, and it’ll be good to see them take on players from a club I have the utmost respect for.”

Dowson’s pragmatism, and sense of occasion, are well-founded too. “I’m looking forward to getting into the dugout and competing against a better coach than me,” he said.

“There’s that tradition after the game of swapping a bottle of something in the pro game, isn’t there? Given my roots and our budget, I think I might offer Javi a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale – see how that goes down!”

It’s the only time Dowson has been anything other than serious in answering his questions.

And it’s clear he’ll be looking for his players to ask some serious questions of Javi Gracia’s Hornets on Sunday – well before that bottle of ale is poured in the Woking FC manager’s office.

Picture credit: Woking FC