Wednesday 9th January 2019, 1945 KO
Woking FC vs Welling United FC
The Build Up
After a proud performance in the FA Cup Third Round loss to Watford at the weekend, Woking were back in action at Kingfield in the comparatively mundane matter of fighting for a title in the Vanarama National League South on Tuesday. With the visitors Welling United also scrapping away at the top, it was a must-see match for all the right reasons.
Woking arrived at the fixture in startling form – eight wins on the bounce, and without a league defeat since October 27th. Unfortunately for them, Torquay have been in even better form (10 wins in 10), and hold top spot by five points. The Cards, however, have three games in hand, and were welcoming Steve King’s Welling United for the first of them. Both the top two have set an unrelenting pace through the autumn and winter, and the third pretender to the National League South crown, Billericay Town, have fallen away in December.
I won’t cover Woking’s history, as I’ve done so before (away at Sutton United and the now infamous home game against Glenn Tamplin’s Billericay), but will say that after finishing 21st and suffering relegation last season, new manager Alan Dowson has completely turned the mood around at the club. Confidence is high, the football is easy on the eye, and there is real bite all over the pitch. “Dowse” would be missing top scorer Max (CTRL+C/CTRL+V) Kretzschmar to a hamstring injury against Welling, so the home supporters would have to hope that Harvey Bradbury – fresh from extending his loan from Oxford United – could continue his impact so far.
The visitors from Kent arrived also looking to continue solid recent form. A 5-3 victory against a Tyler Harvey-inspired Truro preceded this fixture, and Steve King’s Wings found themselves in 6th with a game in hand. Victory against Woking would be enough to lift Welling into third, and designate them with the status of third horse in a two horse race.
Formed in 1963 as a youth team in the Eltham & District Sunday League, Welling first played Conference football in 1986, and barring five years in the Southern League, and three in the Conference Premier, have spent the majority of that time at Step Two. Their spell at the non-league pinnacle came to an end in 2016, and this season arguably represents their best chance since to regain that status. Steve King has come in on the back of almost pulling off a miracle survival with Whitehawk, and continued to shine at Welling.
I travelled down to Woking via train, and after changes at Raynes Park and Surbiton made it to the Surrey town ahead of the twenty minute walk to the ground. The walk from the station to Kingfield (or the Laithwaite Community Stadium to satisfy the sponsors) is a bit of a ballache at the best of times let alone in temperatures colder than Theresa May’s heart, though mercifully it is mostly downhill. A 6,036 capacity stadium, relegation has understandably seen attendances drop this season (by 12%), but an average of 1,768 is still comfortably one of the best nationally for Step Two.
Entry for the match was £15, and a programme a further £3. The programme is one of the best I’ve seen at Step Two (or above to be fair), and starting with assistant manager Martin Tyler’s notes, the recurring theme was not allowing the FA Cup to define their season. As I perused said programme, I also availed myself of some chips and a bottle of water – at which point I rediscovered something I’d forgotten – that the food at Woking is really quite expensive. The food/drink cost me £4.50, but anything involving a burger would have sent it over a tenner.
That said, the pre-match period also reminded me of something else I’d forgotten – whoever makes the playlist at Woking deserves a massive pat on the back. It’s eclectic, and spans the decades, but it’s absolutely mega. Probably only Maidenhead has rivalled the pre-match music for me. A pat on the back to whoever is thinking up the chants at Woking as well – the Moaners’ Corner was in fine form tonight, particularly with their adaptation of the Gareth Southgate classic. I can’t understand a word Alan Dowson says either…
Woking declared their intent almost immediately, when they first got the crowds off their seats (for those who had/were using them) in the 2nd minute. A good ball from the left was narrowly turned wide by (I think) Harvey Bradbury. I also felt that Woking could have had a penalty just two minutes later. When a 4th minute corner was swung in, Danny Mills was wrapped around Jack Cook like a wet shower curtain, but there was surprisingly little protest from the home fans.
There was a foul ten minutes later, when school teacher Paul Hodges got up a head of steam and was brought down. Toby Edser stepped up to take the free kick, and bent his shot just wide of the post.
On 23 minutes the visitors had their first effort “on target” when Thierry Audel got highest to a looping header into the box from former-Argyle man (and Steve King stalwart) David Ijaha. There was no pace on the ball though, and although Craig Ross technically made a save, I very much doubt the ball would have reached the goalline.
The ball very much did reach the goal line a minute later, however, when Jack Cook put the Cardinals ahead. A lively looking Jamar Loza jinked his way past Danny McNamara, and was scythed down for his trouble, resulting in a free kick not far from the corner. Armani Little delivered, and the front post flick on was met by the former Beaver to notch his third of the season. Little’s set piece deliveries were immaculate throughout the match, ensuring that Max Kretzschmar’s dead ball expertise wasn’t missed too much.
One nil to Woking, who were very much on top without really creating many clear opportunities. Despite a lot of busy, and tidy play in midfield, and some good dribbling by Loza and Hodges in particular, the final ball was often lacking, which kept Welling in the game. Both sides were fighting hard, and with half an hour gone the game threatened to spill out of control, with the referee struggling to exert himself. This was emphasised in the 35th minute, when a high foot by Armani Little caught Millwall loanee Danny McNamara in the face, and all the players got out their Mulberrys.
John Paul Kissock – famous for taking Wayne Rooney’s record as Everton’s youngest player – was looking particularly fired up, and crashed into Hodges just outside the area, giving Armani Little the chance to extend the lead. Like Bradbury, the youngster has impressed since joining on loan from Oxford United. On this occasion, his quality was just lacking, as he fired the free kick over.
On 45 minutes, Welling thought they had equalised, when Danny Mills, loaned from Ebbsfleet, looked to have smuggled the ball over the line. A Kissock free kick was whipped in, and Danny Mills got above Craig Ross – he always gets above everyone – and headed down. Woking hacked clear, but the ball looked over the line. However, we were spared the VAR (filmed on a mobile phone behind the goal) by the linesman’s flag. Offside. No goal.
I thought that was it, but there was still time for Dan Wilks to save well from Edser. Hodges received the ball in midfield, and lobbed a volleyed through ball to Harvey Bradbury, who in turn slipped the lad from Guildford in. Edser – a Woking fan as a boy – shaped to bend the ball into the corner, but Wilks was down quickly and the ‘keeper from Cambridge saved comfortably.
A deserved lead for Woking at half time, who were keeping the ball down and playing some nice football, and it felt likely that they would only extend that in the second half. That said, there were some slight concerns over the physical prowess of Mills, and as well as Collier and Cook were playing, Mills was giving them a real battle in the air. If Welling could get players closer to him in support, they would have a chance at salvaging some points.
That certainly looked to be the case three minutes into the second half, when Danny Mills spurned a glorious (albeit offside) chance to score. Bradley Goldberg’s free kick was parried by Ross in the Woking goal, but he could only knock it back into the fray were an unmarked Mills was lurking. Mills lent back, got all his weight under the ball, and hefted it skywards with impeccable technique with the goal gaping, and will have been delighted to see the offside flag go up. I’ve thought the same when I’ve seen Mills previously – he has all the attributes to be absolutely quality, but just lacks some composure in the box.
Speaking of physical strikers, Harvey Bradbury was also really putting himself about, looking every inch the progeny of ex-Man City and Pompey father Lee. He was pressing tirelessly, and winning numerous throw ins high up the pitch after forcing botched clearance after botched clearance. His tussle with Thierry Audel was particularly fascinating, as it almost invariably ended with Audel writhing on the floor clutching his head after seemingly very little/no contact.
On 57 minutes Paul Hodges stabbed wide after a neat Woking move, but he was always off balance, then that seemed to be the signal for the Wings to step up the intensity. Between the 60th and 75th minutes, Welling were everywhere, and Woking were reduced to hacking the ball to the halfway line in an attempt to establish a foothold. Welling were faster and crisper in possession, and I genuinely thought that they would grab an equaliser.
It almost came, too, in the 71st minute when Mills got a header off under tight pressure from a corner. He was a good foot above the nearest man – I swear he could jump fully over Peter Crouch – but his header cracked off the angle of bar and post and bounced agonisingly along the line, before being hoofed clear for a corner.
From that corner, the spell was broken, and Woking almost created a goalscoring chance from the counter, but again couldn’t find the final ball. Welling created a couple more chances, but again these were fired into the top of the stand with unerring accuracy. David Ijaha and Danny Mills the culprits this time. Woking continued to hit it long, and it just wasn’t working for them. It worked for me though, as watching Paul Hodges try and compete in the air with David Ijaha was akin to when a parent holds something just too high for their toddler to reach.
Indeed, it was a rare second half move on the floor that gave Woking their second, when they countered through first Christian Jolley and then Paul Hodges. Eventually the ball came to Toby Edser, but it looked as though the Nottingham Forest U23 captain may be crowded out, but he smuggled a pass through to substitute Greg Luer, who looked up and shot early. His effort caught a wicked deflection, and looped up and over a stranded Wilks in the Welling goal.
Obviously, the Woking players were delighted, with Paul Hodges taking on the role of lead crowd inciter. He was hugely fired up in the second half, and his tenacious performance was a key tenet of Woking’s win. I’ve been massively impressed with Hodges whenever I’ve seen him, and it does beg the question as to how long Woking (and Bishop Wand Secondary School) will be able to hold on to the former Cards ballboy.
The Wash Up
An important victory in the end for Woking, who probably should have made more of their dominance in the first hour. Consistently on the front foot, they struggled to find the final pass, or know when to shoot, on more than one occasion. In this regard, the return of Kretzschmar cannot come soon enough for the Cardinals.
Now only two points behind Torquay United, and sitting on nine straight victories, Woking look ideally placed to reclaim top spot in this engaging title race. After now attending a fair new National League South fixtures, it really is impossible to call which way this will go, but what is clear is that both sides are a cut above what else is on offer in this division. Although both will obviously drop points at some point, it really is difficult to pinpoint when it is likely to happen. Torquay’s visit to Woking in the spring is looking every bit the title decider.
As for Steve King, there isn’t much he can assess from this performance. Welling worked hard, particularly in the second half. For a fifteen minute period after the hour they were the better side, and had Danny Mills’ header dropped an inch or two lower, the end result would potentially have been very different. Speaking of Mills – much like when I saw him at Dartford – he is something of an enigma. Winning at least 80% of his aerial duels, and getting the better of his markers physically everywhere outside the box, a small improvement in his finishing and composure in the box would see him develop into a high-quality National League striker.
For Woking, Paul Hodges was his usual all-action self, running effectively in possession, and when chasing the ball he was busier than a Waterloo McDonalds. Nathan Collier and Jack Cook were solid at the back, with Ben Gerring giving his car a well deserved night off after the weekly hike to and from Devon. Man of the Match though (potentially controversially given he was hooked after 70 minutes), was Harvey Bradbury, who hassled and harried throughout, winning the ball as high up the field as possible to keep his side on the front foot. He dominated Thierry Audel, who resorted to throwing himself to the floor with aplomb every time he was expected to compete with the Oxford loannee. A fine performance, which deserved a goal.
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