(KNEE-SY DOES IT: Max Kretzschmar has scored six goals from midfield this season.
Image: David Holmes)
By David Richardson
There was a suggestion Woking would be slow starters to this season – a club suffering the effects of a final day relegation and a new squad still coming together.
Nonetheless, expectations around one of the best supported clubs in the National League South were still high and seven wins from their first eight games before yesterday’s trip to Concord Rangers has only heightened them.
But the consensus is that Alan Dowson’s side haven’t yet hit top gear, let alone pulled out of the test centre.
This is a team rebuilt where only Kane Ferdinand and Fabio Saraiva, along with a handful of academy graduates, have survived from last season’s horror show in the National League.
Dowson brought five of his Hampton & Richmond stars with him to the club this summer including goal-scoring midfielder Max Kretzschmar, who has shone with six goals and a host of assists in his second spell with the club.
His two strikes against Billericay last weekend sent Woking five points clear and boosted hopes of an instant return to the top flight.
“We wanted to be around the top of the league but we’ve got off to a flier,” Kretzschmar told The NLP. “We’ve avoided draws which has been good and we know we can play better as squad.
“I think when we saw the fixtures and we had Billericay and Concord back-to-back we knew it was going to be two big games so it was obviously a massive result last Saturday.
“It’s early but we’ve got to be happy we’re in this position and we’ve done that through hard work. It’s so early to consider winning the title or getting in the play-offs or anything like that. It’s a bit boring but we’ve got to take one game at a time, it’s going to be a long season and I’m sure the lead will chop and change. It’s exciting to see what the next few months hold.”
Kretzschmar is an intelligent player, always thinking a few steps ahead, and has a knack of arriving in the right place at the right time – his winner against Billericay the perfect example as he managed to turn in the rebound, from Alan Julian’s save, off his thigh.
He scores all types of goals, a set-piece specialist too, with four of this season’s total coming from the penalty spot.
Kretzschmar is another product of Southampton’s academy where he shared lifts to training with England and Manchester United left-back Luke Shaw and also played with Liverpool midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
He moved on to Wycombe at 15 and progressed through their academy under the tutelage of Richard Dobson, now Wanderers’ assistant manager, before manager Gareth Ainsworth gave Kretzschmar his first team chance.
“There’s no better place than Southampton the facilities were incredible and the teams you’re playing against week in week out were great,” he added. “It’s changed since I was youngster because they have this U23 league now which, not just in my opinion, doesn’t replicate the Football League, Premier League or Non-League.
“It’s a big advantage being around men’s football as soon as you can and I’ll always thank Gareth Ainsworth for my chance.
“I played the whole season and scored six goals – you’re learning on the job, playing different positions, things like that. We stayed up on the last day and then overhauled the squad and we ended up in the play-off final at Wembley.”
Kretzschmar signed for Woking in 2016 following his release from Wycombe, where he made 80 appearances in the Football League, but struggled for consistent starts at the Surrey club with injuries hampering his season.
“I got into coaching straight away but it was a shock. I came down from the League probably underestimating the standard and how difficult Non-League is,” said Kreztschmar, who hopes to start a degree in journalism at the end of the month.
“I picked up those injuries which didn’t help and at the end of the season I was at a crossroads where I could go on trial at a few clubs but you’re on the back foot and you’re fighting for a reserve or substitute place.
“Martin Tyler [Hampton assistant manager at the time] rang me up and said about Hampton, I went down and met the manager and loved it.
“It paid off massively last season, getting the joy back from the game.”
Kretzschmar scored 24 goals in all competitions for Hampton as they lost in the National South play-off final on penalties, but the bigger picture for him now has a better outlook.
He has experienced boss Dowson to thank, a tough task-master, who has developed young players and seen them progress up the leagues.
Kretzschmar will hope he can eventually return to the Football League but for now he is fully focused on achieving promotion with Woking.
“The manager is always on your case, he’s never too high or too low, always looking forward the next week,” he says.
“The coaching staff focus on fitness and things like that, Ian [Dyer, assistant] gets us well-drilled with shape work.
“Every Thursday we talk about the opposite team and sometimes the plan can be different. The manager is a very good motivator and the results speak for themselves with the budget he’s had in the last few years.
“I think he was very happy to take this opportunity and hopefully we can back him up by performing well and keep getting the results.
“It’s been pretty easy to settle in being back at Woking and with the familiarity of the coaching staff which has worked in my favour.
“I think it’s the nature of the beast now in Non-League, there’s a huge overturn in managers and players because there’s not many contracts at this level.
“It’s been tough early on, sometimes you’re playing passes and players aren’t reading them, you’re trying to learn how each other play. We’ve been through that and picked up the points. We know there’s more to come from this squad.
“It’s a great group, we just want to stay ruthless and keep churning out the results.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday for £1.50 in all good newsagents and supermarkets