By Glen Harrington
It’s hard to believe quite what has happened to the Cards this season. Sitting in third place in the National League table after 15 games, with a squad assembled by the seemingly promising new management team of Anthony Limbrick and Jason Goodliffe, it was a group of players that looked set to challenge for a play-off place ahead of schedule – just twelve months into the proposed three year promotion plan.
Even as that promising run of form tailed off in the lead up to Christmas, as injuries and off the field uncertainty began to take their toll, few could have predicted what would come in the following weeks and months. The Cards would eventually go down by a single point after picking up just three wins since the turn of the year – returning to National League South after a six-year stint in the top flight of non-league football.
As the dust begins to settle on Woking’s relegation and with another ‘fresh start’ looming at the start of the new season – when, potentially, there will be some new faces behind the scenes and, certainly, there will be a new management team in charge – many members of a beleaguered and unfancied squad are at a crossroads; who will stay and who will go? Let’s take a look at each member of the team and their future prospects.
The 19-year-old has undoubtedly been one of the Cards’ stand-out players this season after joining on loan from Chelsea. He has played the most minutes of any Chelsea loanee this year and despite suffering relegation with the Cards his parent club will likely be delighted with his progress.
There were certainly questions marks over the youngster’s ability to play a full-season of men’s football, particularly considering his relatively slight stature, but he has answered his doubters with aplomb after taking over from veteran stopper Michael Poke in the summer.
The Cards would be delighted to take Baxter back for another season, but after 18 months playing in the National League the chances of such a move look slim, with Chelsea surely more amenable to loaning him out to another fifth tier side or even into the lower echelons of the Football League.
Will he stay? Verdict: No chance
The big defender was Anthony Limbrick’s first signing as Woking manager. The re
action to his arrival was mixed despite an impressive record with former club Dover Athletic and, for the most part, those fears have proved more than just as Orlu has struggled to adjust to a different style of football.
Despite scoring a memorable goal away to Guiseley, netting with his first touch after coming on as a substitute, his defensive record has not made for pretty reading – with 51 goals conceded in his 29 starts – and after being made club captain in August he eventually lost his place to Jordan Wynter.
Whilst his experience could be considered valuable and his ability could be more suited to regional football it’s hard to see much desire from either side in signing a new contract. Plus, as one of the marquee additions last summer his wages are likely to be more than the Cards are keen to expend.
Will he stay? Verdict: Not worth the money
After finishing last season strongly the winger turned full-back has taken another step forward this campaign and has arguably become one of the Cards most consistent performers. He has struggled more with injury problems since the turn of the year, with two lengthy spells out of the team, but for the most part he has enjoyed a positive year.
His form during the first-half of the season reportedly attracted interest from a number of Football League clubs and more recent reports suggest that he’s likely to be looking for a new club this summer now that his contract has expired.
It will be interesting to see how well he performs upon his return to league football – having previously played semi-regularly for Yeovil Town in League One – and after amassing more than 75 appearances during his two years with the Cards he could well be ready to hit the ground running.
Will he stay? Verdict: Destined for bigger things
Another loan player, this time from Norwich City, but unfortunately he has not been able to make quite the same impression as his goalkeeper. He has never truly recovered from the injury he picked up during the 2-0 win over Sutton United back in September and he’s been in and out of the team since then – finishing the year with 30 appearances in all competitions.
Ramsay is only 20 and has certainly shown in his better performances that he has the potential to be a promising player, but one can’t help but feel that the next stage of his development is best-suited to somewhere other than the Laithwaite Community Stadium, where the likes of Adam Newton and Jake Caprice have raised expectations for the standards Woking full-backs should be meeting.
Will he stay? Verdict: We can do better
The 22-year-old centre-back has made a big impression this season, despite his team’s struggles at the back, after joining from Dagenham and Redbridge last summer. His performances earned him a call-up to the England C squad and the Cards were at their best when both Staunton and defensive partner Jordan Wynter were fit and playing alongside each other.
He chipped in with a couple of memorable goals – in the draws with Wrexham and former club Dagenham – whilst it was his deflected effort that gave Woking their win against Chester in February, the club’s last win on home soil this season.
Staunton is on a two-year contract and should, on paper at least, still be here next season. The difficulty will come in repelling interest from elsewhere. With a season of regular first-team football behind him and after recognition on the international stage it’s easy to see another National League team taking an interest and testing the Cards’ resolve to keep hold of him.
Will he stay? Verdict: Make him captain and hope he does
The 24-year-old was initially signed as a versatile utility man capable of playing at full-back and in centre midfield. However, he’s turned out to be a gem of a signing, and has found a new home playing at centre-back.
After initially starting there to cover a defensive injury crisis, with Richard Orlu and Joey Jones both out injured, his performances were a revelation and his initial partnership with Josh Staunton coincided with the team’s best form of the season. If both had managed to remain fit until the end of the season you have to imagine that the Cards might have clung on to National League safety.
It wouldn’t come as a surprise to discover that one or more National League teams had an interest in Wynter but, equally, it’s not unreasonable to think that his performances might have slipped under the radar in a team that still shipped plenty of goals.
Will he stay? Verdict: Would be a great capture
The former Tottenham and Southampton youngster was signed as a back-up full-back after doing enough in pre-season to earn a contract. Due to the injury problems experienced by both Louis Ramsay and Nathan Ralph he’s ended up playing a lot more games than anyone, including himself, probably expected with 42 appearances racked up in all competitions.
He’s shown flashes of the potential that saw him play 20 games in League 2 for Carlisle and had National League sides Dover and Kidderminster taking a chance on him but, for the most part, he has proved to be a weak link in a Woking side often under the quash.
His goal against Peterborough in the FA Cup, which briefly brought our second round replay level at 2-2, will always live in the memory as a standout moment from his time in a Woking shirt. Unfortunately though, he hasn’t quite shown enough quality over the course of the season to suggest that he deserves another contract.
Will he stay? Verdict: Not good enough
You could be forgiven for forgetting that the midfielder is still only 21. After graduating to the first-team from the Woking academy in the summer of 2016 he has been a model professional while continuing to improve and impress with his performances on the pitch.
His 13 goals in all competitions this season mean he finishes the campaign as the club’s top scorer, whilst his career record for the club now stands at 19 goals in just 58 starts – with 88 appearances to his name in total. Whilst there have been bad games and underwhelming performances mixed in with the good ones that has to be expected from a player still learning his trade.
The club and its fans always enjoy having players who are ‘one of their own’ and Carter certainly fits the bill. If he can repeat the same level of marked improvement again during his third season as he did during his first two then he could be in for a career-defining year in 2018/19.
Will he stay? Verdict: Should be a key player
Another ‘what if’ player for the Cards this season who didn’t recover from a long injury lay-off; the Charlton loanee was arguably the standout player during his initial loan spell as he scored six times in all competitions including the winner against Dagenham and a brace in a 2-0 win over Sutton.
When he returned for the home game with FC Halifax Town on the 10th March expectations were understandably high. Sadly, he has looked every inch a player who is playing within himself, virtually ever since. Whether it’s the leftover effects of the injury, the loss of the likes of Joe Ward and Inih Effiong to play alongside, or simply a dip in form it has been a frustrating second spell for him.
Charlton certainly appear to rate him highly after giving him a runout in a number of cup games this season and surely the London club will see his imminent future at a much higher level than National League South. Indeed, if he can rediscover his early season form, he could find himself playing League One football next year.
Will he stay? Verdict: Unlikely to return
The 28-year-old was brought in to help fill the void left by the departure of Joe Ward to Peterborough in January and, whilst he lacks the flair of his fellow-winger, he has done a respectable job across his 17 appearances whilst on loan from Ebbsfleet United.
Unfortunately, he has not been able to add goals, but despite that his tenacity down the flank has not gone unnoticed and his efforts have been predominately well received. His relationship with his brother Regan has also been appreciated with comparisons drawn to former favourites the Wye’s.
He looks unlikely to have a future at Ebbsfleet, who are already amongst those chasing promotion from the National League after finishing sixth this season, and he could make the perfect signing for a team looking to return to non-league’s top tier next year having impressed for Chelmsford and Bromley, as well as the Fleet, at that level in the past.
Will he stay? Verdict: Useful experience at the right level
A near ever-present for Woking this season after amassing 50 appearances in all competitions whilst also chipping in with four goals. He might not be the most fashionable player in the Woking team but he certainly does a job in the midfield engine room and keeps things ticking over with his ball retention and physical presence.
Whilst he isn’t every supporter’s cup of tea he’s certainly valued by his teammates, picking up the players’ player of the season award following Saturday’s final game at home to Dover, and he could yet prove to be a surprise hit should the Cards hold on to his services.
It’s worth remembering that Keiran Murtagh, the undoubted star of our 2016/17 season, was once viewed in much the same vein as Ferdinand after several years of underwhelming performances before he finally hit top gear just when his side most needed him. Ferdinand’s record at National League South level, where he has previously impressed for East Thurrock, suggests that he could be the next Woking midfielder to make a surprising comeback.
Will he stay? Verdict: An uninspiring but necessary signing
Many supporters might have forgotten just how good Chez Isaac was during the first-half of the season. In fact, he’s another player who could conceivably have helped the Cards avoid relegation, had he not endured such a long spell out of the side due to injury.
A busy and tenacious presence at the base of the midfield he was a key figure in the Cards early season good form and should consider himself extremely unfortunate to end the year with a second successive relegation – having already gone down with Braintree last time around.
His leadership qualities also proved key to the Cards during the extended absence of Richard Orlu and Joey Jones as he was often utilised as the stand-in captain. If he does stay then he should almost certainly be considered for a similar role again next season alongside Josh Staunton.
Will he stay? Verdict: Get him fit and he can be vice-captain
Where do you start? It’s hard not to feel sorry for Joey Jones who, on occasion, appears to be resembling a one-man highlight reel of mistakes and comedy errors – capped off by his televised humiliation in the closing seconds of the Cards’ 3-2 defeat at home to champions Macclesfield Town.
Despite all of the issues one can’t help but feel that a talented player is still on offer. The midfielder turned defender turned midfielder appears to have settled into a role he’s best-suited to in recent weeks, playing between the defence and the midfield as a deep-lying playmaker capable of winning the ball and starting an attacking move for his team.
He’s also racked up more than 200 appearances for the club, making him comfortably its longest-serving player, and with few alternative suitors likely to be queuing up for his services perhaps the Cards could do worse than to give him one more chance to impress whilst at a lower level.
Will he stay? Verdict: There’s still something there
Another player worthy of sympathy; the 24-year-old who signed from Merstham in the summer of 2016 raised many an eyebrow in his debut campaign as he scored 15 goals in all competitions – finishing second in the club’s golden boot race to Gozie Ugwu and playing a big part in his team’s league survival. Unfortunately, he’s not been able to recreate that form this time around.
Injuries have played a big part in his fall from grace with the midfielder managing just seven league starts all season and only 21 appearances in all competitions. A recent hat-trick for the club’s Under-23 side acted as a reminder of his ability, but even after that performance he was ignored for the club’s final game of the season at home to Dover, with the returning Bobson Bawling preferred for the substitutes’ bench.
His versatility is also valuable – he’s able to play out wide, in midfield, behind the striker and even as an emergency left-back – but despite all that he’s likely to be fairly low down on any new manager’s list of contractual targets with his priority surely to be in adding more diversity and creativity to a midfield which has just been too ‘samey’ during the past year.
Will he stay? Verdict: Hard to see where he fits in
It’s a sad indictment of his time at Woking that one of the biggest issues facing the Cards new manager will likely be how to get rid of Jason Banton, who still has a year left of the contract he signed last summer, after joining the club from Crawley Town.
In hindsight things started badly. Banton, a player renowned for his poor track record when it came to injuries, was already struggling for fitness when he joined the club and he wasn’t able to make his debut until the game with Leyton Orient in the fifth match of the season. He showed flashes of his ability in the early months, scoring three goals, but those positive signs became more and more sporadic as the season wore on.
Ultimately, he was hung out to dry following the departure of Anthony Limbrick, with new manager Jason Goodliffe talking about only including players who wanted to fight for the club’s National League survival. Banton didn’t play for the team at all in the final five games and it’s hard to see him doing so again; a sad end for one of the more disappointing signings in recent Woking history.
Will he stay? Verdict: Please someone take him… please
Is there a more unfortunate player in the squad this season? When Bawling went off at half-time in the Cards FA Cup draw at home to Concord Rangers he left a side that had lost just one of the last nine league games and were riding high near the top of the table. The next time he would appear in a Woking shirt it would be as a late substitute for a side less than 20 minutes from relegation.
It’s hard to know how well, or not, Bawling might have done given a full season. The signs were certainly promising following his move from Crawley Town. He was the perfect Anthony Limbrick player as a pacey wide-man with a good delivery and playing opposite Joe Ward, either side of Inih Effiong, he formed part of a promising attacking trio.
The former Chelsea and Watford academy player is still only 22 and has time to recover from his long-term injury lay-off. His brilliant goal against Torquay United back at the end of August was a clear sign of what he could produce more of in the future and if he’s got the all clear from the doctors then he’s surely deserving of another chance to prove himself.
Will he stay? Verdict: Have injury problems hidden a good player?
The 21-year-old was signed as a replacement for Jamie Philpot following his loan spell during the first-half of the season. Whilst Philpot also endured mixed fortunes during his time as a Woking player it’s hard to argue that the Millwall man was the more consistent centre-forward.
On loan from Hull City, Edwards looked surprisingly out of his depth at National League level, and despite a scrambled goal against Hartlepool and a gift-wrapped strike versus Maidenhead – two games that both ended in defeat – he did little to endear himself to the Woking faithful. It’s hard to see him playing any higher than National League North/South level next season and it almost certainly won’t be with the Cards.
Will he stay? Verdict: How has this lad got a Championship club?
The former QPR striker, who boasts Premier League experience on his resume, was signed at the turn of the year as a replacement for Inih Effiong following his move to Ross County. Whilst he’s a completely different type of striker, one arguably unsuited to our style of play, he’s done very well.
He’s scored four goals in 18 appearances and has worked very hard, often undertaking a thankless task as a lone striker, running the channels and holding the ball up to the best of his abilities. There will no doubt be a number of teams keeping an eye on him, and he has himself admitted that he is desperate to return to the Football League, but he could do worse than to get another year of regular first-team football under his belt before potentially moving on.
Will he stay? Verdict: Would be a great addition if we can tempt him
A strange signing in many ways, the imposing forward was added on a short-term deal in February to try and boost the Cards’ survival hopes, a ploy which failed quite spectacularly. Theophanous had never played at National League level before and was unable to recreate his previous form from regional football in his 11 appearances – failing to score a single goal.
Staines, Bromley, St Albans and Chelmsford have all made the most of Theophanous’ talents in the sixth tier of English football but after dropping down to the Isthmian League last summer, albeit with free-spending Billericay Town, and failing to standout one can’t help but feel that he’s better suited to that sort of level moving forward.
Will he stay? Verdict: Needs to drop back down another level
Academy Players: Sam Mason, Lazar Stojsavljevic, Declan Appau, Ivan Nsimbi, Reggie Young
The progress of the club’s young academy players has been a real highlight of a miserable season. With five new names joining Charlie Carter in the first-team there have certainly been moments to savour. Sam Mason featured on four occasions during Nathan Baxter’s brief spell out through injury and by all accounts did very well.
Lazar Stojsavljevic turned in one of the best defensive performances of the season from anyone in a Woking shirt as he helped secure a 1-0 win over Dagenham on his first club start, before scoring a memorable winner against AFC Fylde, who would go on to finish in the play-off places. It was extremely cruel that an injury sustained in the same game would rule him out for the rest of the year.
Declan Appau scored the goal of the season against Guiseley before having his campaign cut short by injury and Reggie Young did enough to earn a squad number late in the year. It was a shame not to see more of Ivan Nsimbi after he impressed in pre-season but by all accounts he has struggled with various injury problems ever since.
Mason and Stojsavljevic look like natural signings as first-team cover. Appau might struggle to find a place in an already crowded midfield that still needs reinforcements whilst it might be too soon for Young and Nsimbi to again be expecting first-team places after making a minimal impression.
Will they stay? Verdict: Plenty of potential
So, who are we ending up with?
Goalkeepers: Sam Mason
Defence: Josh Staunton, Jordan Wynter, Lazar Stojsavljevic
Midfield: Charlie Carter, Anthony Cook, Kane Ferdinand, Chez Isaac, Joey Jones
Forwards: Bobson Bawling, Reece Grego-Cox
The makings, in theory, of a promising National League South squad; a new goalkeeper and two new full-backs will be high on the agenda but the central-defensive area could be fairly well stocked with Josh Staunton, Jordan Wynter and Lazar Stojsavljevic all exciting young players.
In midfield we’re looking at a quartet who should be easily good enough at this level in Charlie Carter, Kane Ferdinand, Chez Isaac and Joey Jones and if we can add some defensive steel, in the Damon Lathrope mould, and some creativity in the ilk of Keiran Murtagh then we should be ready to go. Anthony Cook and Bobson Bawling offer a mix of youth and experience out wide although a couple more exciting flair players could really help to add an extra dimension.
Up front will need serious strengthening as Reece Grego-Cox is the only option in the current scenario and despite his qualities he’s proven that he’s not capable of playing as a lone striker. Inih Effiong is available again following his release by Ross County and could be a strong candidate to make his return. The important thing is surely that, unlike this season, we’re not left short of options up front. For a large part of this campaign we’ve made do with only two strikers and that has certainly been high on the list of shortcomings of the squad assembled by the former management team.
Whatever the end result proves to be we certainly seem set for an interesting summer ahead. Here’s hoping that we head into the start of next season in optimistic fashion and at least appear ready to hit the ground running in style upon our return to National League South.
Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts on Twitter @GlenH1292.
Images by David Holmes. A full set can be found at wokingfc.co.uk