One of the first things Alan Dowson tells me as we sit down for our interview is that his Woking side are the one of the most-overachieving clubs in England.
Working alongside his backroom staff, which includes Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler, Dowson's Woking are currently 10th in National League, just a year after securing promotion from the National League South.
The former Milwall academy man first came into public view for many people last season when Woking faced Premier League side Watford in the FA Cup, but bubbling under the surface Dowson is a man that has had success nearly everywhere he has been.
Starting off as player-manager at Walton & Hersham in 2004, Dowson has won a series of promotions during his managerial career and his Woking side are currently one of the highest ranking part-time clubs in the country.
Five points off the playoffs, Dowson is in no mood to self congratulate though and is instead set on winning promotion to the Football League at the first time of asking.
“I think Woking are one of the most overachieving sides in the country – you might want to add Leicester City into that actually," he tells Tribalfootball.com.
“But for a team that has nine players that came from the National League South in it, they have been unbelievable. We don't tell them that because we want them to progress all the time, but they have never been outside the top 10 all season and they compete in every game. Other teams can be fitter and more organised because they are full-time and we are part-time, but I find the tempo is better in the National League South with the step up having more bigger lads. I think the league down is more technical, but the National League is definitely more organised."
Woking had just been relegated from the National League when Dowson took over but he immediately got them back during his first season in charge.
With the club now looking more stable in the fifth-tier, there is the ambition to go full-time but at the moment it is looking unlikely.
“We are dying to go full-time here but it looks very unlikely to be honest," Dowson explained.
“We were never going to stay where we were after we started off so well, and when the Christmas period came in we couldn't train because of the pitch, while some of the lads couldn't get time off work. So now we are in a period where all the other teams a fitter, they are stronger and more organised. We are trying to fight and organise as best we can to keep things running."
With circumstances seemingly going against Dowson and his squad, it would be understandable if he viewed the rest of the season as a consolidation year, but he said neither he nor the players have given up hope of promotion.
“I want to get in the playoffs this year," he said.
“You get some people talking about a project, but I haven't done a project since I was at school. What is the point of planning for two years time because two years time never comes. I want to do it now, I want to get to the Football League this season and if I don't do it now, I want to do it next season. I think the easy option out is thinking if we just finish fourth from bottom I have done a good job. But I am thinking can I get a couple in and go again for the rest of the season. I think the projects just keep managers in a job, I would rather get the sack if I am not getting the results. Let's be the only team from this era to make it to the Football League as part-timers, that's my ambition anyway."
The lower leagues are increasingly becoming seen as a good option for young players looking to build first team experience and Toby Edser impressed at Woking during the first half of the season after joining on loan from Nottingham Forest.
“I could play in academies to be honest," he said.
“I watched six games in the last two weeks and it is completely hopeless – pointless exercise. When I was at Millwall we had the first team and combination and if you didn't get in the first team you played combination, which was proper men against men. But academies are the worst thing about football. I would advise under-23s to come down here because we beat them all. We beat Chelsea last year and just drew 0-0 with QPR. I think we are better than them to be honest. Of course you want youth to come but let them clean their boots again, let them show respect to the club. We haven't got the time to take on kids, they need to be men when they arrive. If they are 18 they need to be able to come in and get in our first team and be a man. We have had a few young players from Nottingham Forest and Oxford United come in and do very well for us. The under-23 results mean nothing but when they come here results mean everything."
Waiting to speak to Dowson, the sense of community at the club was evident, even on a cold weekday morning in January.
That day all the matchday volunteers had been invited for a communal breakfast with the rest of the staff at the club and Dowson said building such a feeling was a real priority of his when he arrived.
“When I got the job I felt the club was half empty," he said.
“They had success 20 years ago and I am trying to get the club back on the map again. Trying to get the community and the pubs and the schools back involved and I think the club handled the match very well. We got a sell-out and Watford appreciated everything we did and they were great on the day. The manager came for a drink afterwards and said you've got a great club here, good to see you getting it back on the map. We need to change the mentality around the club so that people do want to come. When I took the job it was the most half empty club I had seen but we are changing that and saying come to your local football club and support it."
Dowson started out his own playing career at Millwall during a golden era for the club.
As a youth player he worked with George Graham and then John Docherty, before spending one season under future Arsenal manager Bruce Rioch.
“He was never going to last there," Dowson said of Rioch's time at Arsenal.
“I had George Graham who ran by fear factor and you always knew what you were going to get. Then I had John Docherty who was the best coach I ever played under and he signed me for three different clubs. Millwall was a special club when he was there. When Bruce Rioch came in he kind of ruined it to be honest. His dad was a sergeant major in the army and he tried to bring the army style into football, where it has no place. I knew he wouldn't last at Arsenal and he couldn't work with someone like Ian Wright. I knew he wouldn't be a top manager, whereas George Graham obviously would be."
Despite making just one league appearance for Millwall before his departure in 1991, Dowson built up a number of great relationships at the club.
One person with whom he gets on particularly well and has plenty of admiration for is Teddy Sheringham, who would of course go on to play for Manchester United and England.
“We still have Millwall reunions, even though I wasn't as good as some of the other players who where there at the same time." Dowson explained.
“Teddy was the best player by a mile, you always knew at a young age he was going to go on to be good. Neil Ruddock had a decent career, but he was the best left-sided centre-half in England and could have done better. But Sheringham had no pace, but always thought two yards ahead of everyone else and I'm not surprised that he went on to be one of the best strikers in Europe. He couldn't get in behind but he was a good 400 metre runner so he had stamina and fitness. He could also get everyone around him to his running. You had Tony Cascarino, who was five years older than him, but Ted would still get him to do the running. But get him in the box, he was great in the air, his touch was second to none and he could finish with both feet."
“I was speaking to him the other day and, bearing in mind he has played under Brian Clough and Sir Alex Ferguson, he said Terry Venables was the best manager he ever had, no comparison," Dowson recalled.
“He said in terms of man management, tactics and style of play, Venables was the best."
Dowson's relationship with Martin Tyler came to attention ahead of last season's FA Cup tie with Watford, but the two of them go way back to the start of Dowson's coaching career.
Tyler is still involved with the Woking boss to this day and Dowson was full of praise the veteran commentator.
“He is the best in the world at what he does," he said.
“I met him 15 years ago coaching his kid Adam and I asked him if he wanted to get involved, this was back at Walton & Hersham, and he did. He has been my assistant ever since and he is actually a Woking fan. So when he is doing a game on a Saturday and people are always saying he is a Manchester United fan or a Liverpool fan, he is a Woking fan. So outside of his work, being in the dugout or the changing room with us is really his dream job and it is great having him around. He misses five or six games a season when he can't make it, but he was at training last night, he will be on the coach on Saturday. Obviously when Champions League is on he cannot miss it but when the game is over he will come straight back and train with us on a Thursday."
Before finishing our discussion the topic switched over to Dowson's ambition as a coach going forward.
“As a manger I want to go as high as I can," he said.
“ I got a team out of Isthmian South, then out of the Isthmian Premier. I then got a team out of the National League South. So, if I then get a team out of the National League and into the Football League, I will be the only bloke to ever do it. And it will never be done again. That's my ambition."
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