The magic of the cup strikes again as sixth-tier Woking host Premier League side Watford in the FA Cup on Sunday.
A fantastic draw for the Cards, who will welcome first-tier opposition to the Laithwaite Community Stadium for the first time in nearly 22 years, places pressure on the Hornets to produce a widely-anticipated comfortable victory in Surrey.
Watford, who sit 8th in England’s top flight, come off the back of an exhilarating 3-3 draw at AFC Bournemouth in which all the goals were notched in the first-half, including a brace from captain Troy Deeney.
Javi Gracia fielded a full-strength side for the visit to the Cherries, and could be set to rotate considerably for the trip to Woking.
Meanwhile, the Cards ran out 3-0 victors at Hampton & Richmond Borough on New Year’s Day thanks to a hat-trick from former Hull City forward Greg Luer.
Woking are currently 2nd in the National League South, with two games in hand on 1st-placed Torquay United, and the joint-highest scoring tally in the division (47).
In order to set up the first ever competitive meeting between the sides, Woking won 1-0 at both Torquay and League Two's Swindon Town while Watford were automatically inducted into the tournament at the Third Round.
Cards boss Alan Dowson recognises the talent within the Watford squad and is reluctant to entertain the possibility of an upset, employing a realistic rather than optimistic approach ahead of a special occasion for the non-league outfit.
“If they play seven or eight of their players then it is going to be a cricket score,” Dowson said. “Let’s get the cards on the table — people say you can make a shock, but you can’t. It’s ridiculous. On the day we’ll believe we can win the game, because we’ve got to. But realistically we won’t win.”
The 48-year old, who was on Millwall’s books as a player before enjoying lengthy managerial tenures at Walton & Hersham, Kingstonian and Hampton & Richmond, admits the prospect of facing Premier League opposition has in fact been at the back of his mind after a recent impressive league run which has forged something of a two-horse race at the top of the table between Woking and Torquay.
“The Watford game has never bothered us. We have won every league game since the last cup game. People say ‘you must be excited’ but I haven’t even thought about it. You’ve got to do interviews and get your big head in the paper but I am more bothered with the Welling game on Wednesday.
“I’ll be looking at the Watford game as ‘let’s have a crack’, and it’s a great occasion for the club, but we need to beat Welling. Watford is a showpiece. It’s great for the community, which is a massive part of the club. Once we get whacked by them we can look forward to Wednesday and Welling.”
Meanwhile, Gracia acknowledges the prestige of the FA Cup but concedes that he will rotate his squad ahead of the tie at the Laithwaite Community Stadium.
“It is a good chance to respect the competition and I 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’ll have the chance to play.”
However the Spaniard insists that any changes made will not weaken his team in comparison to the usual crop of players selected for Premier League games, citing that each and every player in the Hornets’ squad is vital to the cause even with a busy winter transfer window looming.
“The mentality is the most important. 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.
“I am happy with the players we have in this moment. 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 Crystal Palace because it’s the best way to achieve good things for us.”
Playmaker and former Southampton academy prospect Max Kretzschmar is likely to be unavailable for the hosts.
Strikers Jamar Loza and Jake Hyde were rested for the victory at Hampton & Richmond, while former Watford youth player Harvey Bradbury signed on loan from Oxford United during the week, as did central midfielder Armani Little — all four could feature on Sunday.
Having now completed the hectic portion of the Premier League schedule, Gracia is expected to rotate the matchday squad heavily to rejuvenate his first-choice players for the months ahead.
Sebastian Prödl, Andre Gray and Christian Kabasele are all unavailable, while Marvin Zeegelaar and Stefano Okaka will not be used as they continue negotiations over loan moves to Udinese.
The way is paved for fringe first-team players to come into the fold and show their head coach what they are capable of.
Woking — Ross; Collier, Cook, Gerring, Casey; Taylor, Jolley, Little; Loza, Hyde, Luer.
Watford — Dahlberg; Navarro, Wilmot, Britos, Masina; Janmaat, Chalobah, Cleverley, Quina; Success, Peñaranda.