In preparation for Saturday’s curtain raiser, we spoke to featured writer for The Guardian and Boreham Wood season ticket holder Steve Pye to gain an insight into our opening day opposition. You can check out Steve’s great blog all about sport in the 1980s HERE, which includes a piece about Wrexham’s two legged victory over Porto in 1984, and follow him on Twitter (@1980sSportsBlog).
Last season, you lost out to eventual winners Harrogate in the play-off semi-finals. How do you look back on the campaign as a whole?
The 2019/20 campaign started in shaky fashion – eight points from the opening nine matches – but then the team started to turn the corner. After such a poor 2018/19 season (the Wood finished 20th), I was pleasantly surprised when we started eyeing up the play-off positions. By the end of the curtailed season I felt momentum was starting to build up behind the club, and a fifth-place finish was fully deserved.
Obviously the play-off defeat to Harrogate was disappointing, but realistically if you had told me at the start of the season that Boreham Wood would get to within 90 minutes of Wembley via the play-offs then I would have snapped your hand off.
Covid-19 has been a disaster for all football clubs, particularly at non-league level. Just the other day, your chairman Danny Hunter painted quite a bleak picture of the club’s future. Just how has the pandemic affected Boreham Wood?
I think Danny Hunter is trying to be as honest as possible in his communications to the fans. You may have read reports that he had to remortgage his house to help the club, which just goes to show how seriously this has impacted him and Boreham Wood. Hopefully the news of Government funding will ease things a little, but we all know that non-league clubs in particular need fans back through the turnstiles to bring in some much-needed money.
It is widely reported that Boreham Wood don’t get huge crowds, yet gates were going up towards the end of last season, and it’s such a shame that the new campaign cannot start with supporters in grounds for steps one and two.
Despite all that, you seem to have added real quality to an already very good squad. What do you make of the club’s transfer activity?
I’m quite excited about the new signings. Losing Tyrone Marsh was a blow, but Matt Rhead came in towards the backend of last season, and in the summer forwards Corey Whitley and Shaquile Coulthirst were signed; Coulthirst scored a hat-trick in a pre-season friendly against Slough, although he was known as Trialist One for that match!
Gus Mafuta and Zaine Francis-Angol are welcome additions to an already strong squad. Retaining the services of Femi Ilesanmi and Jamal Fyfield was also crucial. But the signing that excited me the most was that of goalkeeper Nathan Ashmore. Every team needs a strong keeper, and when he arrived last October he immediately added presence and quality. Signing him permanently in the summer was vital, as some of his displays last season were outstanding.
In the last 3 seasons, you’ve had two play-off campaigns – final in 2018 and semi-final in 2020 – yet nearly got relegated in 2019. What is the typical expectation for Boreham Wood in the National League, and has that changed at all this season?
I can’t speak for all of the Wood Army, but I always try and keep my feet on the ground at the start of a season. Get enough points to stay in the division and then take it from there. That said, after a great season and with some strong additions made to the squad, I am starting to get into the dangerous territory of daring to dream. Why shouldn’t we be optimistic for the year ahead?
After a memorable 2017/18 season maybe expectations were raised? That Wembley play-off final defeat was hard to take, and losing a number of players from that squad understandably had a huge impact which rolled on into the next campaign. The following year was like a bad hangover, yet it emphasised that a club as small as Boreham Wood had punched above their wait to first of all establish themselves in the National League and then reach Wembley.
From an outsiders perspective, Luke Garrard looks destined for a crack in the Football League, be that with Boreham Wood or elsewhere. Is this an accurate assumption? Just how would you rate the job he has done?
He has done a great job. In 2015 he took over early in the season when Ian Allinson left, and keeping the club in the National League was an unbelievable achievement. After a year of consolidation, Garrard then took Boreham Wood to Wembley for the first time, adding to his growing reputation. Reaching the play-offs again has shown that he’s definitely learned a lot about himself and the team after the struggles of 2018/19.
Obviously I hope no one snaps him up, but it wouldn’t be a major surprise if a Football League club comes calling. But let’s hope that Luke can gain Football League managerial experience with Boreham Wood in the future.
As far as Saturday goes, who should Wrexham fans be looking out for in the Boreham Wood team?
As I said earlier, I really rate Nathan Ashmore. Hopefully he won’t be too busy on Saturday, though. Kane Smith is an important player, a wing back who loves to get forward, and it’s great to see him back after he suffered a serious knee injury in the 2018 play-offs. Sorba Thomas is extremely talented, a product of the Boreham Wood PASE Academy. He has played as a wing back in the past, but I’m wondering if he may be used more in midfield or in the hole this season.
Up front you will definitely need to keep an eye on Kabs Tshimanga. After a prolific season with Oxford City, Kabs arrived at the Wood last year, and scored 18 goals in the National League. Fingers crossed he can hit the ground running again.
Wrexham usually attract a very healthy attendance on the opening day, but not this season. Do you think the empty stadium could work to Boreham Wood’s advantage?
I think most away teams could benefit from the lack of home support. For example, referees shouldn’t be influenced by crowds, but they are only human. Without the pressure of home supporters on their backs perhaps they may not be influenced so easily. Home advantage is significant at all levels, so it will be interesting to look at the stats at the end of the season regarding the impact of empty grounds.
Boreham Wood had a pretty decent away record last season, with eight wins on their travels in the league, so hopefully that will continue regardless of the crowd situation.
When last season was curtailed, Boreham Wood were a massive 17 points ahead of Wrexham. But on Saturday we’re back to square one. What’s your prediction?
It’s a bit tricky to make a prediction, as I’m not sure what state Wrexham are in at the moment. Last season was clearly a struggle for you, but I know from personal experience that it is possible for a club to bounce back from a close shave with the drop. If the clubs had played at the Racecourse Ground in March, then I would have gone for a 2-1 win for the Wood. But I’ll go for a 1-1 draw on Saturday due to my lack of knowledge about your squad.
Finally. As is the case with many Boreham Wood fans, you also support Arsenal. 28 years on, what do you make of that fateful afternoon on January 4th, 1992?
Sorry, I can’t recall a match on that date. Sadly, I’m joking. It was a complete nightmare. I have friends who went, and they shudder when that match is mentioned. Strangely I started to feel ill on the morning of the game and was in bed for the whole weekend. I remember hearing on Grandstand that we had taken the lead and I thought all was fine. I was shivering and sweating all day and wondered if I was hallucinating when reports came through of your two late goals.
Mind you, quite why Jimmy Carter had a late goal ruled out I will never know. But these things happen unfortunately. My friends thought I was off school on the Monday due to embarrassment, but I’d gone through the same thing in 1985 when we lost to York, so I was used to it. In 1991 we lost to Tottenham in the semi-final, then Wrexham happened in 1992. Fortunately, 1993 was a lot more enjoyable.
Big thanks to Steve for giving us a great insight into Saturday’s opponents. You can find more of his writing at That 1980s Sports Blog – including the Wrexham / Porto piece we referenced earlier.