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Cards close to the heart – Woking man Paul Hodges’ ticket to ride again

Woking FC

While sense of ‘meaning’ can be crudely exploited by some in football, the connection is genuinely deep-rooted for Paul Hodges at Woking. For the recently-returned attacking performer, though, his second time around as a National League player comes refreshingly free of excess pressure.

Rejoining Woking a month ago, the 27-year-old had spent the past year with Slough Town, though such was the ridiculousness of 2020/21 that they only played 12 of their National League South fixtures (seven fewer than some). Rebels joint-manager Neil Baker told last month how he hopes he will be back with them next season, but for however long, 'Hodgey' is currently reunited with his hometown side.

In Alan Dowson’s first season in charge, he was part of the Woking team that achieved promotion back to the National League at the first attempt two years ago. The lack of relegation this season removes the obvious peril, but a number of managers in the division have made signings recently with the express aim of giving their respective sides a shot in the arm.

In this case, Dowson cited simply turning to somebody he knows can potentially swing a game in their favour, and while there is mutual respect and understanding, there is also no overbearing expectation. The former Hartley Wintney player’s deserved rise up the leagues in recent seasons was never really in the script for the man himself, so to wheel out ‘anything else now is a bonus’ would actually be pretty accurate.

I think because I had time to step back from the National League, it actually helped,” he explained. “A lot of the boys (at Woking) are still there from when I was there a year-and-a-half ago, I get along with Dowse really well, obviously I know the surroundings.”

“Even things like the training pitch, it’s nice not having to put your sat nav on and make your way to a training facility you’ve never gone to before, and learn new names. I know it’s a cliché but it really did feel like I hadn’t been away that long.”

That absence of pressure on it needing to work out perfectly owes to a few key factors, one of which is the day job. Although a Reading youngster for part of his time at secondary school, football has never been his livelihood, and along with working as a teacher, Woking’s number 32 certainly knows the value of not limiting yourself when it comes to interests or endeavours.

“I got an acoustic guitar for my birthday when I was about 13 and it started out as just learning and playing for fun, writing songs and things like that. When I got to around 20 and I was at university, I started to do a few gigs with mates; nothing big, but outside the university building, usually to help promote something or a cause.

“Then the last couple of years, another mate of mine at work plays the drums, and we’ve done a few little sets down at the local pub. I’m a big, big fan of The Beatles, I can’t stress how big really; I’m currently sat in the music room in our house, that we’re lucky enough to have, and there’s Beatles things everywhere.

“My wife’s a massive fan as well, so we’ve got Beatles replica guitars on the walls, we’ve got numerous books, and I still am obsessed with them to this day. I listen to their music every single day and that’s why I play really.

“It’s good, playing an instrument, I think it brings people together. It provides a few laughs and keeps the mood in the camp (with football) good sometimes; on away trips, I’ve sometimes taken the guitar.”

For Christmas 2018, he was warmly referred to on the club website as ‘musical director’ when Woking’s players and management did their own ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ (Band Aid) video to raise money for the homeless via the local York Road Project charity. The video also featured such highlights as Voice of an Angel (of the north…), Gateshead’s own Alan Dowson.

Despite Paul's Beatles affection, it is not something you can expect to hear from him when it comes to football’s now-renowned singing initiation.

“Sadly, it doesn’t go down as well as it would have done 50 years ago!”

Adapting to changing times has been the way of it on his climb up the leagues, and undoubtedly too in the past year for the secondary school English teacher. He describes how he came to pursue education as a career.

“I finished university when I was 21, and like a lot of people, I wasn’t really sure what to do. Football was never something to consider at that time; I actually didn’t even play football on a Saturday, just for the university team now and again.

“When I finished university, I worked at Morrisons and waiting part-time, while I was studying to be a teacher. When that year was over and I got a job at the school I’d been training at, I gave up the Morrisons job and went straight into teaching.

“I’ve said this a few times to people, I never thought that I’d earn money from football, so it was always ‘okay, teaching’s my job now, how can I progress there and be a better teacher the year after?’ When I was 22, I just thought ‘oh well, I’ll go and play football in the park with my mates on a Saturday’.

“I was down at Abbey Rangers in Chertsey, which I think was Combined Counties Division One and must be a good few leagues below the Conference National now. It went on a rollercoaster since then, if I’m honest.”

Growing up in Woking from around ten years old, he could hear the home support cheering a goal even if he wasn’t at the game, while walks to and from school took him past the ground each day. A few years earlier, he had also been a ball boy.

“A mate of mine had a birthday party, and the party was being ball boys at the Woking game! It was really cool actually.

“I wasn’t a massive fan of Woking at that moment, I just knew that they were the local club, and they were in the Conference at the time. We played on the pitch at half-time and we were ball boys through the game.

“I do vividly remember handing the ball back to a player, and it was a throw-in to the opposition. I was really keen, this ten-year-old, just wanting to be really quick to throw the ball back to the opposition team, which obviously is not a great thing to do!

“The Woking substitute just had a quick word with me and was like ‘the next time it comes to you, just throw it to me, and I’ll delay it’. I remember thinking ‘oh, that’s pretty cool’.

“You’re so impressionable at that age, so now when I meet young fans, I really try and remember their names and have a chat with them about things. I’m obviously not saying I’m some local celebrity, not at all, but I think it’s nice when you like somebody that plays football and they come across in a good way.

“I think it just reinforces that everyone’s just the same, they’re a normal person, whether they’re a musician, a footballer, a teacher, a school kid.”

An entertainment industry, as many would describe it, much of the behaviour we see in football is performative, and the mask has never slipped quite so much as it has lately with regard to just how contrived that can be. Rest assured, though, that there are plenty involved for whom it is anything but fabricated, and the privilege of playing for Woking will never be lost on Paul.

“It really is very local to me, and I think that makes it mean a lot more. I don’t really know how it comes across on the outside, whether people are like ‘oh, he’s Woking through and through’, or ‘I don’t know if he plays it up’, but I said to Kelvin Reay who’s involved at the club the other day, there’s just some sort of pull to Woking.

“I think it’s because I was brought up around there, I have a natural affiliation with the club, having supported them and watched them throughout my teenage years. Just everything - you know when something just clicks?

“And it does with Woking.”

There is an argument to say that his broader perspective owes in no small part to not entering the professional game as a teenager and then suddenly having to learn ‘real life’ later down the line. Nevertheless, he did have a certain glimpse, from being with Chelsea’s development group at 11 before being signed by Reading.

Alongside him in the Royals set-up were current Middlesbrough and Northern Ireland midfielder George Saville, Rotherham United defender Angus MacDonald (a striker in those days), and midfielder Anton Rodgers (with Marlow recently), son of Leicester City boss Brendan and a highly-regarded prospect at the time.

“I stayed there for two years or so, but then I got released, and that was really sad actually, although it was quite demanding, the training and games. It’s a big commitment when you’re 12 and I was quite keen to do well at school, quite keen to learn guitar and keyboard and things like that, so I was trying to juggle too much, looking back on it now, and I didn’t prioritise football as I should have done.

“When I got released, I was a bit cut up, but that’s when music actually came into it a lot more; I’d spend days just playing the guitar and I think it was a nice release really. Reading was good, though, good memories, and I look now at who I played with, and I think only three or four of us have made it to professional football.

“So, it shows that you can get released at 14 and think all the other boys staying on are going to make it, and your career’s done, that’s it, but things have a way of finding you again.”

While teaching can be a thankless task too much of the time, with strain and sacrifice that many never get to see, it can also be as impactful and fulfilling as any job there is. Like football, it also seems to have a knack of amplifying just how quickly time shifts from one generation to the next (like that ‘Circle of Life’ a certain piano man sang about…).

Paul has experienced that firsthand recently, finding himself in a matchday squad with someone he used to teach, young Woking defender Leo Hamblin.

“He’s a really great kid, and I know it’s really easy to say because he’s a teammate of mine now, but I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true; I just wouldn’t say anything. His family are excellent and it’s just really nice seeing something good happen to a good kid.”

The club have been visibly ramping up their ambitions with a number of off-field developments in recent times, though Paul is among those currently trying to ensure that this very season doesn’t continue drifting to a below-par conclusion. As alluded to earlier, though, the chief emphasis from both manager and player is on him being able to enjoy his return to the fifth tier.

“There’s definitely less pressure. I remember moving up with Woking when we got promoted, and I think because I’d gone up in the leagues, I’ve always felt like I’ve had to kind of prove myself.

“Maybe because I was just that boy who got signed from Hartley Wintney, and when I signed for them, I was just that boy who signed from two leagues down with Abbey Rangers. Obviously, you have to prove yourself no matter where you go, but I have always felt an extra bit of pressure maybe, so I’m having to say ‘oh, I am good enough for this level’, rather than when you drop down a league or two.

“I remember going up to the National League and thinking ‘this is a big step now, I’m playing alongside full-time players most weeks, we’re dedicating a lot of time to travelling.’ I think it was quite difficult to adapt to, whereas now, having had that time to look at the league and coming back to it now, I’m more like ‘okay, I know the standard is this, I know I have to improve this part of my game etc.’”

Whatever the future holds, and whichever league’s opposing defences he will be troubling next season and beyond, the winger/attacking midfielder plans to keep hold of the same outlook.

“When I was at Abbey, I never wanted to make it as a professional footballer, I just worked hard for my team every week. I wanted to always be one of the best players on the pitch, and I want to be someone that people look at and think ‘he’s got something, he’s a good player’.

“As much as people say they don’t really care what people think, they do. I do care what people think when I’m on the pitch, because I know I’m a good enough player, and I want people to notice that.

“If you’re good at your job, you want people to be aware of that, and it’s no different if that’s in teaching or football. Whatever happens will happen, I think everyone has a destiny set for them and a path ready, and if you kind of stay on the right track then that will happen.

“If I play really, really well in the next few weeks and train hard, Dowse might offer me a full-time contract. If I work really hard and he doesn’t think full-time football’s right for me, then it’s not.

“I’m not gonna cry over it, I’ve just got to get on with it, and maybe pursue football in the Conference South and carry on teaching. It’s just: work hard, have fun, play with a smile on your face, make sure it means something to you.

“Otherwise, you’re wasting a lot of time travelling and training!”

Alongside English, journalism was part of his studies at university, and he noted the role reversal that this conversation brought – “It always used to be me interviewing other people.”

Reading is something he has maintained a strong interest in – and not just his students’ work – while a return to normal circumstances for the world will bring added opportunity for he and his wife to visit more places with historical significance, as they often enjoy. Music, meanwhile, will also surely remain a frontrunner in the interest stakes.

“There’s a place for it in everybody’s life. My dad introduced me to loads and loads of different types of music, my wife has got a degree in music, so it’s a big part of our lives together.

“I think people when they go through tough times hear lyrics more than when they just kind of sing along to it. You learn so much from not just the messages in the songs but the people that write them as well; Paul McCartney’s a hero of mine, and not just because of what he’s achieved, but when you look back at how he stood up for equality and things like that.

“Music provides all sorts, doesn’t it?”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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