I’ve seen news of Alex Woodyard’s signing of a new deal being described as ‘the best midfielder we’ve had committing his future to the club’, and that isn’t far wide of the mark.
Signing Alex for another season is a real statement of intent by the manager. It was understood Doncaster were interested, and I’m also led to believe Ipswich have been sniffing around as well. In years gone by that would have been enough to turn heads, and nobody would have blamed him if he’d gone. After all Lincoln City is his job, and if you’re offered a big money promotion and a move to a better company, you’d go right?
Well, Alex Woodyard hasn’t, and I have no doubt at all that he is staying here because of Danny and Nicky. Alex trusts them to develop him and grow him as a player, that much is clear. He is known (jokingly) as the manager’s son by other players, and with good reason. He has a closeness to Danny, a man who has brought him up through the ranks, the man not only responsible for this tremendous season but also Alex Woodyard’s progress. I have no doubt that at some point in his career Alex will play regular Championship football, be it with Lincoln City (hopefully) or more likely after earning himself a move in fourteen months time. However it happens, it will happen and that will be partly down to his ability, and partly down to the way he has been managed.
So what is special about him? He doesn’t score a lot of goals for a midfielder, in truth finishing is a weak aspect of his game. That is about the only facet of his game that is lacking though, because everywhere else he does the job of two men. He has an engine the like of which I haven’t seen on a Lincoln City player in thirty years. He never seems to tire, from the first minute to the sixth minute of injury time he is still snapping at players heels, harassing them and chasing them down. He works harder than a pit horse, and his energy is more infectious than bird flu. When Alex Woodyard partners anyone in our midfield, their game rises to his level. Who would dare to try to hide on the pitch when he’s grafting alongside?
He isn’t just a worker though, Jake Sheridan used to chase everything but he was never linked with the Championship. No, there is much more to his game than just running. He is absolutely integral to the pressing game DC likes to play, without a player of his capacity it would simply break down. He moves sensibly, reading danger and ensuring he fills the gaps like expanding foam. For a small player he casts and enormous shadow over the midfield, and he does that by moving and anticipating with an intelligence that belies his tender age. When he does press and win the ball he always seems to play it simple, be it to a full back, winger or his midfield partner. On the ball he is composed, never one to try to rush a pass forward. There’s no short-cuts in his game, there’s no cutting corners. Everything is balanced, planned and baked cautiously, in exactly the same manner that Danny manages the club. I’ve heard some fans berate Alex for going backwards or sideways but again it is integral to everything we do. Why would you press like mad, win the ball and then just lose it trying to be too extravagant? Alex knows extravagance is for the flair players such as Nathan Arnold.
If football were a fashion show, Arnold (and the other wingers) would be the flash suits and fancy shoes, but Alex Woodyard would be the mannequin. Without him they would just be a collection of fancy clothes piled on the floor. If they’re the twenty inch rims and carbon fibre body of a Lamborghini Gallardo, he is the V10 engine sat under the hood. Without him, they’re just a small but incredibly expensive conservatory. In order for our headliners to do what they do best, they need Alex Woodyard doing what he does best. He’s the beating heart of the team, without a shadow of a doubt.
It was quite ironic that he signed a new deal today. I went in to work in Gainsborough to recall stories of our big day out, and my Sheffield Wednesday supporting boss had watched the game. He played with Callum Howe and Terry Hawkridge at Scunthorpe and knows the game well (yes, my boss is that young). Before I got to talking about anything he said to me ‘that floppy haired lad in the midfield is your best player by a mile’. He went on to tell me he was a ‘footballer’s footballer’, someone the layman might not always appreciate, but the sort of player you love having alongside you. He was half right: Alex is leading the Lincoln City Twitter vote for most man of the match awards this season. He is the midfielder that does the ‘unseen work’, but he’s that good at it he gets noticed.
I think Alan Power’s resurgence has been (in part) due to the freedom that Alex allows him. In the past the uniquely talented Irishman has looked agitated and frustrated at the lack of support around him, but with young Woody at his side he has the opportunity to get forward and support the front men. He knows if the ball is lost then it’ll only be a matter of seconds before someone is biting the opposition players ankles. There’s no shock that (in my opinion) Alan is having his best season at the moment. We finally have a midfield pairing to be proud of, the first perhaps since Gain and Butcher.
It isn’t just the quality of what he does though, him signing is a serious message to anyone looking at our success and thinking they can cherry pick our best players. After our play-off defeats we lost a lot of quality to better opposition, notably Gary Taylor-Fletcher, Jamie McCombe, Gareth McAuley and Richard Butcher. Nobody blamed these players for trying their luck at a higher level, it seemed a natural progression. There wasn’t a feeling that we had made the sort of strides that could see us survive league or two higher than we were, and there wasn’t a hint we could compete financially with these bigger clubs either. Keith Alexander was an enigmatic and likeable manager, but these players felt in order to develop they needed to leave Lincoln. Building a competitive and strong team is one thing, but this season we’re building something very different. This regime is one that players feel confident enough to stick by, and by signing on the dotted line Alex Woodyard is placing his faith in our set-up. Whatever is happening at Lincoln is very special, I’ve known it since North Ferriby at home in August, and today Alex has proven it as well. We might be non-league Lincoln pulling FA Cup shocks this season, but I wouldn’t bet against us being League Two Lincoln looking for back to back championship wins in twelve months time.
Make no mistake, today we have signed the very best central midfielder in the non-league set up. At least 48 teams above us would have been delighted to be unveiling him as their new signing, but instead he has signed for the Imps. It doesn’t matter he was ours anyway, in this mercenary, money-driven modern era a player is only at a club as long as his contract dictates, and only that long if he has integrity. Alex Woodyard had a chance to begin an exodus of our stars looking for football at a higher level, and he has stuck a flag in the ground and remained on the loco for another season. He has integrity, he has ambition and for the first time in as long as I can remember, my football club matches that ambition.
Today we pulled of a major coup. 5-0 at the Emirates? It really was only the beginning, and Alex Woodyard has shouted that out loud and clear.
Photos by the one and only Mr Graham Burrell.