‘This place is about the peo­ple – no fans is just a night­mare’

Marc White has mas­ter­mined Dork­ing’s rise from parks to the Na­tional League South, but fears for the fairy-tale club’s fu­ture

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport / Covid Crisis - By Jim White

At Dork­ing Wan­der­ers, the news that fans will not be al­lowed back in to watch the new Na­tional League South sea­son start­ing next month has dis­rupted ev­ery­thing. Sit­ting in the club’s smart new hos­pi­tal­ity zone, man­ager Marc White shakes his head gloomily.

“I don’t know what we’ll do now. Ab­so­lutely no idea. We brought every­body back off fur­lough, ev­ery­one has done pre-sea­son, we’d got the ground ready with all the new so­cial dis­tanc­ing. Now this. This curve­ball is gi­gan­tic. With­out fans, clubs at this level can­not sur­vive. Clubs are go­ing to go to the wall un­less there is a sup­port pack­age of sig­nif­i­cance. This is the big­gest cri­sis we have faced in our his­tory.”

White should know. Last sea­son, as Wan­der­ers pro­gressed to the Na­tional League South play-offs, he was ap­proached by a League Two club won­der­ing if he might be in­ter­ested in tak­ing charge. He sug­gested it would be best to speak to the Dork­ing chair­man. Fair enough, said the in­ter­ested party, and who is he? “Well,” came the re­ply, “it’s me.”

Be­cause at Dork­ing Wan­der­ers, White oc­cu­pies a po­si­tion unique in football: he is the club’s founder, owner, chair­man and man­ager. “When you put it like that it makes me sound a right con­trol freak,” he says. “But it’s just the way things have panned out.”

And, un­til the virus hit, the way things have panned out at Dork­ing has been ex­tra­or­di­nary. The Wan­der­ers story be­gan in 1999, when a bunch of lo­cal lads formed a team to play in the now de­funct Craw­ley and District League. White was the left­winger and found him­self vol­un­teered into do­ing the or­gan­is­ing.

“Oh lis­ten, there was many a Satur­day when I was pick­ing lads up from out­side night­clubs for a morn­ing kick-off,” he smiles.

They be­gan at level 17, the low­est point of the football pyra­mid. In the two decades since they were formed, un­der White’s stew­ard­ship they have been pro­moted 12 times and never once rel­e­gated.

As they moved up the di­vi­sions, bet­ter play­ers wanted to get in­volved, fa­cil­i­ties im­proved and lo­cals be­gan to pay to watch. White re­mem­bers fondly their first fan.

“It was a bloke walk­ing his dog who saw us play by chance and said, ‘You lot are good to watch, I’m com­ing back.’ And he has ever since.”

As the pro­mo­tions kept com­ing, so park pitches were not enough. Two sea­sons ago, they took over the derelict, town-cen­tre site va­cated by Dork­ing FC. White over­saw its re­de­vel­op­ment. Two stands and a 3G pitch have been in­stalled. Another ter­race is un­der con­struc­tion. Now it boasts a ca­pac­ity of 3,000. Nat­u­rally, in their first sea­son in the ground, Wan­der­ers won pro­mo­tion to the Na­tional League South. In the Covid-con­strained 2019-20 sea­son, they lost a play-off to Wey­mouth. Had they won and been el­e­vated to the Na­tional League, White had plans for the team to go full-time.

“We’ve got teams from four-year­sold, a devel­op­ment squad, six full­time mem­bers of the com­mer­cial staff, an academy of 85 stu­dents,”

White says. “Our an­nual player wage bill is well into six fig­ures. The first time I paid a player I thought, ‘Can we af­ford this?’ And he was on £10 a game. Some­times you have to pinch your­self what has hap­pened.”

White, who runs a suc­cess­ful mar­ket­ing busi­ness, ad­mits he has put his own cash into the place oc­ca­sion­ally, but his in­vest­ment has never been size­able; the growth has been or­ganic.

“There have been mo­ments when I’ve thought I take on too much,” he says. “Oddly, it has got eas­ier as we’ve got higher up the pyra­mid, I’ve a load of peo­ple around me who help me. And to a de­gree it’s our brand: the bloke who started it is still run­ning it.”

Though even White’s ir­re­press­ible en­ergy is strug­gling to main­tain its flow as the con­se­quences of the pan­demic be­come clear.

“It is a night­mare fans can’t come back,” he says. “Not just fi­nan­cially. This place is all about the peo­ple. Never mind the pro­mo­tions, see­ing kids com­ing to watch the match in Dork­ing shirts is the big­gest buzz.”

With­out match-day in­come, he fears the club will not be able to keep to­gether the side he has built.

“I’ve learnt so much in 20 years. But still the tough­est part of man­age­ment by a mile is telling play­ers they have to leave. If I could have it my way, the orig­i­nal lads we started with would still be play­ing. But then we wouldn’t be where we are.”

In­deed, the speed at which Dork­ing have risen is some­thing with which its cen­tral fig­ure has only re­cently come to terms. He re­mem­bers be­ing struck by a sense of what had been achieved af­ter his side played at Stock­port County in last sea­son’s FA Tro­phy.

“In the pro­gramme, it said 15 years ago Stock­port were play­ing Man City and we were play­ing in the park. We beat them 4-0. I saw one of the lads who was here from the start up in the di­rec­tors’ box. I pointed at the score­board and we both smiled. Blimey. What a story.”

Now the pan­demic has hit, how­ever, no­body at Dork­ing knows what the next chap­ter is. Not even the man who started it all.

One-man show: Marc White, founder, owner, chair­man and man­ager of Dork­ing Wan­der­ers, has led his team to the Na­tional League South

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