‘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
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