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'It started as a social thing' - Dorking Wanderers manager, owner & chairman Marc White on rise to National League
When Dorking Wanderers were announced as Oldham Athletic’s first home opponents of the new National League season, it prompted derision from Latics supporters.
Fans took to social media to decry how far Oldham – inaugural members of the Premier League in 1992 – had fallen.
Both clubs are appearing in the National League for the first time this season – but it is Dorking who are more excited about their maiden voyage.
Formed in 1999 by Marc White and his group of friends, Dorking started playing football in a park.
Twenty-three years and 12 promotions later, the Surrey side are settling into life in England’s fifth tier, which they kicked off with a 2-2 home draw against Chesterfield on Saturday.
Next is a trip north to face Oldham, which will be broadcast live on TV.
“It is really exciting – our progression has been so quick,” said White, who is Dorking’s manager, owner and chairman.
“We will be privileged to play a lot of top clubs but, at the same time, we won’t be the whipping boys – we never have been and we never will be.”
Dorking’s meteoric rise is reminiscent of White’s boyhood club Wimbledon, who rose from non-league to reach the English top flight for the first time in 1986.
But Wanderers’ journey is perhaps even more remarkable.
“The original intention was to have a kickabout and enjoy a beer after the game,” said White, 49, who also runs a marketing company.
It began as “purely a social thing” but matters moved quickly for the Wanderers, who first played in the Crawley and District Football League before switching to the West Sussex League, which they won at the first attempt.
Four promotions in five seasons saw them reach that league’s Premier Division and, with White at the helm, success kept on coming. Wanderers won promotion to the National League South in 2018.
That same year, the club moved to the refurbished Meadowbank Stadium, which had been home to non-league Dorking FC, who dissolved in 2017.
Wanderers now also run academy sides, a youth outreach project and a women’s team which plays in the sixth tier.
“We have gone from paying a fiver on a local park to having 1,000 active members,” said White.
“We never really had a plan and we just pieced things together as we went along, but perhaps 12 to 14 years in we started to have these little pipe dreams.
“We were the beneficiaries of Dorking FC being disbanded, but Dorking is a small market town and everyone wants the best for each other. Some of the people who worked at Dorking FC are now involved with our club.
“It was, over time, an ever-expanding hobby, but it became properly serious when we reached the National League.”
Despite making their biggest step up so far, Dorking will continue to operate on a part-time basis, and only recruited three new players over the summer – Southampton academy graduate Ryan Seager, ex-Newport and Sutton midfielder Jack Jebb, and former Tranmere midfielder Adam Mekki.
All arrived on free transfers. The only transfer fee the club has ever paid was £15,000 for striker Jason Prior from Havant & Waterlooville in 2018.
“We tend to stick with what we already have,” said White.
“We remain cautious when it comes to signing players, and most of our squad have been on our promotion journeys over the past couple of seasons, but we do look for players who can give us an upgrade.”
Wanderers started the season with only one senior goalkeeper in Slovakian Slavomir Huk, as fellow stopper Dan Lincoln is a first-class cricketer who played for Berkshire and Middlesex before joining Kent.
Attacking midfielder James McShane, one of Dorking’s longest-serving players having joined six years ago, can scarcely believe how far the club has come.
“There is a picture of me caked in mud from when we played at our old ground in Westhumble,” he told BBC Sport.
“The pitch was absolutely terrible and the changing rooms were basically two sheds next door to each other.
“We would perhaps get 40 or 50 fans, and definitely no more than 100, but now we have around 1,200 for every game at Meadowbank.”
The 32-year-old, who works in a Royal Mail delivery office, believes White’s cautious nature has paid dividends and helped Dorking’s progression.
“The nucleus of the squad has been here for five to six years,” said McShane.
“When he does bring in a few players each summer, it means the others have had to step up. The gaffer manages to keep everybody in the squad happy, although I am not sure how he does it!”
Should Dorking’s next steps not go to plan, White, as chairman, would be willing to sack himself as manager.
However, given what he has done for the club, it is not likely to happen any time soon.
“If we weren’t doing well I would be the first to go, because I am the biggest Dorking Wanderers fan of all,” said White.
“We have an executive and a non-executive board, and they remain the driving force. If the results outweighed the budget, then I am sure they would want to talk to me about it.
“We want to consolidate and get the ground more up to spec, although I have been saying that for 20-odd years.”