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Dorking Wanderers. From council pitches to the brink of the Football League

Dorking Wanderers owner and manager Marc White poses for a picture in the club's bar

The market town of Dorking, nestled at the foot of the Surrey Hills is not your typical setting for a tale of footballing success.

But in a sport dominated by manufactured state-owned fairytales, Dorking Wanderers are not your typical football club.

One man’s disillusionment with Premier League football and the chaos surrounding his boyhood club Wimbledon saw him create a team with friends in the Crawley and District League and so begin the journey to the cusp of the Football League with 12 promotions in 24 years.

Not that a rapid climb through the divisions was ever the plan for co-founder and current manager and chairman Marc White. “It was a social thing really. We’d rent a council pitch for £50, and we were just a bunch of mates who would go out and have a beer and a bit of fun.”

But as the group of friends started out on their journey, none could have envisioned the remarkable ascent the club would make. “We were never really bothered about progression.

“But you get four or five promotions, you get hooked on it, it’s almost like real life football manager.”

And so, Dorking find themselves in English footballs fifth-tier, a semi-professional outfit punching above their weight against Hollywood money and historic rivals.

Unlike Dorking, the others, Wealdstone, Maidenhead United and newly promoted Oxford City have long, part-time, histories, having all been founded under the reign of Queen Victoria.

And whilst these clubs will be at least considering the step to professionalisation, it is little old Dorking, with their thirst for growth who have their eyes firmly fixed upwards, laying the foundations to become the next side to professionalise.

This season, their second at this level, has seen them experiment, investing in overnight hotel stays to gauge the increase in performance, but it is not always possible.

White admits, “Honestly, we’re feeling it out.

“Whether it is next season or the season after, if we can consolidate then the sky’s the limit.”

But consolidation has been difficult for Dorking who compete in an increasingly professional league whilst only being able to train on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.

Injuries to key players combined with a squad who have other jobs to consider mean that it is perhaps understandable that Dorking find themselves in the fight of their lives as they seek to maintain their National League status.

On their day, Dorking are as good a match as anybody at this level, as runaway leaders Chesterfield found out to their detriment earlier this month.

But the victory was followed by a run of one point from five games illustrating perfectly the difficulty of producing consistent performances whilst remaining semi-professional.

Midfielder Dan Gallagher who also works as a plumber explains. “Some of us will play away games on a Tuesday night, get home at five in the morning and have work the next day whereas full-pros can just focus on recovery.”

Gallagher is perfectly placed to comment on the impact professionalism can have on performance, having watched younger brother Conor rise to become a mainstay for club and country. “People have no idea of what he has had to put himself through to get to where he is.

“He was never regarded as the best prospect coming through but he harnessed it and you see that in the way he plays and the high esteem his managers hold him in.”

The brotherly support is reciprocal, with Conor becoming a regular fixture at the club’s ground Meadowbank. “He comes down here when he can and he came the day we got promoted.

The boys are always asking me if he is here, and he gets peppered by people, but he is used to it now.”

Whilst documentaries such as Welcome to Wrexham present a glamorised version of non-league football the reality can often be different in a demanding league where loyalty and contracts are shorter than a Premier League shinpad.

Striker Alfie Rutherford can appreciate this more than most. The club legend’s first season in the fifth tier after scoring the goal to earn promotion, ended prematurely as he tore his ACL and opted to undergo open-heart surgery at the age of 24.

Yes, you read that correctly, ACL and open-heart surgery.

Rutherford discovered that he had Aortic Stenosis, a condition that affects the valves serving the heart, at the age of 15 during a pre-scholarship medical at Portsmouth. Despite being asymptomatic, his scholarship offer was rescinded in the wake of the diagnosis and his path led him to Dorking, where he led them to promotion as the National League South’s top scorer with 30 goals.

Rutherford explains: “I always knew I was going to one day need the heart operation so given I was already facing a long layoff with my ACL; it made sense to kill two birds with one stone.

“They say the ACL is the worst injury in football, but you add in open heart surgery and this year hasn’t been ideal”.

It is widely understood that significant injuries can be mentally tough for footballers at any level. But injuries for semi-professional players have far reaching consequences, as Rutherford, who has since stopped working as a roofer, knows all too well.

Rutherford said. “I’m lucky with this club because they helped me out massively, as did my parents. I’m a positive person but I had just bought my first house and it was tough.”

We speak in the days following the on field cardiac arrest of Luton Town captain Tom Lockyer, who despite having a different condition to Rutherford, has brought the awareness around heart-related issues to the forefront of public and player consciousness. “I never have and probably never will worry about it. If I can’t play football, then what’s the point of anything? The risks are worth it in my eyes”.

Both Rutherford and Gallagher are emphatic in their praise of their enigmatic manager and his drive for success.

“I have no doubt that the gaffer will take this club into the Football League, and I want to be a part of it.” Gallagher predicts, a sentiment echoed by Rutherford.

Whilst the dream of league football at Meadowbank might seem fanciful to some, that has never deterred Dorking before. With their fearlessness to challenge the established order already demonstrated, only a fool would bet against them achieving it.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Peter Tarry (The Times)


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