I have always had an attraction to Non-League football and its community as a whole. Because that’s exactly what Non-League football is, a community. Run by the people, for the people. However, behind the facade of volunteers and spirit, there are real individuals who spill blood, sweat and tears for the club. They don’t do it for individual recognition or money, but rather to leave a legacy, an identity of a team that can move forward with time. None is more evident than my local club Whyteleafe FC.
I had always wanted to do a piece on the club, where I had seen the changes over a five year period, having been relegated, secured promotion started an academy and installed a 3G pitch. Big changes for a “Semi-Professional” club. The driving force behind the remarkable development is chairman Mark Coote, who I spoke to at length before the home game against Carshalton Atheltic. I wanted to explore why he got involved with the club and what direction he wanted to take. But I also wanted to know about the challenges he has faced as they are just as important.
I had arranged the visit with through club secretary Chris Layton, who was more than happy to help. I have interviewed players and managers before, but never a chairman and was slightly daunted by the prospect. Of course, I needn’t have been. Mark met me with a firm handshake and a big smile before leading me to the boardroom, situated at the side of the astroturf training pitch. He is a successful businessman who has lived in the local area for years and has rubbed shoulders with such stalwarts of the game as Alan Pardew (Interestingly started his career off at Whyteleafe) David Gold and Simon Jordan. So why did he get involved in the running of a semi-professional club?
“Initially it started in 1995, got myself back in football and into coaching as I had young children. We started the first junior team at the club. They hadn’t had a junior team for many years and I came here to run a sort of under 12 side. At the same time I got involved with the first team coaching with the then manager Lee Richardson. It developed from there really”.
But it didn’t stop there. With the club languishing towards the bottom of the Isthmian Division One table, Coote stepped up his involvement with the club:
“Over the years I have been First Team manager, reserve team manager and youth team manager. I had many roles with the club at that time, mainly to do with coaching and managing.”
But eventually, even this wasn’t enough.
The club were in dire financial straits. After a company called Commercial Union affiliated to the club went, any external revenue soon dried up:
“The income coming into the club went pretty much over night. The club were completely reliant on first team football. By 2002 we were in such financial difficulty that something had to be done.”
Coote decided that more had to be done and that he could help on a more personal level.
“Being a members club, technically the members are responsible but no one wants to put their hand in the pocket. All my three sons played for the club at different levels so I had an affection to the club. I put my name up as chairman and would do the best I could with the contacts I have to try and increase the revenue. We done a few business deals and over the next two years, I manage to increase the revenue and almost get the club out of debt and back online.”
A period of stability followed with the club on an even keel. Results on the pitch were ok, with the club staying within Step 4 of the Football pyramid. However, this soon waned and in the 2011/2012 season, the club finished bottom, condemning them to a first relegation in 20 years. Things within the boardroom were also troubling the chairman. I remember the weather that year had been atrocious, with widespread snow storms and record rainfall. If anyone knows the ground, Church Road, is situated at the bottom of a valley. Any serious rainfall plays havoc with the ground and in turn the fixture list, something which was a major concern to Coote:
“We probably lose £15,000 a year on lost games. Thats also losing money through the bar and it wasn’t sustainable. In 2011 / 2012 I was putting a lot of money into the club. It came to the stage where I said to them “Look, I can’t do anymore for this club, I’m putting my money into a black hole, its not going anywhere, its only keeping the club alive, not taking it into the future”
I was absolutely shocked on that figure. A £15,000 loss for a club that struggled to break even would fold most businesses. Coote knew he had to make changes and quickly, before the club wwnt under and disappeared:
“We invested £600,00 into the 3G pitch. We recognised two things there. We didnt have a great surface to play on but that wasnt my main concern. We cant’ afford to lose games and we need to get a second spend.”
Since the installation, to my mind not one game has been cancelled due to adverse weather conditions. In his own words, Coote has seen this as one of the most important chnges that the club has HAD to make:
“Revenue is up and we have a great facility.”
But he also recognises that aesthetics are one thing as is finance, but the future of the club is equally, if not, more important. With a self-addmitted affection and link to the club, results of the first team were not that only concern for him. Having his three sons play for the club, he wanted to create something that would remain after his involvement with “The Leafe” had finished:
“What I want to create is what I call a Community Hub. We have worked very hard in the last three or four years to create that. I believe the only way forward for Non League football is by having a hub of people that want to be part of the club, not just fans, but parents want to feel safe to bring their children there. Hence, over the last four years we have created over 20 junior teams and the academy, where we procide full time education in house and we have 35 students currently.”
I was blown away by the professionalism of the club. I had only heard of acadamies at professional clubs or Non-League sides who are on the cusp of league football. I had never heard of a semi-professional side offering full time education with a view to play football. Surely that is the dream of every chairman? To help and nurture home grown talent, bringing them through the ranks to play and represent the community in the first team? I am not even talking about the financial aspect of developing the player before selling him on – although I appreaciate that this is how small clubs stay afloat. Coote has a vivid and strong plan for the youngsters who may wish to join the club:
“That gives us a platform for the U-16’s to say “Hang on, I dont want to leave the club”. They can get education aswell as full time football. We have a structure in place where we have kids of 4-6 years old over the summer. We then create as many U-7 sides. The natural progression then kicks in. Ultimately they will hopefully become our first team players or move onto a higher level.”
However, no success story is without its challenges. Hard work will no doubt continue at the club but Coote recognises that it does unfortunately come down to one factor:
“If I am being honest, it does revolve around finance. People seem to be more reluctant to offer their time for free which in turn comes back to finance. I want to get parents more involved, so when their kids are running around, they want to be part of the club.”
It is inherently linked back to the idea of a “Community Hub” that the club are working so hard to implement. Without the fans there would be no club, no identity. It’s this identity that drives Coote on.
“I get asked on a Saturday “Whats your ambition of the club, where do you want the first team” I tell them that the first team isnt my main priority!” The ambition of this club is to make it a family and community hub, so when parents drop their kids off, they can stay and watch or feel safe with leaving them with us. All our coaches have been DBS checked and are all level one coaches.”
The last comment got me thinking. Two weeks previous to the interview, a player by the name of Daniel Wilkinson tragically collapsed and died midway through a Non-League game for Shaw Lane FC. Unfortunately this kind of incident appears to be happening more often and tt’s something that the club, and the chairman, have experienced personally.
In July 2015, Tonbridge Angels travelled to Church Road in order to take on Whyteleafe in a pre-season friendly. Angels trialist Junior Dian came on for the second half, but again tragically collapsed and died.
I wanted to ask Coote about this thoughts on how this type of incident can be combatted and whether the governing bodies could do more to cut down player deaths on the pitch:
“There should be some sort of structure in palce where each club know what their responisbilites areand that the FA help us. If every club needs need a defib, then the FA, UEFA, FIFA, there is money in their bank to help. You can’t keep putting the onus on clubs, especially Non League clubs. We have our own structure in place, but more could be done by the governing bodies.”
At the end of the interview we said our goodbyes and I watched a battling 1-1 draw against Carshalton. I began the 30 minute drive home and thought about what had been said. What struck me the most was the committment to improve the club and not for personal gain. The idea of creating a community hub is directly correlated to the very core of Non-League football. The idea that football is for the people and not for conglomorate “fat cats” who can get rich with very little thought to the fan. It’s the idea that you can turn up on the day, pay your money on the gate and have a beer on the terrace, not be squashed into a multi million pound stadium and be party to the extortionate prices of refreshments. Whyteleafe FC may be viewed from the outside as a club that plays in the Ryman South, shadowed by larger clubs in the surrounding area, but take a look inside, and you’ll be so impressed with the setup and the dedication to the cause.