In non-league football, Wrexham and Notts County take the plaudits. Both clubs are on record-breaking seasons, even if only one is able to clinch automatic promotion. The other enters the playoffs for a chance of promotion to League Two and the English Football League. One of the teams flying under the radar and guaranteed to be in the playoffs is Woking FC, who are currently third in the National League.
The fifth tier club is part-owned by two American entrepreneurs. And Woking’s next match, this weekend against Notts County, could go a long way to determining the automatic promotion chances for both Notts and Wrexham AFC.
John Katz, the chief executive of Woking FC, originally hails from just south of Boston in Canton, MA. However, he spent his most recent years stateside in South Carolina. After working with six Minor League Baseball teams for over 25 years, Katz made the move over to Europe. Initially, he went to two games, one in the Championship and one in the Premier League. He was hooked, and targeted Woking as a place for investment.
“To me, it came down to culture,” Katz told World Soccer Talk. “I enjoy the culture of English football and the tribalism. I worked 20 to 30 years in baseball, and I saw 2,000 games. At the end of the day, you win or lose, eh, there’s always another game. With football, people’s days and weeks are changed by a result on a Saturday or a Tuesday.”
Katz does credit the on-the-pitch success to Woking’s manager, Darren Sarll. However, Katz, as well as Drew Volpe, another American investor in the club on the board of directors, helped take the traditionally mid-table National League side to the brink of promotion.
The rise of Woking
The town of Woking, 30 miles outside the city of London, is best known as the area where singer-songwriter Paul Weller grew up, formerly of The Jam. It was also the site of the fictitious landing by aliens in the HG Wells classic, War Of The Worlds. In soccer circles, Woking FC is Martin Tyler’s boyhood team, and the club where the world-famous commentator helped out as an assistant coach from 2018 to 2022.
Woking has been in the fifth or sixth tier of the English pyramid since 1990. Over recent seasons, including the first couple with Katz at the head of the club, the club finished anywhere from ninth to 21st. The latter of the two yielded relegation, but instant promotion the following season got the club back into the fifth tier. Katz called that work a ‘masterclass’ from former manager Alan Dowson.
With Woking sitting in third in the present campaign, there is a legitimate shot for the club to punch its way into the Football League for the first time. That would open the door to a multitude of opportunities.
“Getting to the Football League is lucrative,” Katz said. “The National League does a fine job with its commercial deals and the broadcasts and the introduction of streaming. But, that just goes to a whole new level in League Two. From that standpoint, the economics are better. But, that money that comes in, you have to turn it around and invest it in the squad.”
Adding to the challenge of that are the rising player wages in an increasingly competitive National League. Katz argues that the top teams in the National League could compete with teams in League Two. Yet, getting into the Football League is such a tall challenge, only amplified by growing wages.
“There is a vast majority of clubs that operate in the red,” Katz said. “If the first team does well, that drives ticket sales. Ticket sales go up, your merchandise sales, food and beverage sales go up. What else goes up? The value of your commercial deals and sponsors. We cannot build a positive brand without a quality team on the pitch.”
Success in the National League for Woking
“People used to look at this club as little old Woking. Based on our history and based on our future, this is a massive club.”
Katz said the opportunity at Woking played a major role in the reason he invested in the club to begin with. “It was Woking, and not a club from the league above or the league below, because the opportunity here was so much better. You talk about USL and MLS, it is a different product. It doesn’t mean it is a bad product, it doesn’t mean it is a good product. It just means it is a different product.”
That product has paid dividends this season. Woking currently sits well behind both Wrexham and Notts County in the National League table. However, the third-place standing is a major difference between fourth. With Woking holding third by a singular point with four games remaining, it has the inside track to advance straight to the National League Playoff semifinals. Teams finishing fourth to seventh play a single quarterfinal game. Woking, if they finish third, would host a semifinal game at the end of the season. The winner of that game goes to Wembley for the National League playoff final.
“If we get to Wembley, in the playoff final, my confidence would be high. This club has been to Wembley three times for the FA Trophy, all in the 90s, and this club has never lost at Wembley.”
Before then, though, clinching a game at home to get to Wembley is massive for Woking. The club only has four losses at home this season. Two of those were against Notts County and Wrexham, both by a single goal. The success this season has pleasantly surprised Katz, who actually saw the development of a self-sustaining business as the more likely of the two outcomes early on.
The impact of Wrexham
The challenge of that soccer success is that it comes in the same record-breaking seasons as Wrexham and Notts County. “What Rob [McElhenney] and Ryan [Reynolds] have done is incredible for the profile of this competition. Is it nice that we are going to be on TV because Wrexham is going to be on TV more than most? It is great for us. The last two times we have played them, we have been on national television.”
Of course, Wrexham’s owners do have more money to work with than other clubs in the National League.
“The playing field is not exactly level. But, if my partner and I were who [Reynolds and McElhenney] were, we could probably invest more. We’d love to be able to do that.”
Katz added that he is more than pleased with the players that Woking has been able to bring in for its own charge down the stretch of the season. Charlie O’Connell, Kacper Łopata and Charlie Wakefield are three of the names they added in March 2023, and each has made an instant impact.
Woking has a tall task to maintain its spot in the table for the rest of the season. That starts with a trip away to Notts County on Saturday, as the hosts still hunt for the title and automatic promotion. Then, the last three games are against teams between 11th and 15th in the table.
Editor’s note: Viewers in the United States and outside of the United Kingdom can watch games live via National League TV.