WHEN Dave Diaper first arrived at Sholing FC they were called Vosper Thornycroft and were playing in the Hampshire League Division One on pitches without perimeter fences.
Around 15 years later the Southampton-based club who later changed their name to VT FC before becoming Sholing in 2010.
Now chairman and manager Diaper will be prowling the same technical area as some of football’s finest managers.
“It wasn’t even roped off pitches when I first went there, there were no floodlights – it’s unbelievable the way it’s changed,” Diaper says, stood pitchside at the imposing Wembley.
“It’s something that’s driven me. It’s my life really. I get a lot of pleasure seeing six-year-olds representing the club now. We’ve built an infrastructure. I realised five or six years ago money was going to become tight so we started to produce our own talent.
“I had four 16-year-olds playing for me against Follands the other week – if they’re good enough I’ll put them in.
“I look back and there are times when you judge your sanity and you’re working all the hours. But this is the ultimate feeling you can have.
“It’s been 15 years of dedication. It takes your life over. This really caps it all. It’s great for players and management to get to Wembley. I’ll be in the same technical area as the likes of Arsene Wenger and all the greats.”
Tuesday night’s 3-0 win against Moneyfields – their 67th game of the season – saw the Boatmen crowned Wessex League champions – a year after they dropped down from the Southern League South & West.
Despite finishing seventh in the table – on the back of three consecutive play-off appearances – the club chose to take voluntary relegation for financial reasons.
“We’ve had a lot of knockers,” Diaper says. “I’m not going to hide the fact that a lot of people think we came down to win the Vase and go back up again. It wasn’t like that at all.
“I’m a businessman, the figures don’t lie, and it’s about sustainability. There’s no way I could put the long-term health of the club at jeopardy by staying at that level.
“A lot of people say, ‘What’s changed?’ And the answer to that is, ‘Nothing really’. We’re still waiting for somebody to come in with investment. We’ve applied to go up because if we don’t and someone does come in with investment then we can’t go up.
“It’s still to be decided whether we take promotion. I’ll probably sit down a week after the final to work the figures out. Whilst we’ve had a fair bit of money come in from getting to this stage, we’ve obviously had a lot of expenditure as well. If you weigh the two up it’s not much difference.
“We all want to play Southern League football and I want to manage a Southern League team. But it might mean a situation where I have to step down as manager and concentrate on the commercial side.”
For now it’s about trying to wrestle the Vase away from the grasps of the Northern League clubs.
And having been present when near-neighbours Gosport Borough lost the recent FA Trophy final to Cambridge United, Diaper is aware of the stakes.
“I was here for the FA Trophy, Gosport Borough’s manager Alex Pike is a friend of mine, and I saw the faces of the Gosport players,” he says. “It’s not a place for losers. There were tears in the eyes of the players as they walked up the steps and I noticed that.
“What will be will be. We can only affect what we do. I like being an underdog, we’re certainly that, and it’s up to the lads to do themselves justice.”
*This article first appeared in The Non-League Paper on Sunday, May 4