I’d first like to thank the top brass at Gandermonium for letting me contribute my debut Sutton United match blog. I’ve thrown some random pieces in the pot before on subjects as diverse as Sunday League football and trips down 1980’s English waterways which should surely have put them off. However like lambs to the slaughter they still entrusted me to deliver something readable on Sutton’s latest away day in their nascent EFL adventure. Idiots.
Those that know me will be aware that Fulham are my first love so you may think their reasoning was that they wanted someone with broad experience of League football to give their take on Sutton’s introduction to the full time game. This would be wide of the mark however, as it’s already clear the chaps are as equally capable of talking bollocks about League Two football as they were about Sutton’s inexorable if somewhat surprising march to the summit of the non league game. If I may digress here for a moment I’d like to just pay tribute to Emma Raducanu’s astonishing achievement in winning the US Open last week. My only beef with her is that it has likely knocked Sutton off their perch as being the sports story of 2021. What Matt Gray and the team achieved last season was quite miraculous and this scribe has spent much of the time since pinching himself that the team he grew up watching in the Isthmian League and Amateur Cup are now members of the Football League itself.
To get back to the point (at last, you may think) then the actual reason yours truly was tasked with the lowdown on our trip to Devon is that I volunteered my services, for the reason it was marking a rather special occasion. Mark Frake is known to most at Sutton as club historian, programme contributor and currently car park steward or ‘Poundland Cyberman’ as Totts lovingly described him in a previous entry. Some of you may also be aware that Mark has been my best friend since childhood, and I’ve shared many happy memories following Sutton with him at home and abroad. Mark himself penned a very entertaining two parter (1) (2) on our long trip to Chieti to see the U’s win the Anglo Italian in 1979, which somewhat belies his reputation as being a bit of a misery guts or ‘Everlasting Ray of Sunshine’ as he is more commonly referred to. The special occasion in question was that Mark celebrated his 60th birthday on Wednesday. I know his film star good looks make that hard to believe although it’s equally true that some think from Frakey’s demeanour he was actually 60 years of age soon after he was born.
Either way I thought the occasion should be suitably marked, so during a chat a few weeks back I suggested we make a weekend of the Exeter away game and get a few of the lads together to join in. Mark was at the time downing his first beer in about a year, so swiftly warmed to the idea. All about the timing! One slight drawback was that as a Fulham season ticket holder it would mean me missing our home game with Reading. However the idea of a weekend on the hit and miss in the company of Mark’s cherub like visage tipped the scales and a plan was hatched. Initially my wife Sallie was interested in joining us on the trip even though she doesn’t like football (or Mark for that matter – only joking mate). Once it became clear that our other friends partners weren’t interested in a romantic Devonian getaway (?) then Sallie declined the trip; probably a wise move on her part (certainly wiser than her decision to marry an idiot like me).
Mark now lives close to me on the South Coast so Sallie did still make an important contribution to the weekend by dropping me and EROS at Angmering Station on Friday morning to begin our trip West. I was rather hoping that Mark hadn’t made sandwiches for the journey. His Anglo Italian blog linked above makes reference to the Cheese and Onion sarnies that lasted him the entire duration of our epic adventure. Their pungent aroma scattering a toxic cloud across the continent that was probably only matched by the Chernobyl disaster some years later. Culinary issues were far from our minds though as the first train we boarded heading to Portsmouth presented us with two reminders of our advancing years. The train was packed which meant there were no seats to be had for our ageing bodies and to add insult to injury it was because most passengers were young things heading off to the Isle of Wight Festival.
To be fair I had no interest in spending my weekends shitting in a field with thousands of booze & drug fuelled ravers when I was actually young so I wasn’t too envious of the weekend of fun they had ahead of them and certainly not when I had a couple of days of Frakey’s joie de vivre to look forward to. Further problems were presenting as with the train running late it looked like we’d miss our connection in Portsmouth for the Salisbury train that was the next leg of the journey. Mark rescued the situation with his train app and we decamped at Emsworth to catch a Southampton train that put us back on schedule. This plan worked only as far as Southampton where we found the Salisbury train was late anyway which meant we’d miss our connection to Exeter. We were then rescued by a helpful guard who advised us to get off at Westbury and get a faster connection to Exeter.
This train took us through the scenic Somerset countryside passing through the delightfully named Castle Cary then Taunton before rolling into Exeter St David’s on the cusp of 3. We had cracked a train beer on this last part of the trip which was a pretty poor show compared to the usual Gandermonium bloggers who’d no doubt have quaffed enough ale to sink a battleship on a journey of that duration (Only on the way home these days! – Ed)
I’d booked rooms at the Premier Inn for our stay so was delighted to see the hotel just across the road from the station only to find when checking in that we were actually in the City Centre one. On asking where it was we were told it was about a mile away- up a very steep hill. Frakey was overjoyed that my military precision planning had paid off so quickly.
Joining us for the Friday night were three other veterans of that 80’s canal trip I’ve covered on these very pages. Jim also had a room at our hotel while Webby and Jonno plotted up at the Telstar B&B we had passed on our route through town. Jim was driving but the other two had come down on the train from London and had already consumed enough beer to make the Gandermonium massive proud and make up for our own disappointing efforts.
Once we’d dumped our bags and splashed on a bit of Brut, we headed to the Ship Inn in the town which is said to have been Francis Drake’s favourite watering hole. We were pleased to trust the old sailor’s judgement and spent a couple of pleasant hours there catching up before venturing on to the White Hart. Once further hydrated we decided food would be a good idea and fell upon the Opa Taverna Greek restaurant across the road. We washed down some very tasty scoff with more beer and red wine and also did a good deed whilst there. Jonno is a paramedic in London and has done worthy service on the Air ambulance and in Afghanistan with our armed forces. During our meal a chap looking a little worse for wear stumbled in and asked the staff to call him an ambulance. We resisted the temptation to say “You’re an ambulance” and instead Jonno assessed the situation calmly and diagnosed he was probably diabetic and in need of sugar. He asked if he could be given a Coca-Cola and the staff obliged. After he’d sat a while and downed his drink the chap seemed recovered and left without another word. Jonno is used to not always getting much gratitude from those he treats, so I thought I’d give him some praise when we caught up next morning only to find he’d completely forgotten the episode!
This was no doubt due to more booze consumed in the Wetherspoon’s next door whereupon we called it quits for the evening. Webby was trying to be sensible as he was doing a 5k park run on the Saturday morning. However on their trip back to their digs he and Jonno were ambushed by another bar and extended the night’s boozing for another couple of hours. To be fair they are only in their mid 50’s so still have youth on their side.
And so to Saturday and the big game. Us Premier Inners ventured out for an al fresco cooked breakfast by the Cathedral, a beautiful setting no doubt accentuated by our hungover features. To be fair the fry up did put a pep back in our step although not to the degree that we felt like joining Webby on his park run. Amazingly he still got up and did a creditable time but knew he wasn’t at his best when a 75 year old woman flew past him in the closing stages. Even so it was clear the 4 of us were in a better state than Jonno who informed us that after a brief emergence from his pit for brekkie returned their post haste to recharge his batteries further.
The five of us met at The Imperial, an impressive old building in town that Wetherspoons had helpfully converted into a pub around half 11 to get ourselves ready for the game. Jonno was looking a little sorry for himself nursing a pint of coke. Although he is the trained paramedic I immediately prescribed alternative treatment and ordered him a beer on my newly installed Wetherspoons app. I love a bit of technology but I’m not sure whether I should be worried that the last three such things I’ve downloaded to my mobile are for Greene King, Youngs on tap and now Wetherspoons?
The weather was warm and sunny which made the only option to stay put in the beer garden and have more ale a very easy one. We were joined by another canal boat veteran and erstwhile U’s keeper Chris Vagg and had a pleasant couple of hours reminiscing about past scrapes gotten into and blessing our fortune we were all still here to tell our tales. Frakey and Jim left for the ground a little earlier as Mark wanted to ensure he could get his match programme and iron it before kick off. The rest of us cut it a little finer to get there and to make it even more exciting left it to Jonno to guide us there via Google Maps. To be fair the boy didn’t put a foot wrong although Doctor Clarke here is sharing some credit having got him back on the beer and in some form of working order.
St James’s Park is a beautiful little ground in what seemed to be a quieter part of town. The Sutton faithful were housed in a neat section of covered terracing behind one goal. The home end was a far steeper bank which looked pretty full to brimming with decent amounts housed in stands on both sides of the ground. I was pleased to see one of them was named in honour of Grecian’s legend Adam Stansfield who was tragically taken at such a young age. As a Fulham fan I am following his son Jay’s progress keenly and should also apologise for stealing him away from the Exeter academy . The food chain of modern football has a lot to answer for.
The Sutton end had a smattering of the usual familiar faces including another birthday boy Totts who was celebrating his 59th in the company of more of the Gandermonium gang. It’s come as a surprise to me that the Grand Leader of the PROWS is just a year younger than EROS himself as Frakey’s deportment suggests he dates back to the Victorian age rather than the swinging 60’s. Having said that Mark was keeping up well on his big weekend and had even had a pre match Vodka rather than his usual flask of tea. Yes folks, Mark’s usual flow of invective and advice for match officials is fuelled by nothing stronger than PG Tips. That’s raw talent for you, plus years of experience.
TEAM: Bouzanis, Kizzi, John, Goodliffe, Milsom, Ajiboye, Eastmond, Smith, Boldewijn, Sho-Silva, Bennett. SUBS: House, Wilson, Beautyman, Randall, Wyatt, Rowe, Dundas
I’ve been pleased to see Sutton have adjusted quickly to life in the Football League and two wins back at base last week had put them in a much more comfortable position in the table. Matt Gray went with an unchanged line up and the confidence in the side was clear as they started proceedings very much on the front foot. In fact most of the first half was played at the far end from us. Exeter only really threatened once when Bouzanis made a fine save before the rebound was blocked and cleared. By contrast Sutton forced several corners and half chances with Donovan Wilson , who had earlier replaced Toby Sho-Silva, coming closest with a shot that smacked the underside of the crossbar. A goalless first half was satisfactory but also came with the regret we hadn’t scored the goal we’d probably merited.
It was always likely that a decent home side would improve and they were certainly much better after the break. However the U’s were still giving as good as they got until Enzio Boldewijn lost possession on halfway with men committed forward. Sam Nombe broke swiftly and shrugged off Louis John before playing the ball into the unfortunate Ben Goodliffe who inadvertently deflected the ball into his own net. It was tough on Sutton in every sense but without a Bugiel or an Oloafe to impact off the bench there were few signs we could recover. Indeed the Grecians went on to dominate for the first time in the game and when Nombe again showed his pace and power to slot home the clincher late on, the game was up.
At full time the team got a thoroughly deserved round of applause from the Sutton fans. For long periods of the game they had a decent established League Two outfit on the back foot and on another day would’ve had something to show for their efforts. The performance certainly gave me no doubts that with a little more precision in front of goal relegation will not be a concern this season.
As soon as the game was over Webby and Jonno bid us farewell as they were off immediately back on the train to London and Jim drove home as he’s straight off on holiday to Norfolk with his good lady. It left me and Mark to drown our sorrows alone and as creatures of habit we returned to both The White Hart and The Ship, where Frakey managed to engage in chat with a Hitchin Town supporter who was nearly as well versed in non league football as EROS himself. We may now be big time football Charlie’s but there is no way Sutton United or my very good sexagenarian friend will be forgetting their roots any time soon!