And so the curtain has come down on another season of League football at Gander Green Lane; although there does remain the possibility there will be a play off game at HQ. Some 11 months or so ago I saw the last home game of the previous campaign and was happy to provide a blog on the day’s historic and remarkable events. To summarise; the U’s win that day secured the National League title and with it a place in the Football League itself. Even a year on the magnitude of that achievement still astounds me.
As ecstatic as I was I surely wasn’t alone in worrying that promotion might be biting off more than the club could chew. Celebrations couldn’t drag on too long for straightaway hard work had to be done to get the club ready to embrace the Football League for the first time in its 123 year history. Tribute must be paid to those behind the scenes who had to get the 3G ripped up, get a grass pitch down and do myriad other things to satisfy League regulations. Work has continued through the season and the ground has been transformed before our very eyes. The saddest part of all this progress was to see the demise of The Shoebox where some of the finest citizens of the PROWS used to stand and talk absolute bollocks. Fortunately some of the old construction is preserved at Cheam Sports Club and as for the bollocks- do you really need to ask?
As for the work required on the pitch to make Sutton competitive then there was nobody you’d rather have in charge than Matt Gray. His two years work in the National League had seen him build a team that was supremely fit, talented, organised and devilishly difficult to beat. Of course the Football League was going to be a much tougher challenge and most Sutton followers and perhaps the Board itself (Hello Bruce!) would have been more than happy just to survive the debut season. Matt didn’t have shedloads of cash to spend but with a few very handy additions and faith in his title winning squad he has fashioned a side that far surpassed expectations some months ago.
A tricky start might have worried some but right from the off competitive performances were produced and as results started to flow expectations started to alter. In fact from around October the U’s have flirted with the play off positions and have even remained within reach of the automatic promotion spots for much of the time. If that wasn’t enough the club also embarked on an epic run in the Papa Johns that took the club to Wembley for the first time in 41 years.
It’s been a truly remarkable season with the metamorphosis of Sutton into a Football League club. Fortunately they haven’t forgotten their non league roots and at the heart of that is Mr Gray himself. Before lockdown a couple of years ago he organised and hosted a very successful football quiz night at the club. You’ll be pleased to note that this humble scribe was part of the winning team and further delighted that despite now being a Football League manager Matt wasn’t too Bertie Big Bollocks to host the gig again. Therefore yours truly attended the club in February with the rest of the East Cheam Care Home team to defend our title. The team was packed with experience including everyone’s favourite car park steward Frakey and romped to another victory. Well we actually won by one point (again) but you get my drift ? Not only was the team packed with experience but I’d also filled myself with beer as the night progressed. Being carried away with the excitement of it all I decided to bid for one of the evenings auction prizes – a Matchday Experience for two. This involved a pre match lunch as well as access to the dressing room and Matt’s pre-match management meeting. Fortunately Matt stopped the bidding before it reached the heights of an average gas bill and it turned out I was one of the lucky winners. It was that kind of night…did I mention we won the quiz as well?
Saturday’s game with Bradford was therefore the chance to claim the prize and as my wife remarkably declined an afternoon at football with me (who said romance is dead?) my son Dan was my plus one. I’d done the pre match meal once before and managed to turn that occasion into a travel blog about English Waterways in the mid 80’s. To be fair I penned that at the height of lockdown when the big wigs at Gandermonium were desperate for any content- no matter how bizarre. If you make it to the end of this drivel you’ll see that little has changed in that respect.
An old friend of mine Mark Kidd is one of the many volunteers working behind the scenes behind the club and he drew the short straw of being our host for the day. He informed me that we’d get a car park pass as part of the deal but as he wasn’t sure that would be enough to get past the ever vigilant Mr Frake, so I killed two birds with one stone by poncing a lift with the man himself to ensure entry. To be honest it was three stones as with Mark chauffeuring it would allow me and Dan to make further contributions to the club’s finances across the bar over the course of the day. I’m not as dumb as I look.
Kiddo said he’d meet us at the ground at 12 but Frakey’s duties demand he’s in situ much earlier and we arrived in God’s country about 10.30. It gave us time to have a little look in the club shop and a quick chat with Gareth who’s doing such sterling work there. Dan made a shrewd purchase of a SUFC bar drape which he intends to display in the pavilion bar of his cricket team at Littlehampton. If any Sutton fans are on the West Sussex riviera this summer and fancy a watch of the glorious game then pop along and have a beer and a view of some top Sutton regalia.There’s even a chance you may bump into me down there but please don’t let that put you off.
The clock was still some way short of 11 so as fetching as Frakey looked in his shocking pink hi-vis apparel we decided our time would be best spent with a quick trip down to the the local citizens advice bureau aka The Gander. I liken it to the CAB as I spent many of my formative years there receiving various pearls of wisdom from my old man and his drinking buddies. To immense disappointment though the advertised opening time of 11 came and went with the doors firmly closed so instead we had a pleasant coffee in the café next door. The consuming of a non-alcoholic beverage may come as a shock to regular readers of Gandermonium blogs but in my defence it proved to be the last one of the day.
Having spent a little time soaking up the sunshine and the petrol fumes of the by pass we strolled back to the ground to meet Kiddo at the appointed hour. He first took us out on the pitch to get a proper look at the ground improvements and the new playing surface. Having graced the hallowed turf in a couple of supporters charity games many years back I told Mark that this new pitch would be no good to me. As my first touch was generally a pass I needed a bobbly ploughed field to make my excuses. The carpets of today have a lot to answer for in my book.
We then went inside for a lovely lunch of bangers and mash. The place was packed with a lot of familiar faces including Sutton’s own Tambourine Man, Tim Vine who happened to be on our table. I resisted the temptation to offer him some new comedy material though. The boy seems to be doing very nicely on his own to be fair and is probably quite keen not to be cancelled anytime soon.
With lunch scoffed we then had the main part of our Match Day experience with access to the inner sanctum of the Manager’s office and the dressing room itself. I already knew Matt Gray was a very personable chap from the aforementioned quiz nights but if it were possible he went even higher in my estimation along with his able lieutenants Jason Goodliffe, Micky Stephens and the rest of the back room staff. I won’t give any secrets away but the attention to detail they give and the work they put in was quite an eye opener to a journeyman Sunday League player like me. Matt was happy to reassure me when I said “you’re not winging it then?”.
The players happily said hello to us and signed a programme and Matt reassured us that our presence was not a problem. However with time ticking on we left them to get on with their final match preparations and I needed to do mine by quaffing a quick pint of Moretti in the busy club bar. Like Matt I don’t like leaving anything to chance.
We then took our seats for the match itself and Sutton were quick out of the traps. Will Randall clipped the post and Richie Bennett had a plausible shout for a penalty before the visitors settled. However Bradford quickly grew into the game and it was no great surprise when they went ahead in the 16th minute. The U’s were getting little change out of the rugged Bradford defence nor a referee who saw regular shirt pulling as a legitimate tactic. To add insult to injury he immediately cautioned Omar Bugiel when he came on for Bennett just before the interval for having the audacity to give as good as Sutton were getting.
Therefore Dan and I decided to watch the second half from the terraces before my frustration with the referee caused my language to be unbecoming of a position in the posh seats.
The U’s started the second half much more positively and when Ali Smith crashed in the equaliser momentum seemed to with Sutton. If the referee had sent off Angol for a late and high tackle on Harry Beautyman then that would have loaded the dice further in our favour. However with the energy expended on a baking day the next goal was always going to be vital and when the visitors got it with 13 minutes left they re-established control. Two more goals late on gave them a flattering score line but it was hard to argue they didn’t deserve their victory.
With other results going against Sutton it leaves us outside the play offs with a game left and with fate not now in our own hands. One last push at Harrogate may yet be enough but if not then we should not be too disappointed. Matt and his staff and players have given everything this season and have made Sutton’s debut season in the Football League one to be proud of.
When the team gathered later in the packed bar for the Player of the Year awards that sense of pride was visceral. Bruce and Matt gave rousing speeches and rightly turned the disappointment of the afternoon’s defeat into reflection on the bigger picture and the magnificent season the club has had.
It gave me the same warm feeling I always get when I return to Sutton United. Despite our elevation the faces behind the scenes remain familiar and keep the club grounded and true to its values. To see old heroes of my younger days like Mike Cornwell, Tony Rains and Paul Rogers there yesterday is evidence that anyone associated with the club, players or fans, has the bug for life. Let it never change. Up the Sutton.