“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened”. Wise words and somewhat appropriate this week as following the disastrous 8-0 shellacking at Stockport at the weekend, the club sadly called time on Manager Matt Gray’s tenure with the team bottom of League 2 and boasting a run of form that has seen them win 3 of their last 32 matches and regaining their ‘worst defence in the Football League’ crown they’d actually only managed to shed a couple weeks back.
Now, normally when a side bins a manager with the sort of record we have, most people mutter “Thank god that’s over” and instantly cheer up, thinking of better times ahead. But we’re a bit odd down here in the People’s Republic and instead, most of the Suttonospehere reacted first with slight surprise and then overwhelmingly with sadness at Matt’s dismissal. Simply put, Mr Gray had given us some wild times in his 4 and a bit years in the job. Normally for a perennially non-league outfit like us, that would mean a couple of silly cup runs, at most. Nope. Told by the board to ‘Keep us in the division’ when given the job, he said “fuck that” and in just his second season 4-4-2’d his way out of the National League, winning the title to take us into the Football League for the first time ever.
For a lot of people looking in from the outside, this was a surprise given our history and the sort of clubs we were facing off against and held off to gain promotion. For those of us who’ve been watching this lot as long as we have, it was a outright fucking miracle. Probably about as likely as Leicester’s Premier League title win in 15\16, it just shouldn’t have happened. Fuck, it shouldn’t really have even been possible quite frankly. But regardless, it still happened. And for some of us, we’re still not really quite sure how. Either way, Matt made it happen and instantly cemented himself in GGL folklore. Sutton United, a Football League club. Ridiculous. Even Jesus only managed to come back from the dead and turn water into wine. A fucking doddle in comparison to what the gaffer pulled off.
The debut season went well and after finding our feet, quickly climbed the table and by October were in the play off places. A spot we held until the very end of the season when injuries and a distraction of a Wembley final in the Papa Johns ultimately meant we came up a point short in 8th. Ah yes, Wembley. Our first foray to the National Stadium in 41 years and seconds from beating high flying League 1 Rotherham, a side that had given everything and more finally succumbed to an equaliser deep in stoppage time before understandably fading in the extra 30 minutes. Either way, it was still a legendary night back at GGL that evening. Halcyon days. The sort that make you wish you were 20 years younger just so you could enjoy them more fully and not wake up feeling like death the next morning. Second season syndrome didn’t strike the next year either as many predicted and despite a crippling injury list, the squad dug in and thanks to a great run over Xmas and into the New Year secured safety and another shot at the play off places looked likely. But their efforts caught up with them at the end and we tailed off badly, failing to win any of our last 11. Little did we know.
Which brings us to today. Deciding that the squad needed freshening up, Matt shed a few favourites and recruited from more experienced FL stock over the summer. It seemed he wanted a side that could make survival less of a battle and if push came to shove, was better equipped to push on in the latter stages of a season should we be at the sharp end. On paper, this was probably the best squad ever assembled in Amber & Chocolate. But, unfortunately, as we’re well aware football isn’t played on paper and following a bizarre opening day hammering of highly fancied Notts County at GGL, the side lost it’s next 7 and tumbled down the table. Top after the opening day, they were bottom after eight games following a 4-1 rout at Accrington in early September and have hardly looked like budging since. A side built on defensive graft conceding for fun. There’s been the odd flash of life, with a bewildering 4-0 smashing of Walsall following on a few days after a pathetic, lifeless 2-0 home defeat to a barely tree uprooting Salford side at Gander Green Lane. It just hasn’t worked though mostly and having seemingly steadied the ship with a small run of 5 unbeaten (albeit 1 win and 4 draws), this false dawn was shattered with the Stockport debacle, the club’s worst defeat since WW2.
This brought about the board’s decision on Tuesday morning. But as I said above, it was still a surprise when it came despite many thinking it was now probably time to make the change. The reason for this is simple, Sutton just don’t sack managers. Well, at least until now that is. I mean, I’ve been going 40+ years and have seen several gaffers come and go, but all of them either resigned, fell on their sword in the face of insurmountable odds or were at the very least mutually consented. This long standing patience is something Matt himself already benefitted from early in his tenure of course when he had a bad spell before finally finding his right mixture and starting all this madness with the 2-1 win at Torquay that November. However, we’re in with the big boys now and with relegation looking to cost us at least half a million in lost TV revenues alone and the January transfer window looming, we had to put our Spanish archer trousers on and do the deed if we had any hope of retaining our status.
And that brings me to the other largely unified reaction from the PROWS citizens. Sadness. This decision wasn’t made in the wake of a fan revolt or protests, it felt more like taking a dear family pet to the vet’s for the final time. As covered, Matt had given us so much. Things we genuinely never thought we’d see, stuff that if you told us just 5 years ago that we’d be doing, we’d have laughed in your stupid face. But, first and foremost, it’s because he’s such a genuinely good guy. Sure, success helps make you friends, no one’s denying that. But Mr Gray is also a fine chap, someone who was always generous with his time be it with us pissheads in the bar, various press outlets or Mike on the Podcast. He was a great ambassador for the club and whilst generally found barking from his technical area during matches, was never a ranter or a raver, rarely meeting the ire of match officials and was always sure to pay opponents due credit in his post matchers, even when we’d won. His mantra of ‘One game at a time, never too high, never too down’ was also a great mindset that supporters appreciated. A lot of us who watch or are involved in the game can get all too carried away with seasons, looking ahead guesstimating what paths we might tread, but that was never his way. The same after a defeat. It says everything about him that post-Stockport, his interview was basically an apology to the travelling fans, followed up with “We’re back in Monday morning” and that was that.
One example of his generosity of spirit was early in his tenure and he was in the middle of that sticky patch I mentioned, we dickheads were in the Players Bar after a disappointing\frustrating home result questioning certain things the team were doing as football fans do. The main one being “Why don’t we leave someone up when we’re defending corners?”. Sadly for us, Dr Bell is a big mouthed fucking grass and after bumping into the gaffer in the gents whilst this is going on, responded to his innocuous “Alright mate?” greeting with a probably all too frank declaration that the natives were revolting. The fucking twat. “Let me grab my pint, I’ll be round in a sec” was the gaffer’s response and within 2 minutes, we had his full attention and were having him explain various aspects of what he and the team were aiming to do on the field of play. Ok, we agreed to disagree on a couple of points (we were several pints further down the road than him in our defence!) but at no time did he ever talk down to us or fob us off with some old flannel. He just saw it as talking football with people who were genuinely invested in what he was trying to do. Most managers would simply have batted away Belly with an “Oh really?” and disappeared off back to the VP’s or alternatively nipped straight out to the motor from the hand drier and fucked off home. But that wasn’t Matt’s way. Also the fact that a lot of the responses from outside the club at his dismissal mirrored that of us supporters. “Probably the right decision, but how terribly sad” show the esteem many held him in.
With all the success he brought us, we obviously always hoped that when Mr G came to depart the Republic, it would be for bigger and better things. Sadly however, given that level of success he’d achieved here, it’s impossible to deny the chances of him becoming a victim of it was also just as likely when you really think about it. We’re a non-league club adjusting to a full time world, budgets and well as other constraints were always likely to bite at some point. As one response to the news on Twitter said “If he’d kept them mid-table in the National League the last 5 seasons, he’d still be in the job”. No lies there.
As for what’s next, I have no doubt that Matt will be back in football before too long. Whilst how it ended here does put a black mark on the CV, it’s definitely far far outweighed by the ‘performed an actual bona fide fucking miracle’ bit before which should count for a lot. However, I do hope that before that next gig he takes some time to himself, to be with his family and goes on a proper holiday as well as takes some time to reflect on the 4 and a bit non-stop whirlwind years that was his first managerial position at Gander Green Lane. There’s a hell of a lot there to unpack and I hope at the end of it, he feels immensely proud of what he achieved at Gander Green Lane.
Because he fucking should be, I know we all are.
Thank you Matt.