ANYONE who has circulated the Isthmian League over the years will know that Sutton United are a classy club. It helps that they’re in a relatively affluent part of the country, but they have always stood out for being a club that held onto the old amateur ideals of doing things the right way – or so it appeared to the neutral onlooker.
At the same time, you often felt that Sutton were a little stuck in the past – but what a good past it was: five Isthmian titles, FA Cup giant-killings, FA Amateur Cup finalists (1963 and 1969) and a FA Trophy final in 1981.
Today, however, Sutton have both feet firmly in the present and looking ahead. By the look of Gander Green Lane and some of the initiatives going on at the club, something of a new broom has been sweeping clean. They still play in yellow and chocolate, though.
Sutton’s ground, which looked a little tired when I last visited it, appears quite swish these days. There’s been something of a refurb over the past decade or so and they have clearly seen the future of non-league football and the value an artificial pitch can bring to the club. Neighbours Carshalton have also gone down the same route.
Sutton have shown foresight and have been bold in their approach to winning support
To their enormous credit, Sutton took the brave step of introducing cut-price season tickets this season and it has paid dividends. For just £99, Sutton are really reaching out to the local community and the response has been excellent.
The club’s Chairman, Dave Farebrother told me in December that Sutton have a very active community section which includes the provision of coaching, school visits and also partners with council and other organisations on initiatives around health and nutrition, social awareness, career guidance and sustainability. Three years ago, the club won a commitment to the community award and the business of the year award from the local chamber of commerce. Interestingly, Sutton United were the first non-league club to publish a dedicated Corporate Social Responsibility report.
Sutton last graced the top level of non-league football in 2000. They had a few rough years between 2004 and 2008 when they struggled to stay in the Conference South and fell back to the Isthmian Premier. They won the Isthmian in 2011 and this is their fifth back at Step 2. Last season, they finished 15th, but they are in the ascendancy once more and in 2015-16, they have high hopes of a stab at promotion.
The season ticket campaign has been reflected in the increased attendances at Gander Green Lane. In 2014-15, Sutton averaged 548 at home games, which was lower than the club’s recent stint in the Isthmian. When the U’s were a Conference club, they averaged 900. This season, gates are touching that figure again.
Before Game of the People returned to Gander Green Lane after a 12-year absence, Sutton United were in third place in National League South and well placed for a play-off spot. They had lost just four of 23 games, their most recent league fixture a 5-0 trouncing of St. Albans City. The FA Trophy second round tie with Curzon Ashton from the National League North was, to quote manager Paul Doswell – or should we say, “Dos”? – a chance to “come up against someone different”.
Curzon Ashton were promoted via the play-offs to the National League North at the end of 2014-15, their second successive promotion, so there’s good momentum at the club. They’ve never had it so good at the Tameside Stadium!
A friendly bunch they were, too. One of the coaching staff had a quick chat with us as we circumnavigated Gander Green Lane. “We came down overnight,” he said. “We’re looking forward to it and we should bring a few fans along.” They did and they perched behind the goal with their assortment of flags and banners.
Sutton’s support was enhanced by the introduction of paper “clappers” that they obviously hoped would add to the atmosphere. “They’ll be fed up with the sound of them by half-time,” said one wag as a few youngsters brandished their “Come on Sutton!” devices.
The Gander Green Lane pitch – one of the best artificial surfaces around
The game itself was a tight affair. Curzon started well, looking a very nippy team, but seemed to lack a bit of punch up front. There wasn’t much to warm the 605 crowd in those early stages, but after 20 minutes, Sutton scored the decisive goal. A free kick into the area was only partially cleared by the Curzon defence and Sutton skipper James Collins sent a right foot shot through a crowded area.
There were not many goalscoring opportunites in the first half, but Curzon had plenty of the ball and should have done better when Ryan Brooke set up Matthew Warburton after the Sutton defence was caught napping.
As the floodlights, which put one in mind of the Sci-Fi classic War of the Worlds, warmed the cold air, the visitors tried to assert themselves, but their final ball in the area was always found wanting. There was no lack of pace in the Curzon side, but they rarely troubled Sutton keeper Ross Worner.
Curzon thought they had equalised late in the game, but the referee ruled it out within seconds. Sutton also had to thank a superb late save from Worner to keep their goal intact and ensure a 1-0 win.
Curzon looked devastated at the end. They had enjoyed a lot of the play and a draw would not have been unfair. They had expelled a lot of energy but couldn’t break down the home side. “We knew they would have a lot of possession,” said Sutton manager Doswell. “But our back five were superb today.” He described the victory as an “ugly win” and he wasn’t far wrong. But nobody was complaining – Sutton were in the hat for the last 16.
Sutton United would love to be back at Step 1 and Doswell underlines that the league is the priority. His team face Dartford next week, one of the in-form teams in the National South, and in the coming weeks they have tough away games Gosport, Truro and Maidstone. It promises to be an interesting second half of the season at Gander Green Lane. We will return!
And by the way, you barely noticed that the pitch was artificial – such is the quality of these surfaces today.