IT was a miserable day on the last Saturday before Christmas Day. As each day passed over the preceding week, the news about the pandemic and the relentless rise of the Omicron variant seemed to get progressively worse. Suddenly, Britain seemed to have one foot in lockdown country and there was an underlying sense of déjà vu. Football was suffering, with squads being impacted as players failed their covid tests. It was hard to be too sympathetic given the low rate of vaccination among football clubs in England compared to their continental counterparts.
Games were postponed and the only one left standing in London was Sutton United versus Harrogate Town, a match that two years ago would have been a National League fixture. Both clubs seemed to have acclimatised reasonably well to life in the EFL, Harrogate are in their second season while Sutton are negotiating their debut campaign, and by the looks of it, flourishing nicely in their new surroundings.
Interestingly, on the face of things, both Sutton and Harrogate seemed to be two of the least well equipped of clubs going into the EFL. Sutton, for example, had a long non-league pedigree and were a highly respected club from the amateur era. The club appeared to have lost its way at one stage, but they reinvented themselves quite spectacularly and with no small amount of inventiveness. For a start, they installed an artificial pitch and found fresh impetus, not to mention new revenue streams.
With so many former Football League clubs now in the National League – almost half of its constitution in 2020-21 – the fifth division is more competitive than ever. Nevertheless, Sutton won the league with a four-point margin over Torquay United, perhaps surprising even their own loyal fans.
Those same supporters were realistic in predicting how Sutton would fare in 2021-22. They had to tear-up their artificial pitch and install a new grass surface, which is ridiculous on so many levels, but this was necessary to ensure league football came to Gander Green Lane. Most experts saw survival as an achievement given the massive step-up Sutton were making, but they have proved the doubters wrong and found themselves in the play-off zone as the festive season approached.
Clubs winning promotion to League Two tend to fare better than some might expect. Sometimes, their stay in the league is short, but generally, they get through the first season. In addition, clubs who have no league history have adapted – Morecambe, Stevenage, Crawley and Salford, for example. Admittedly, Salford is a somewhat unusual club given the backing it has.
Since the shift to two-up, two-down, not a single National League promoted club has returned to non-league football at the first time of asking. Some have gone close, such as Barrow in 2021, Forest Green Rovers in 2017 and Cheltenham in 2016, and some have found life too hard to continue.
Before meeting Harrogate at Gander Green Lane, Sutton were sixth in the League Two table and were chipping away at the amount of points they needed to survive in 2021-22. Their promotion-winning squad had been kept largely intact, but a handful of new signings had strengthened a group of players who have a strong team spirit and benefit from continuity and an understanding of each other’s qualities. Harrogate were in 10thposition and had a good away record before the game.
The sombre mood at the ground was also due to a tragic fire involving the death of four young children in one of the roads close to the stadium.
The first half was even and Harrogate should have taken advantage of their early superiority. However, Sutton settled and went ahead on the half hour when Omar Bugiel passed through to Donovan Wilson and he sent a left-foot effort past Harrogate keeper Mark Oxley. Harrogate may claim they deserved a point and late on, substitute Jack Muldoon’s header was pushed onto the bar from Sutton goalkeeper Dean Bouzanis.
The first half goal was enough to win the game for Sutton and lift them into third place. Nobody would have predicted that come Christmas, the Amber and Chocolates would be in the mix. If nothing else, Sutton’s progress should be an inspiration for non-league clubs, providing an example of what can be achieved with the right vision… and resources, of course.