The new boys are faring well – catching up with Sutton United

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.

The Grey Neutral: Lille in the pink

ONLY one of the top five European leagues saw its title regained by 2019-20 champions Germany and Bayern Munich. In England, France, Italy and Spain, it’s a year of change. In both France and Italy, it feels more seismic, although Atlético’s success in Spain ends a six-year run of Barca and Real passing the baton to each other. Lille’s playing budget for 2020-21 was € 147 million, versus Paris Saint-Germain’s € 600 million. Hence, the success of Lille is really quite remarkable. PSG will end the season with just the Coupe de France, so Mauricio Pochettino might be a little nervous – Tuchel left PSG with four major trophies in two seasons, including two league titles. Lille’s team may struggle to stay together, notably younger talents like Jonathan David, the 21 year-old Canadian striker, goalkeeper Mike Maignan and Turkish defender Zeki Celik. The team also has some experience in José Fonte (37), Burak Yilmaz (35) and the impressive former Rennes midfielder Benjamin André (30). It’s good to see someone challenge Paris Saint-Germain, who have just given Neymar a new contract. Will they regret that?

Sutton United – an unlikely bunch of heroes

ANYONE who used to visit Sutton United during the club’s long non-league career is probably scratching their head right now. Sutton have never been one of the big clubs in terms of attendances, although they have always had a loyal audience. In step three circles, Sutton were always considered to be non-league royalty and any victory at Gander Green Lane was savoured. They always had good backroom people, from their directors to press officers like Tony Dolbear. They were always very professional. And they have stubbornly hung on their amber and chocolate kit. Sutton deserve credit for their “rebirth” in recent years, installing an artificial pitch and boldly making ticket prices realistic. They deserved success and good luck to them in 2021-22. The Football League is a big step for a London area club and ripping-up that 4G (if it is 4G) will be a painful process, but the good folk of Sutton have never had it so good. Enjoy!

Mavericks also don’t win medals

LISTENING to a podcast involving some players from the early 1970s was an interesting experience. Firstly, it was obvious they loved the game, but secondly, they lived the life and really didn’t expect it to impact their careers. We eulogise about the so-called “maverick” players who had plenty of skill but didn’t win many caps for England. There’s a reason for that – they were unreliable and an international manager doesn’t have the scope to gamble on players or wonder if they will turn up for the game. These players were all fond of the good life and most played in teams that were inconsistent. I wonder why?  Trawl through the careers of six so-called “mavericks” – Alan Hudson, Tony Currie, Rodney Marsh, Frank Worthington, Peter Osgood and Stan Bowles. All brilliant players in their prime. Between this lot, only 45 England caps were picked up, but equally, their medal haul was meagre. Two FA Cups (both Osgood), two Football League Cups (both Marsh), two European Cup-Winners’ Cups (Hudson and Osgood). Currie, Bowles and Worthington didn’t win a single medal. As for George Best, arguably the greatest maverick of all time, he won three medals, two league titles and the 1968 European Cup. As idolised as these players were, their ability didn’t translate into material success with their clubs, unlike Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have won 40 major medals between them!

@GameofthePeople

Photo: Flickr – Maxime Delrue CC BY-NC 2.0