Sutton’s night and Arsenal’s plight

Sutton United's manager Paul Doswell (left) and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger shake hands before the game Photo: PA
Sutton United’s Paul Doswell and Arsene Wenger shake hands before the game   Photo: PA

WHAT A pity that Sutton United’s night to remember was slightly tarnished by the behaviour of a few people who have probably never set foot inside Gander Green Lane before. Attention-seeking arrivistes hanging on the crossbar (which would cost the club significantly if it were to break), throwing punches and probably attempting to goad Arsenal fans, are the type of people who denied some genuine football folk around Sutton the chance to see a memorable match.

It is doubtful if Arsenal fans were out to cause a disturbance, they are not a club that generally has a lunatic fringe, but whenever a big clubs rolls into town, the unsavoury element turns up and tries to show the visiting supporters that, “this is our manor, come and give us a try”. We’ve seen it at smaller places than Sutton and it is important that the outside world are made aware that whatever their allegiance, these are not the people who watch the club week-in, week-out.

That aside, Sutton United, renowned for being a highly respected but conservative outfit  until a few years ago, have good reason to rejoice. On the field of play, they performed well and might have had a consolation goal to celebrate. Their story this season is also a reward for a club with some real foresight – their policy around season tickets has been nothing but imaginative and it has been repaid with bigger gates, promotion and now the sort of publicity that you cannot buy. Good for Sutton United, good for Paul Doswell.

Right now, Arsene Wenger probably doesn’t want too much publicity, but he’s manager of Arsenal and you don’t have to work hard for it when you’re in the dugout at the Emirates. When a manager needs bodyguards, you know there’s a degree of neurosis around and right now, there can be no more neurotic club than Arsenal.

A 2-0 win away at a National League club in the FA Cup cannot erase the mess that Arsenal’s season is threatening to become. As a bunch of players, they are not too far away from having a very decent team, but that’s been the same story for a decade. Every false dawn is followed by an early year admission that “things must change” and the Wenger issue becomes top of the agenda once more. A regular exit at the last 16 stage of the UEFA Champions League is usually one of the first triggers. At Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena, Arsenal and Wenger surely started divorce proceedings – a lot of teams lose 5-1 in Werner-Heisenberg-Alle, but very few are of the calibre of Arsenal.

Wenger had a bigger hangdog look than normal in Munich, but he’s supposedly stubborn enough to wait until the summer before announcing his next move. But should it be down to Wenger to dictate the narrative? Should the Arsenal board not be the people making a decision? The fact they remain silent is indicative of two things – firstly, to their great credit, Arsenal are not a “shouty club”, they have reasonably sound principles. Secondly, from a business perspective, Arsenal’s stakeholders are probably quite happy with the stable performance of the club. Arsenal’s revenues in 2015-16 totalled EUR 470m and all major income streams increased significantly. If you were a shareholder of Arsenal, and there are precious few, you would be pretty satisfied about the way the club was being run.

So what is the answer? Arsenal have to be more communicative on the issue, either backing Wenger or forcing an earlier decision than the summer. They don’t need to worry about season ticket sales, they have a mile-long queue for people waiting to get inside the Emirates. In the meantime, Wenger should do the right thing for the football club and signal the end of his reign and allow the club to move on and start to sound-out successors.

The problem is, Arsenal’s timing is not particularly good. The list of top notch candidates is not especially long: Klopp and Guardiola, both ideal for a club like Arsenal, are settled, Carlo Ancelotti is one year into his project at Bayern Munich and likely to be involved in picking up silverware and Mourinho (not a good fit) is at United. Like Mourinho, you cannot see the highly talented and volatile Diego Simeone moving from Atletico Madrid to the Emirates. If Arsenal were brave, they might seek-out the likes of Julian Nagelsmann of Hoffenheim or Thomas Tuchel of Borussia Dortmund. And then there’s the resting actor Laurent Blanc and bookmakers’ favourite Massimiliano Allegri of Juventus.

Whoever ends up at Arsenal, they have the clout to snare almost anyone available and they should use that power to ensure Wenger’s departure is the start, rather than the end, of something. But do it now and allow Wenger the opportunity to play-out the 2016-17 season more relaxed and in harmony with the supporters. Once Arsenal regulars know that Wenger’s time is coming to an end, the dynamic will surely change and his achievements will not be overshadowed by the relatively stagnant pool of under-achievement that has characterised the period since 2004. Arsenal’s win at Sutton United sets them up for the last four of the FA Cup. They will surely beat Lincoln City, another club that deserves enormous praise for their efforts, and then they are just one step from the final. Wenger, in all reality, could bow-out with some silverware, probably a top four placing and the goodwill of the North London public. Better that than seeing the one-time great innovator kicking and screaming his way to Ligue 1.

 

Having a gander at Sutton United

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sutton United, Vardy, Iceland and Carneiro are our award winners

Badges (600x245)AND SO, the great and the good gathered at The Westbury Hotel, Mayfair (Game of the People has been doing well…) for this year’s awards. As the glasses clinked in the Polo Bar in Conduit Street, the cognoscenti decided upon the winners from a star-studded field. The GOTP awards do not necessarily hand plaudits to the obvious – in fact, we look to recognise the somewhat quirky aspects of the game – with one or two exceptions. It is easy to hand Barcelona, Real Madrid, Lionel Messi and Neymar accolades, but we won’t be doing that – besides, we cannot afford the private jet to bring them to the awards ceremony. So here we are – congratulations to all the winners.

 

We are going to start with a new prize – The Community Chest Award – which recognises the connection between a club and its fans.

Season ticketsThe Community Chest Award
1- Sutton United
2- Clapton
3- Borussia Dortmund

Sutton United acted bravely in bringing down season ticket prices in a bid to attract new fans to Gander Green Lane. The princely sum of £99 for a season ticket – tremendous value. A gamble, but it has highlighted Sutton as a club with the community in mind. More non-league clubs should follow suit as pricing below the Football League is unrealistic. Genuine foresight that deserves to be rewarded. Everyone talks of ebing a “community club”, but few put their money where their mouth it. Hats off also to Clapton for their rebirth and also to the “yellow wall” at Dortmund.

Awards_Vardy (150x112)The Impact Award
1- Jamie Vardy (Leicester City and England)
2- Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich and Poland)
3- Carli Lloyd (USA)

Jamie Vardy is the name on everyone’s lips in England this past few months. His rise from non-league to the England squad has been nothing short of remarkable. It may not continue, but Vardy shows that persistence can win through. In an age when English football is short of heroes, Vardy can be that man! Robert Lewandowski ran Vardy close and Carli Lloyd – the new Geoff Hurst – scored a hat-trick in a World Cup final!

Past winner: 2014 – Luis Suarez

Awards_Iceland (150x134)The 11 Heroes Award
1- Iceland
2- Darmstadt 98
3- AFC Bournemouth

Iceland qualifying for Euro 2016 is remarkable. Just a few years ago, the country was bankrupt, but their recovery – on and off the field – has been the story of the year. The fishing industry will have to take a back seat during the summer, so expect a cod shortage in the supermarkets while Iceland’s footballers head for France. Reykjavik could be fairly well empty in June-July. All over Europe, underdogs are having their day at the moment – Carpi and Frosinone in Italy, Darmstadt in Germany and, AFC Bournemouth. We salute them!

Past winner: 2014 – Gamba Osaka

Awards_Eva (150x117)The Technical Area Award
Eva Carneiro

There can be only one winner for the Technical Area award and that has to be Chelsea’s former doctor, Eva Carneiro, evicted from the dugout by Jose Mourinho. This incident, which Mourinho must now surely regret, has set the tone for an unhappy 2015-16 for the Stamford Bridge club. We wish her well.

Past winner: 2014 – Diego Simeone

Awards_Serbia (150x100)The Hour and a Half Award
Serbia 0 Albania 3

Drone gate. The bizarre aspect of this year’s award is that this is a game that was never played. Albania were awarded a 3-0 win by UEFA. If nothing else this game reminded us that the Balkan area still has problems simmering beneath the surface.

Past winner: 2014 – Germany 7 Brazil 1

Awards_Bassett (150x94)The Pak Doo-Ik Stuck in a Moment Award
Laura Bassett (England Ladies)

The sight of Laura Bassett after scoring a last minute own goal touched many people. England’s ladies performed heroics during the World Cup and it was a cruel blow to go out of the competition in such a dramatic way.

Past winner: 2014 – Steven Gerrard

So that’s it. Another good year for Game of the People – still flying the flag for football as it should be played. Hit rates have soared once more, awards have been won, content has been shared and syndicated. Matches have been watched – not all enjoyed, I will add – and countries have been visited. In 2015, we have been to: PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord, AC Milan, FC Zurich, Gothenburg and Athletic Bilbao, along with a host of Football League and non-league clubs. Thank you for your support and keep watching!
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twitter: @gameofthepeople