Semi-pro club Sutton United are closing in on a historic achievement, and after 123 years could soon be following the footsteps of the likes of Wimbledon, Crawley and Stevenage by winning Football League status.
ANDREW SINCLAIR reports
Although a late equaliser denied them all three points on Saturday afternoon, Sutton United enter tomorrow’s derby against Bromley with the massive step up to the Football League looking increasingly possible.
Sutton have lost only four times in the National League so far this season, conceding just 23 times in 27 games. As things stand, they are top of the table in the fifth tier of the English game, four points clear of closest chasers Hartlepool with games in hand over most of their pursuers. Their destiny is very much in their hands with 17 games to play.
For clubs like Sutton, promotion to the Football League can be a golden ticket. The additional revenue from playing in the League Cup and guaranteed entry to the first round of the FA Cup, as well revenue from television coverage, makes an enormous difference.
The increased name recognition helps with sponsorship and, in normal times, welcoming bigger clubs to Gander Green Lane would get more people through the turnstiles and boost their coffers even further.
The National League is full of clubs with famous names who have tasted full-time professional football, only to drop down the tables when things have gone wrong.
While some, like Macclesfield and Bury, have gambled too much to play in the Football League, it could well be the greatest path to long-term sustainability for Sutton, especially with the National League threatening to cannibalise itself.
In many ways, it feels as though the last two seasons of non-league football have existed in a vacuum, almost as if they haven’t happened. The 2019-2020 National League season was voided following the first wave of covid-19 and this season has been beset by the pandemic’s after-effects – regular postponements and numerous clubs struggling with crippling financial problems.
The current campaign was only able to start in October thanks to £10million of National Lottery funding. But that covered just the first three months of the season, since when financial support has been hard to come by, with clubs reticent to claim loans, aggrieved by the limited grants on offer.
Although they remain without gate receipts, Sutton have managed to keep their head above water, and under the careful stewardship of Matt Gray they’ve been the division’s standout side. Gray is in his first permanent manager’s job, after spells as an assistant at Eastleigh, Aldershot and Crawley. Last season he had to overcome a rocky start with a run of just one win in 14 games. He has gone on to develop an interesting squad packed with a mix of youth and experience.
For every lower-league stalwart like Robert Milsom or Kenny Davis in their ranks, Sutton have a Ben Goodliffe, a towering centre-back released by Wolverhampton Wanderers in the summer, or an Isaac Olaofe, scoring goals with great regularity since joining on loan from Millwall. There’s also Harry Beautyman, who, after unsuccessful spells at Northampton and Stevenage, has found a home at Sutton functioning as the side’s creative heartbeat and their leading source of goals over the last two campaigns.
Gray took over from long-serving boss Paul Doswell in March 2019. It was Doswell who helped lay the foundations for Sutton’s recent success.
Prior to Doswell, Sutton had only made sporadic appearances in what used to be known as the Conference Premier, instead spending most of their time in the Isthmian League or the Conference South.
The club’s recent rise has been almost, well, dare it be said… Wimbledon-like.
Just 10 years ago the Amber and Chocolates were in the Isthmian Premier Division, the seventh tier of English football. Under Doswell they were able to increase attendances, set up an academy to bring through young talent and, perhaps most significantly, deliver a series of modernisations and improvements to their Gander Green Lane ground.
The most significant of those was a £500,000, state-of-the-art 3G pitch, available for use throughout the year by a series of community groups.
That pitch has been in an important factor in Sutton’s success but it will also prove a major headache should they achieve promotion. Although 3G pitches are able to be used in FA Cup games, as Sutton’s was in their memorable run to the fifth round in the 2016-2017 season, the FA has deemed that they are not fit for purpose for League Two and above.
Sutton pleaded their case when they came close to promotion in 2018, but to no avail and just this season, Harrogate Town had to rip up their plastic pitch following promotion and replace it with a hybrid at a cost of approximately £200,000.
That pitch change meant that Harrogate had to share Doncaster Rovers’ ground in the opening weeks of the season; ground-sharing could be something Sutton might have to consider doing, too.
Similarly, if Sutton were to compete in the Football League they’d almost certainly have to move from their current “three-quarter time” model (players training three mornings a week) to expecting their squad to go full-time. That brings with it a great deal more expense, and probably significant personnel changes.
To give a sense of the leap, Sutton don’t currently stay overnight for their away games, even for trips as far away as to Torquay or Hartlepool, because it would eat into their playing budget.
It is not just the players who could expect life-altering changes if Sutton do step up to the “Big Time”. Currently, the physio also doubles up as club’s general manager. The only full-time member of staff is the bar manager. This is a hard-working club already punching above their weight; mixing with the likes of Bradford City, Oldham Athletic and Orient in League Two will be a challenge they’ll relish.
Gray might not have had the success as a player he’d hoped for when coming through the Tottenham academy and getting a trial for the England under-15s, when he was forced to retire relatively young following a series of knee and back operations.
If current form is any indication, Gray might also not deliver on club chairman Bruce Elliott’s wish to see his side play at Wembley: Sutton, who lost in the play-off semi-finals in 2018, could go straight up by winning the division.
Starting tomorrow night, if the final 17 games go to plan, Gray will have led a club most famous for their cup exploits to the biggest achievement in their 123-year history.
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