Sutton settle for share of spoils

Sutton United 2-2 Maidstone United, 25th October, Vanarama Conference

Sutton and Maidstone played out an entertaining 2-2 draw in front of 1,609 fans at Gander Green Lane on Tuesday night. The U’s were three unbeaten going into the game, while the Stones had lost their last four games on the bounce, having been defeated 2-0 at home to Gateshead at the weekend.

Night matches always make for a good atmosphere and both sets of fans did not disappoint. This was a game where possession-based football was the order of the day and Maidstone had the first opportunity of the game. It was the home side though that broke the deadlock. Just over a quarter of an hour in, Ross Stearn collected the ball on the right-wing before playing an inch-perfect ball for the onrushing Craig Eastmond. The ex-Arsenal man then whipped the ball into the box for Dan Fitchett, who nipped in front of his marker to send a bullet header into the top corner. Sutton smelt blood, with livewire Roarie Deacon going close as Maidstone were still reeling from the early setback. Sure enough, they doubled their advantage when Deacon rolled a short corner for Ross Stearn to swing in an inviting cross. Top scorer Nicky Bailey found space in the box and made no mistake, with the former Football League stalwart planting his header into the back into the net after 23 minutes.

At this point the floodgates could have really opened, but Maidstone were handed a lifeline shortly after they had conceded their second, winning a penalty after Jamar Loza was felled. Bobby-Joe Taylor made no mistake from the spot, blasting it down the middle. Suddenly, it was game on. The first half was played at a frantic pace, with both sides displaying their comfort on the ball, no doubt aided by the 3G pitch (one of only two in the Vanarama Conference), which performed exceptionally well. Sutton were intent in adding to their total before the break and had every chance of doing that with the skilful Deacon in the side, as he brought the best out of Maidstone keeper Lee Worgan with a stinging volley from the edge of the box that had to be palmed out for a corner. The midfielder looks set to move on to bigger things and he was the outstanding attacking threat in a creative side. Just when the game looked to be petering out as half-time approached, some slack defending from the hosts allowed their Kent opponents to draw level. Tom Murphy had made an energetic break down the left flank and swung in a cross that was met by the head of Loza, with the Norwich City academy graduate diverting his header inside Ross Worner’s left-hand post.

By contrast, the second half was a bit of a damp squib, with clear-cut opportunities few and far between. Maidstone’s rowdy contingent were almost silenced when Stearn fired an absolute belter from just inside the halfway line that whistled over the bar but midway through the half the visitors had a chance of their own to go in the lead, something that would have seemed improbable early on. Worner’s pass outfield was intercepted and Taylor attempted an audacious lob which drifted just wide of the upright, drawing gasps from both sets of supporters as the ball went tantalisingly close. Deacon had had a quiet second half but burst into life on 73 minutes, whipping in an exquisite delivery which substitute Bedsente Gomis leapt to meet, only to be denied by the sharp reflexes of Worgan. The former Sunderland trainee then hit a sighter from around 35 yards which just drifted wide, before Maidstone had the chance to win it with a direct free-kick. Ben Greenhalgh stepped up, but could only curl his effort just over the bar.

Speaking after the match, Sutton manager Paul Doswell rued the fact that his side had failed to convert their chances, but was happy with the workrate of his charges. He also lauded Eastmond for his pinpoint cross that led to the opening goal, describing the 25-year-old as ‘by far our man of the match’.

The game was a thoroughly enjoyable spectacle and the south London outfit can definitely look forward to a bright future. Reaching the play-offs this season is ambitious, but it is not completely beyond the realms of possibility.

Alex Bowmer