Amid all the drama of the build-up to the biggest game in Sutton United’s history, manager Paul Doswell was a picture of serenity as he took his seat in front of the massed ranks of journalists.
It is difficult to overstate the achievements of this friendly, family club situated on the outer fringes of south London. Their improbable run began in the fourth qualifying round with a 2-1 home win against fellow National League outfit Forest Green Rovers. That was followed by a 6-3 demolition of Dartford, before slaying EFL opponents Cheltenham Town, AFC Wimbledon and Leeds United to get to this point.
Doswell has admitted that the “media circus” has at times been difficult to deal with, but he is not one to get carried away and is certainly not likely to be angling for a move to a professional club.
He has been at Gander Green Lane for nine years following eight years at Eastleigh. Despite the temptation to spend the revenue generated from this glorious Cup run on players, Doswell has a far more long-term, sustainable vision which involves the whole community, particularly the children in the local area.
The money “won’t go into buying players – our wage budget is very, very strict – but we need four new dressing rooms for the younger ones. We can announce that the ground will be renamed the Knights Community Stadium. The Knights Community Stadium runs academies and we’ve got 100 16-year-olds starting in September for the new school term. So we’re looking hopefully to buy four dressing rooms, four shower rooms and place them round the ground. And we’ve got a roof leak; everyone knows about the roof.”
Doswell is head of a property development company and it is this business acumen that shines through when he speaks. He is also an avid Southampton fan and was a regular attendee at their Europa League matches and made trips to both Prague and Milan. Despite the vast disparity in resources between the clubs, the boss can see some obvious parallels.
“We would have played Southampton if they’d bother to beat Arsenal,” he joked. “I had a lovely text from Les Reed as well after we got the draw, just saying that ‘I’m sorry we couldn’t have done better against Arsenal’. I sort of model myself a little bit on what Southampton have done, because I think the model here, which is to bring young players in, improve them and let them move on is not a lot different to what Southampton have done. Our budget in the National League is comparative to Southampton’s in the Premier League, relatively speaking, so naturally I take a lot of references from the club.”
The rehabilitating role that clubs like Sutton play cannot be underestimated. Many aspiring footballers enter top Premier League academies from a very young age hoping that they have got what it takes, but very few eventually make the grade.
“When you’re released by Arsenal and Palace and all the rest of it, your life changes very quickly,” Doswell remarked. “Jeffrey Monakana is a prime example, and Jack Jebb actually. Both at Arsenal – one was going to be the new Jack Wilshere and one was going to be the new winger on the block and they both ended up here. What we try to do is rehabilitate these players in a positive way and if another club in the football chain wants to take them, then we welcome that. It’s an unusual thing that a manager wants his players to progress, but that’s the situation here.”
Doswell’s shrewd transfer policy should be applauded, but for all his efforts, the club would not exist without an army of volunteers beavering away behind the scenes. Without them, there would be no Sutton United.
Their willingness to work for nothing has allowed the club to operate on a shoestring and the small size of the club means that every person’s contribution is recognised and appreciated, not least by the manager himself. “I have ended up, not realising it, putting the club under enormous pressure because of the media situation. We’ve had people like our press officer Tony Dolbear, who has actually had to take days off work just to become a press officer. That’s what you need to write about, it’s the volunteers here that genuinely take holiday days off. I take my hat off to them really.”
As a result of their Cup exploits, Sutton’s league form has nosedived and they currently sit 17th in the National League. However, the idea of being promoted does not hold much appeal for the club, mainly because it would mean having to get rid of the artificial pitch that has brought them so much success. The surface has made Gander Green Lane a fortress, but only grass pitches are permitted in EFL competition. The 3G pitch is used by local school children and Sutton’s junior sides, bringing much-needed revenue into the club, as well as a new generation of passionate followers and their parents, who will hopefully return in their droves long after the whistle has sounded on their FA Cup journey.
“The National League is the holy grail for us. If people can take anything from this Cup run, it’s the fact that we’ve gone from having zero children here, because they couldn’t play on the [old] pitch as it was so bad, to having hundreds, and I mean hundreds. That means that mums and dads come down and they’re engaged in the club and if League One and League Two had one club which would vote to allow this it would be unbelievable and it’s a brilliant pitch by the way. It’s been played in the SPL, it’s been played in the World Cup for the women in Canada and there’s nothing wrong with it.”
The attendance figures have risen notably since Sutton decided to slash ticket prices, with the long-term pay-off outweighing the short-term pain. “The best decision we ever made was making season tickets £5 for adults and free for children. As a father now, you can bring your two kids down here for five quid. Since that change, our crowds have gone from 700 to nearly 2,000 and we are definitely picking up people who are disenfranchised paying £100 for a ticket.”
Many managers often admit that their personal life takes a hit when they are immersed in such an all-consuming job. When things aren’t going well, this sacrifice must seem futile. However, times like these make all the toil seem worthwhile.
“My job, the family and football are the three things that keep me going. With all of us, we get it in the wrong order at times, it’s normally football, family and work. My wife and children have probably suffered at times because of my obsession with the game but then you watch my kids run on the pitch after the Leeds game and for me, that’s priceless.”
Featured image: SUFCTV