Ask English football fans to pick their fairytale story from last season and many would plump for Sutton United’s memorable run to the fifth round of the FA Cup.
The south Londoners, who were enjoying their first season in the National League, disposed of four higher-ranked teams to make it to the last 16, where they came up against Arsenal. Alas, the Gunners had too much quality on the day, but for a club that train twice a week and who are kept ticking over by an army of volunteers, just reaching that stage of the competition was an achievement.
For Bruce Elliott, the campaign was particularly sweet. “That was my 20th season as chairman of the club and obviously that would be my best ever. We got promotion at the end of the previous season, so we were entering a little bit into the unknown with the National League. It was a big step up, so we had that to look forward to and then of course we got caught up in a wonderful FA Cup run as well.”
This was very much uncharted territory. The level of attention that non-league clubs receive is usually pretty limited, so to have hordes of journalists flocking to Gander Green Lane on a fairly regular basis took some getting used to.
“It was difficult and quite stressful at times. We’re very lucky that we have so many good volunteers who know the club and have been involved for some years, so there’s a great continuity there, but it took quite a few of us out of our comfort zone.
“I don’t think those of us who were trying to work got very much work done. I kept coming into the office and ending up spending the whole day on football business. It was enjoyable, but it took over our lives for a few weeks. Would we do it again if it came along this season or next? Of course the answer is ‘yes’.”
Sutton have always spent responsibly under Elliott’s stewardship. Despite the windfall they received following their fantastic journey, it was never going to disappear overnight.
“By profession I’m an accountant, so that probably tells you all you need to know. The way the club has been run, we’ve never gone mad on the occasions we’ve had money. We were never, ever going to take what I suggest is a slightly irresponsible route, which is just to splash the cash on players.
“There’s a certain amount needed to ensure, as far as we can, that we stay at this level. We’ve competed at National League level now for one season only. The second season is traditionally quite difficult, so the first priority is to make sure, as far as we can, that we stay in this league. But there was always going to be a long list of things that we wanted to do at the football club that have never, ever got to the top of the priority list for expenditure. Every penny we earn from the cup run is going to be reinvested into the fabric of the club, which is how it should be.”
A prime example of this community focus has been the club’s partnership with the Knights Foundation, who will sponsor Sutton United’s Academy for the next three seasons, while the ground will be renamed the Knights Community Stadium. Four new classrooms will be instated on-site at the ground, which will allow the Academy’s players to receive a formal education in conjunction with their football training. This September will see a fresh intake of 100 16-year-olds.
However, the club had already made great strides prior to their cup heroics. In a drive to entice local residents and disaffected supporters of more illustrious teams in the capital, the U’s took the bold move to reduce season-ticket prices dramatically.
“It was a calculated gamble on our part a couple of years ago. We started adult season tickets at £99, which was unheard of at National League level or above. In fact, when the BBC did a survey of the top five divisions for season-ticket prices [the Price of Football survey in 2016], it was no surprise to find that we were the cheapest season ticket.
“I think we’ve signed up just over 1400 for the season ahead, which, bearing in mind we’ve just had a couple of pre-season games, is pretty phenomenal really. I think what’s happened is, because we made them cheap, we’ve got a lot of Chelsea and Palace and AFC Wimbledon and Fulham supporters that live in and around Sutton and I think a lot of them have decided to adopt us as their second team, so when their team is away or not playing on a Saturday at 3 o’clock, they can come down to Sutton and enjoy some decent football. That’s really worked for us.”
The 3G pitch was another game-changer for the club and was the brainchild of manager Paul Doswell, who had previously brought in the idea at Eastleigh, where he had been at the helm for eight years. It was pointed out by Doswell prior to the Arsenal match that most League Two clubs are “skint”; the artificial pitch allows the club to rent it out to any group that wants to make use of it, meaning that a steady stream of income trickles in all year round.
A related strength is the durability of the pitch. The surface is not adversely affected in poor weather conditions, in contrast to grass pitches, which are susceptible to wear and tear as the season progresses. Elliott lamented the “anomaly” between the comparatively lax regulations for grass pitches and the far more rigorous assessment of artificial surfaces.
“I’m not singling them out for special treatment, but a number of people have used the example of Newport County’s pitch last year. They were allowed to play Football League matches on a pitch which clearly left a lot to be desired and there doesn’t seem to be any rules and regulations about the quality of grass pitches.
“You can play on a ploughed field it seems in the Football League. But if you’ve got a 3G pitch, it has to be FIFA two-star rated and has to have rigorous testing every 12 months. There does seem a little bit of a contradiction there, which I’m sure at some stage will get addressed.”
Despite the obvious advantages that the pitch brings, a vote on whether to allow them in EFL competition back in November 2014 ended in a dead heat, with 68 of the 72 member clubs choosing to have their say. Elliott was unsure about when the next vote would take place, but was surprised at the lack of persistence from some sides in favour of the proposed introduction, given that they are in dire financial straits.
“It’s the best thing we’ve ever done. I’m surprised that a few clubs in the Football League haven’t put their league under more pressure. These clubs are being held back from putting a 3G pitch in, which surely will make them more financially stable. That’s what the leagues want their clubs to be.
“If it’s good enough for the FA Cup, for European games, for World Cup games, why is it not good enough for the Football League? Very strange.”
Sutton are entering their second season at this level and the club are certainly not entertaining the possibility of going up, either automatically or through the play-offs. However, were they to achieve the highly improbable for the second year running, would they revert back to a grass pitch?
“Well, if the rules don’t change and we were in that position, then we’ve signed an undertaking saying that in that scenario, we would take up our 3G and put grass down. Now of course, it’s not as though you waste the whole expense of the 3G because without knowing the technicalities of it, you only take up the top surface and replace it with grass, so you take up the carpet and put grass down.
“Obviously, we don’t want to do that because it would stop a lot of usage of the pitch, which obviously brings in much-needed income. But I think it’s one of those situations we’d worry about if and when it happened.
“Let’s be realistic about it, look at who didn’t go up last year. A club the size of Tranmere is playing another season in this league, which shows just how difficult it is to get out of. You can’t plan for every eventuality, so we just crack on for the time being and let’s see how the season progresses.”
That said, Elliott feels that pressure should be brought to bear on the EFL in order to give themselves the best possible chance of retaining their current surface if they were to go up. Promotion would certainly provide Sutton with a dilemma should the policy on pitches remain unchanged and there could be the possibility of foregoing entry to the Football League to keep the artificial surface intact.
“This [the decision whether to accept promotion] would be the decision of the board of directors of the club at the appropriate time so I wouldn’t like to conjecture on it, but my personal opinion would be that we would have to make absolutely sure that if we were in a position of promotion, that we took it. The FA would be interested. They’ve authorised all this.
“I don’t what the procedures would be, but obviously the first thing if you found yourself in that position would be to put some pressure on to see whether the rules could be changed. We’re so far away from that scenario that we’ve got enough to worry about without worrying about that at the moment, but we’d deal with it.”
A mounting injury list stifled their progress in the league last season, but they still finished 12th and the club will be looking to consolidate that performance during their follow-up campaign in non-league’s top flight. Much of their success has been built on snapping up players released from the academies of more established sides, helping them to rekindle their enthusiasm for the game and then moving them on to a professional outfit.
Two beneficiaries of this approach were Max Biamou and Roarie Deacon, who have joined Coventry City and Dundee respectively over the summer. Both were standout performers last term and the club hopes that two of their recent acquisitions from Dover Athletic, Moses Emmanuel and Ross Lafayette, can fill their shoes.
This policy of nurturing and developing young talent is not a recent phenomenon though. “Nicky Bailey was a youngster at Fulham many moons ago and was thrown on the proverbial football scrapheap [back in 2000]. Our youth team manager cajoled him into playing in our youth team at Sutton. He did really well for us as a club, got to the first team, went to Barnet, then ended up at Charlton and Middlesbrough and did really well and the fact he’s returned home is great for us, towards the end of his career.
“Recently, we seem to be getting a very nice reputation, which is along the lines of picking up players who seem to have lost their way a little bit and don’t seem to be doing themselves justice, putting them in the shop window and giving them some really good-quality fitness and coaching. If you’re good enough, you’re going to get noticed. They see that we’re not going to stand in their way.”
The conversation turns back to what they will do with the money. If the FA Cup adventure seemed other-worldly, the priorities now are far more prosaic.
“We’re refurbishing both home and away and referees dressing rooms. They were very, very old, well-publicised also as to how small they were during the cup run, particularly when Arsenal came to us. We’ve got some temporary dressing rooms as well, there’s a new turnstile block going in, there are some new toilets, there’s a new club shop coming in, so it has enabled us to do all those things that were OK, but you really wished you’d got a bit of extra money to be able to replace them, renew them and generally upgrade and that’s what we’ve been able to do.
“It is exciting. I can’t remember a time when we actually had a bit of money and sat round a table discussing how we were going to spend it! It’s normally the other way round, you sit round the table wondering where the next few thousand pounds is going to come from.”
This is a club that has their feet firmly on the ground, choosing responsibility over recklessness. Doswell has been in the managerial hotseat for nine years and it is easy to see why he and Elliott have one of the longest-lasting partnerships in English football’s top five divisions. The hubbub may have died down after last season’s madness, but don’t be surprised if they write more headlines in 2017/18.
Featured image: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Europe
Images (from top to bottom): Press Association, Clive Rose/Getty Images, SUFC 3G website, David Davies/Press Association, Press Association, Rex Features, BPI/Matt West