‘I can’t remember a time when we actually had a bit of money to spend’

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 trains 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.

Gander Green Lane

“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 has 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.”

Sutton Wimbledon

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.

Sutton 3G

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.

Newport Gwent Dragons v Newcastle Falcons - Anglo-Welsh Cup - Rodney Parade

“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 is entering its second season at this level and the club is 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.

Sutton dressing rooms

“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.”

Roarie Deacon

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.”

Nicky Bailey

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 its 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

 

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A Foot In Both Camps: Fred Callaghan

This interview with Fred Callaghan was published in the Fulham matchday programme against Brentford on Saturday 29 April 2017.

Fred Callaghan made 336 appearances for Fulham, later spending just under four years as manager at Brentford from March 1980 to February 1984. It’s the Whites he’ll be supporting today, however…

What memories do you have of your time at Fulham?

The highlight was playing and training every day there. Fulham had a good atmosphere and we were always known as a homely club. I still go as a supporter. I started off as a 15-year-old and for the last 50 years, I’ve been following Fulham. It’s part of my life.

Craven Cottage is still fantastic. The pitch is great, it’s a terrific setting and it has a great atmosphere because the crowd are so near the pitch. The fans have seen the good times and the bad. Hopefully the good times are on their way back.

Of all the players you played alongside during your time at the Club, who stands out for you?

I played with a few world-class players over the years. Obviously, the likes of Johnny Haynes, George Cohen and Alan Mullery stand out, as well as some good up-and-coming youngsters at the time like Rodney Marsh, Steve Earle, Les Barrett and John Dempsey. All these lads went on to have good careers and we all came through together.

You also spent four years as manager at Brentford. What were the highlights of your time at Griffin Park?

I’ve got some fond memories of my spell there. The only problem at the time was that there was no money to spend on players or staff. Myself and Ron Harris, who was my assistant, used to paint the dressing rooms and the crash barriers, fork the pitch, roll the pitch – we had to do everything. The team were in the old Division Three, but I brought in some decent players – Terry Hurlock, Gary Roberts, David Crown, Chris Kamara and Stan Bowles all played for me.

What do you make of the current Fulham side?

When Tom Cairney is on song, the whole team plays well. We’ve also got a few up-and-coming youngsters like Ryan Sessegnon, who grew up in the same area as me, Roehampton. He’s improved and has come a long way for a 16-year-old. We look to have a really well-balanced team and hopefully we can carry on our good form right until the end of the season and get promotion. We struggle against sides that try to hit the ball long, but if team play us on the deck, we’ll outplay them.

As for Brentford, what have you made of them this season?

Brentford have done very well and that’s all down to their chairman. He’s put his money in and employed a very good manager. Hopefully there’s a bright future for them; I’m sure there will be. They’re a useful team and it will be a hard game for us. We’ve already beaten them this season, though, so I reckon we can do that again.

Finally, are you confident Fulham will get promoted via the Play-Offs?

I think we’ll go up. We’re top scorers this season and I think the players have really entertained the crowd this term, which is all down to the style that the boss has put in place.

Image: Getty Images

“There’s no club like Fulham”

I interviewed Leroy Rosenior for January’s issue of Fultime, where we talked about Jimmy Hill, Craven Cottage and much more.

Leroy Rosenior still has a great deal of affection for Fulham Football Club. It is where he received his big break as a professional footballer, going on to play for the Whites in three separate spells, before his son Liam followed in his footsteps. Having experienced the game as a player, manager and now as a pundit, his passion for the sport that gave him so much is undimmed. 

Leroy first joined Fulham in 1982 and it is fair to say that the bedding-in process was not exactly smooth. “My debut had been against Leicester away and I had broken my collarbone, which I didn’t know at the time. I played the full 90 minutes, although I had broken it just before half-time. I got on the bus, went to hospital and found out the true extent of the injury. I was out for a year. Then I made my debut at home on my return [against Derby County] and scored two goals.”

Fulham’s link with the Roseniors lived in when Liam signed for the club. “I remember going to Craven Cottage to watch my son play against Man United. I was really proud, he marked Ronaldo and became captain of Fulham. Then a couple of years ago, I took my two young boys down there to watch Arsenal at home. The club got me seats right behind the dugout. So I’ve had lots of good memories at Fulham and every time I go back there I feel very, very comfortable.”

It is clear that the infrastructure has changed beyond all recognition in the 26 years since the Balham-born striker left Craven Cottage for the final time as a player, but the character of the ground helps to bridge the gap between the past and the present.

“I have seen Fulham move the club forward, the facilities have improved a lot from my playing days there, but if they are going to develop, they need to develop the club on that site [Craven Cottage]. It’s unique and it’s special and it has a heart. It’s a lovely place for supporters to go home and away. It’s a lovely place to play football and if you were to build a purpose-built facility somewhere on the outskirts of the borough, not only would you lose a lot of heart, you would lose a lot of the history as well and I think that’s massively important. When you go back, you can smell the history, you can sense the history. It’s a celebration of the people that have been there. When you go back to a ground like Craven Cottage, that’s what you are doing, you are celebrating all those people who have graced that football club.”

When I asked why he felt such a strong connection to the club, the response was immediate. “The club did so much for me. When I first went to the club [in 1982] under Malcolm Macdonald as a kid, I was at school. They gave me a trial and within three months I was a professional footballer and that was all because of Fulham. Over the years I played with people like Gerry Peyton, Paul Parker, Ray Houghton. All these players went on to have excellent careers and they taught me a lot.”

The 1982-1983 campaign promised so much for the club, as we fought for promotion from the second division, narrowly missing out in controversial circumstances to Derby. Although sidelined with his injury, Leroy remembers the game well. “I remember when the crowd came on with a few minutes remaining and there was the disappointment of the players. I really did feel for them. I didn’t actually really feel a part of that because I was still a kid, but I remember that and I remember the effect it had on the club, because Malcolm Macdonald had done such a magnificent job and from then on it was always going to be very difficult for him. Obviously, I think he left the club because of other things outside the game and the club really never recovered from that day.”

Leroy still remembers Macdonald’s flamboyant coaching style with great fondness. “Malcolm was a motivator. He would make you feel that you were the best player in the world. He’d come in and he’d have a big cigar on. In training, he’d say ‘no, that’s not how to do it’ and then he’d smash it into the roof of the net. He gave you unbelievable belief.

 “All of my managers at Fulham had positive traits and that’s what management is about, it’s about managing in your own way and getting the best out of people and they all did that.”

However, despite the high regard in which he held his former managers, the man who had the greatest influence on the club at that time, and indeed on Leroy’s career, was the late Jimmy Hill.

 “There’s no-one who is on a level with Jimmy in terms of his influence on the game of football in this country. He was so engaging. He engaged with people, he was inspirational in a lot of ways, but the most important thing was that he was a really nice guy. He was a fun guy to be around and I was very fortunate to get to know Jimmy.”

Hill was instrumental in kick-starting Leroy’s media career having enticed the striker back to the club when we were languishing in Division Three. “He [Jimmy] persuaded me to come back. I wasn’t sure about going back from QPR, because I was in the top division with them and I had to be really persuaded to go back. It could have been a backwards step, but it was the best move I ever made and not only did it give me the platform to go on and do well playing-wise, but it also gave me the platform to have this career that I have in the media now. Jimmy Hill got me to have media training and got me on Capital Gold with Jonathan Pearce.”

Leroy almost made it into the Fulham coaching set-up due to Hill’s influence. “There was a point when Ian Branfoot was manager and Jimmy wanted me to be the next manager of Fulham and asked me to make sure that I got my coaching badges. I had my coaching badges at the age of 24 because of Jimmy Hill and when Branfoot got the job, he [Hill] wanted me to be his assistant manager with a view to being the next manager. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a relationship between me and Ian so that never happened and it was a big regret that I never managed to fulfil that ambition. Jimmy was the person who saw that potential in me. And I’m sure that he not only saw that in me, but he saw the potential in lots of people, he saw the good, the best bits in people and he brought it out in people and that is a rare, rare talent.”

After hanging up his boots, Leroy made the thankless transition to management. He is realistic about his prospects of returning to the dugout. “You never say never, but I’ve been out of management a little while now. I didn’t really get the opportunities that I thought I’d get, but I was lucky because I found a career in the media. However, I love coaching, so if the opportunity arose I would obviously think really, really carefully about getting back into the game.”

The lack of black and ethnic miniority managers in English football is glaringly obvious and while the pace of change may seem frustratingly slow, Leroy insists that progress is being made. “They aren’t many more black and ethnic minority managers than there were ten years ago, but there are lots more black players now who are more inclined to get their coaching badges and look at a career in coaching, which hadn’t been the case because they didn’t have any role models.

“I think that organisations like the FA, the Premier League, the PFA, Kick It Out and Show Racism The Red Card are always looking for positive ways to promote ethnic minorities and to encourage them to get into the game.

“And it’s not just about black managers, it’s about grassroots and administrative positions. When I was managing, when I went into a football club, the only other black people I’d see in and around the football club would be the cleaners and that is what I wanted to change.”

Since the BBC stopped airing Football League highlights three years ago, Leroy’s attentions have turned to the top-flight. “I work for the Premier League and watch every single game. Our analysis is broadcast around the world and we do four or five live shows a week. I engage with people from all around the world and everyone thinks it’s the best product in the world.” He is also an ambassador for Show Racism The Red Card and writes a column in the Bristol Evening Post looking at both league clubs in the city. As well as that, he has a book coming out, which will predominantly touch on Leroy’s experiences as a professional footballer.

It can be easy to forget what a special club Fulham is. It is clear from listening to interviews with numerous current and former players that they often form an affinity with the club that endures for far longer than their spell by the river. This is certainly the case with Leroy.

‘You don’t realise what a unique club Fulham is until you come away from it. There’s no other club that has such an unbelievable setting, the type of fans that it attracts. It is a very, very homely club and that’s a massive strength.

“I was very fortunate to come from school at that age and to go to a club like Fulham. I think if I had gone anywhere else, it would have eaten me alive. But Fulham was a really lovely way to start my career. It was no surprise that I went back, I kept on going back, because you always go back to somewhere where you’re comfortable and happy and I was always happy there.”

Leroy’s book, It’s Only Banter, is out on February 28.

Image credit: The Telegraph