‘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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Sustainability the key for Sutton to thrive

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.”

Alex Bowmer

Featured image: SUFCTV

 

 

 

Gander Green Lane a happy home for Sutton

Sutton United 2-0 Bromley

Sutton United maintained their impressive home form with a 2-0 win over Bromley at Gander Green Lane. In the process, the U’s avenged their 1-0 defeat against the Ravens on Boxing Day.

By all accounts, the first half was poor. Neither side got into their rhythm on what was a cold afternoon. Most of the attacking moves broke down after just a few passes, with both teams opting for a direct approach. However, as has been the case for much of the season, many of Sutton’s best moves went through Roarie Deacon. The tricky winger had a shot deflected wide in the sixth minute before playing a ball down the right wing for Dan Fitchett. The striker collected the pass and cut inside his marker, but the shot went wide of Alan Julian’s right-hand post.

The home fans were angry at what they perceived to be unsporting behaviour from Bromley, who booted the ball out of play after Sutton had allowed one of the opposition players to receive treatment (cue a cry of “you’re a horrible cheat” from one of the Sutton fans). The hosts continued to have the lion’s share of the opportunities, with Deacon’s delivery falling loose, allowing Bedsente Gomis to send in a shot from close range that was palmed over impressively by Julian. At the other end, the visitors almost got a chance of their own, with David Martin’s cross crucially cut out by stalwart Nicky Bailey.

Every time it looked like that the deadlock would be broken, a wayward shot or inaccurate pass provided a reality check. Chances for Bradley Hudson-Odoi, an early replacement for Ben Jefford, and Bailey went begging. Deacon continue to buzz around Bromley’s box, fizzing a fierce effort wide from just outside the box, before former Arsenal man Craig Eastmond screwed a presentable chance wide. However, it was Bromley that had the clearest chance of the match up to that point, as Conor Dymond raced into the box from the left-wing, only to inexplicably lose his footing at the vital moment. This led to a flurry of activity with a header from a corner by Bromley’s talisman and top scorer Blair Turgott drawing an instinctive save from Ross Worner.

Then came the breakthrough in the final minute of first-half stoppage time. A foul on Hudson-Odoi led to the award of a free-kick. Deacon expertly whipped the ball into the box and Maxime Biamou rose to plant his header into the corner.

The second half was a far more open affair, perhaps brought to life by a goal that the match sorely needed, as Turgott and the lively Hudson-Odoi both having chances for their respective teams. It was then Eastmond’s turn to take centre stage. The midfielder found himself in space about 25 yards out and cracked a ferocious shot against the inside of the post, before the ball rolled agonisingly across the face of goal. Paul Doswell’s men were firmly in the ascendancy and Deacon was once again giving his opponents a torrid time.

Eventually, their territorial dominance brought its reward. Hudson-Odoi pounced on the loose ball after pinball in the box following a corner and he made no mistake, finishing with aplomb. There were still just under 30 minutes of normal time to play, but Neil Smith’s men had not shown enough to suggest that they could claw themselves back into the match. Biamou headed over from a Deacon corner before newly-introduced Bradley Goldberg won a corner off Nicky Bailey. However, the visitors were not making the most of the few chances that came their way and it was Sutton who were still looking the more threatening, with Deacon once again sending in a devilish cross that was just headed over by Dan Fitchett.

As the match entered its closing stages the play became more fragmented. The Sutton fans became increasingly irate, with one shouting that the ref was “the worst we’ve had down here this season and that’s saying something!” The bitty nature of the last few minutes was summed out by a nasty challenge from a drop-ball; possibly the first instance of its kind in history. 

Sutton saw out the win and underlined their dominance at Gander Green Lane, where they have won nine out of 14 league games and tasted defeat just three times. While their home form has been excellent, the same cannot be said for their away results, with just one win on the road. If they are to mount a play-off challenge, this record must be improved dramatically. For now though,  the team can bask in the glow of a well-deserved win and eagerly look ahead to next weekend’s Derby clash with AFC Wimbledon, as the U’s look to claim another FA Cup scalp in what will undoubtedly be one of the biggest games in the club’s history.

Alex Bowmer