Sutton United: the Football League experience

Sutton United have enjoyed a remarkable beginning to their Football League journey over the last 18 months.

The U’s first season saw them finish just a point and one place outside the playoff positions, taking it to the very last day of the 2021/22 season with victory against Harrogate Town.

This was coupled with their memorable run to the final in the EFL (English Football League) Trophy, which included an away penalty shootout victory against League One winners Wigan Athletic.

Sutton were seconds away from victory before eventually falling to a 4-2 extra-time defeat at the hands of Rotherham United at Wembley.

For Neil Oastler, a contributor to the Sutton United Podcast who first watched the south London side with his father in 1965, the first season in the fourth tier of English football was something of a culture shock.

He said: “Being part of the Football League felt terribly grown up, from a club recognised as an amateur cup team in the late 1980s to now being full-time professional.

“There was a lot of growing up within the club.”

Oastler was excited at the prospect of visiting a plethora of new away grounds and the first season more than matched his expectations.

He said: “The 50-point target was the aim but we had so much success, we were even third or fourth in the table at times.

“People at the club couldn’t believe how successful we were, it took even them by surprise.”

Sarah Aitchison, an ardent follower since the 1990s, struggled to comprehend the former non-league side rubbing shoulders with one-time top flight outfits.

She said: “It hit me that Sutton United were playing in the same division as Bradford City, who I remember watching in the Premier League 20 years ago.

“We played a League Cup game away to Cardiff City in August 2021 in a national stadium and matched them, it felt ridiculous, as if we were part of a dream.”

The second season in the Football League has been harder going, with the U’s being beset by injuries earlier in the campaign.

Nevertheless, form has improved since the turn of the year and despite currently being placed in 12th, they remain just three points off Mansfield Town who occupy the last play-off position.

Aitchison said: “With the squad that depleted it’s been hard to even put together a team at times.

“We’ve had a great recovery in the last few weeks and it helps having a level-headed manager in Matt Gray who continues to impress me.”

Despite the success of last season and the decade overall, with promotions in 2016 and 2022, supporters are not chasing an immediate promotion push to the third tier.

Oastler said: “If we take a long-term view, ambition aside, it’s better to consolidate and build for the future.”

Aitchison agreed, stating that, having been spoiled of unprecedented heights, including a thrilling run to the fifth round of the 2017 FA Cup, fans have been grateful for more of an orderly campaign.

She said: “I feel amazingly lucky to be a Sutton United fan in this moment of our history.”

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