Sutton United have finally made it to the English Football League for the first time ever – but do they have what it takes to stay there?
The fans certainly think so.
When paying a visit to Sutton United’s ground on Ganders Green Lane, just days before the season began, you’d have been forgiven for wondering if they’d ever be ready to host home games, as it was effectively a construction site.
Last week, it was announced their opening two home games had been rearranged to buy some extra time, with Vice Chairman Adrian Barry noting how accommodating the league had been and upcoming opponents had been.
Barry explained the major projects still ongoing, which are starting to take shape, with their first home game now scheduled for 28th August.
Most notably, the club were forced to tear up their 3G pitch and replace it with a new hybrid turf after securing promotion, to ensure it meets English Football League regulations.
And when having a chat with those at the core of this community-orientated club, it’s easy to see why their story has become one you can’t help wanting to have a happy ending.
The south west London-based team were promoted to the EFL for the first time in their 123-year history back in May, the only game supporters had been able to attend all season.
A 3-0 victory in a must-win fixture against Hartlepool marked a new chapter in the club’s turbulent history.
“It was almost written in the stars,” said club Secretary Tim Allison, of their triumphant last fixture, which finally saw supporters back in the stands.
He joked how he’s had to become an expert in grass in the last three months, due to having to oversee extensive revamping of the pitch, which hasn’t been helped by the recent torrential rain.
Other areas which continue to be given attention include the installation of new 500 lux floodlight and new turnstiles which will allow for barcode scanning, as well as adding capacity to the away end of the pitch.
The new 258-seater away stand won’t be in place until October, due to the national steel shortage caused by COVID, but a temporary stand is now in place, which Barry said will probably end up staying all season.
It only takes speaking to a few of the team’s long-term supporters to get a proper sense of the buzz around the place.
Julian Rozario has been following the club since the 1970s, and is positive ahead of their first stint in League Two.
He said: “We had high hopes for 2020/21, believing that a play-off place was possible. Matt had recruited exceptionally well with a great balance of youth and experience.
“We played great football and the togetherness in the squad was there to see. I’m still pinching myself that we won the league.
“The season ahead is going to be a lot of fun for the fans, we have nothing to lose and I expect us to do quite well.
“I see some people are predicting us to finish bottom – I can’t see that. We’ve kept our brilliant manager and the squad that won us the title and strengthened with some astute signings.
“I can’t wait for the season to start and look forward to visiting new grounds.”
Fan Andrew Youngman detailed just what the season ahead means for fans of the club.
He said: “I’d imagine amongst our older fans promotion to the Football League is still sinking in, I say this as the club has been a non-league outfit our entire history up until now.
“The forthcoming season is one of tremendous excitement – there’s the prospect of so many fantastic away days to look forward to – clubs we could only have dreamt of playing in a league fixture a few years ago.”
Sutton have played in the EFL Cup and will play in the EFL Trophy for the first time in their history.
The club lost their first round League Cup tie against Cardiff 3-2, a respectable performance against Championship opposition but the team would have been dreaming of more when Donovan Wilson gave them the lead inside four minutes.
Sutton have got six new players on their books, including Altrincham midfielder Alistair Smith and former Northampton winger Ricky Korboa.
Barry revealed a touching gesture to fans on the back of the club’s new third kit as a “thank you” to those who weren’t able to come and watch in person last year.
The black strip with yellow trimmings features the names of supporters who’ve got behind various fundraising schemes.
Last year’s campaign ‘United We Stand,’ which aimed to solve the financial hole left due to Covid raised over £57,000 for the club.
Everyone who donated – as well as shareholders and season ticket holders – will see their names on the back of the third kit this year.
They currently have 1,500 season ticket holders, with Adrian explaining they’re hopeful of crowds of up to 3,000 – as they play host to some big clubs.
Sarah Aitchison started following the club aged 13 and has watched the club go through huge changes in recent years.
She said: “Little did we know that Matt Gray’s first season in charge would be ravaged by COVID-19, another reason why the club would need to save as much money as possible.
“That season was pretty unremarkable on the pitch, but I think Matt was really just finding his feet and tweaking the squad to fit his style of play.
“Winning the National League in his first full season as a football manager was an amazing achievement. Watching via livestream, I was really impressed by the consistency, team spirit and the professional and workmanlike attitude that was so apparent throughout.”
So what does this coming season mean to fans?
Sarah said: “Well, to be honest a lot of us are still getting our heads around it all.
“Sutton United as a Football League club is something it’s never even occurred to most of us to dream of, let alone contemplate in reality, we are all just so proud, and so excited to see how the story continues to unfold.”
Cris Gates, who followed Sutton United home and away during the 60s, spoke of selling programmes at home games, in turn funding his coach travel to away matches, which would feature the address and phone number of the manager.
He said: “Would that happen now? I used to join in with training behind the main stand on a Tuesday, and some of the players wives would cook their evening meal whilst they trained.
“I watched practically every player who is in the Sutton United Hall of Fame, and there have not been many additions since those halcyon days.
“I was there for FA Cup run in 70 and the media circus, TV cameras at the ground. You think getting into the EFL is amazing? That was something else.”
Cris, who is now based in Norwich, added: “I have never been back to the ground, but from pictures, it looks no different, apart from those annoying ‘dugouts’ which aren’t, they are right in front of the main stand, where I used to watch.
“I can only hope that Sutton survive their first year. I am a long way out of touch with their current team, so don’t really know their strengths and weaknesses.
“What I do know is League Two will be a big step up and the fans need to be patient and prepared for a long hard winter – there is always too much expectancy when you come riding into town on a promotion bubble.”
Johnnie Lowrey, who’s wrote on the club’s FA Cup runs in recent years in book, Six Added Minutes weighed in on how he thinks his favourite team will fare.
He said: “I think we’ll do better than a lot people think we will.
“We’ve always been suited to being the underdog and no one would have expected us to win the league last season.
“People would have said: ‘You’re mad’ if you’d predicted us to win the league at the start of the season.”
He reflected on the club’s epic FA Cup run back in 2017, where they made it to the fifth round of proceedings against Arsenal, after winning their fourth round match against Leeds United.
Johnnie continued: “Who would have thought we’d got to the last 16 never mind, you know, beat Leeds, AFC Wimbledon, even beat Cheltenham.
“I don’t think anyone gave us a chance, so we’ve always been the underdog.
“Everyone expecting us to get relegated and being the bookies’ favourite to get relegated suits us fine. I don’t think we will, we’ve kept the stable core of the team.”
The club’s first league game of the season ended in heartbreak, as Forest Green Rovers scored a last minute winner to beat the Us 2-1.
But their first home match in two weeks will be the perfect opportunity for fans to finally get to see their team play in the Football League.
Tim summed the optimism of the club up perfectly when talking through the new floodlights, claiming they are good enough for another two promotions yet.
Featured image credit: Paul Loughlin