Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Sutton United: From the National League to Wembley

Posted on 1 April 2022 by Ben Thorne

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On the outskirts of South-West London lie a local club who are defying all expectations this season. Sutton United who are located deep in their suburban area with terraced houses surrounding the stadium of Gander Green Lane.

The constant commotion of trains arriving and departing the station, which lies behind the only stand in the stadium, offering a flashback to football in the 1980’s.

The TV cameras are set up on the scaffolding that is propped up opposite the stand, as the excitement of youth team players wearing replica kits pile into the stadium beneath.

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Sutton United now face their biggest challenge yet as they prepare to play League 1 leaders, Rotherham United, at Wembley in the EFL Trophy Final on Sunday 3rd April.

After beating Wigan Athletic in the Semi-Final on penalties, Sutton will make their first appearance at Wembley for 41 years since they played Bishop’s Stortford in the FA Trophy final in 1981.

Despite enduring their first season in their history in the English Football League, Sutton United have their eye on back-to-back promotions with the play-off positions still in reach.

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Mike at the @suttonpodcast reveals how the adaptation to the Football League has been so seamless: “The players and the coaching from top to bottom. Everyone at the club is working towards the same thing.

Keeping the core of the team from last year just kept up that momentum into this season. Matt Gray as a manager prepares the players really well each game, he sets the team up knowing our strengths. We are not overly concerned about other people’s strengths, we know what we can do, and they have to deal with that.

There are no prima donna’s in the club, everyone is striving for the same thing from the guys who serve the tea to the guys on the pitch.”

Sutton United playing on the carpet of Wembley below the arch with the smell over-priced hot-dogs and pizza’s emphasises their progression compared to their usual suburban setting. But there is a sense of hope as they prepare to overcome all the odds.

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“One of our chairmen’s ambitions, who has been chairmen for 25 years, was to take Sutton to Wembley. The manager stated really early in the season, that this competition is a really good chance to get to Wembley.

The guys are going to be up for it, as Sutton fans we know we are a little club but the one thing we know is the players will literally give everything they can. There is no expectation but there is hope.”

The catalyst for the rise of Sutton United into the Football League and to Wembley has clearly been the role of manager Matt Gray. But his job goes a lot further than the improvement on the pitch.

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“The level of professionalism and attention to detail is just insane. Even watching before the game, his eyes are like a hawk watching the players and the backroom staff all say that he has got things the way he wants them, and he is very particular the way he wants things done.

It was just the little, tiny things he was saying. One of the things was that we have a great squad of players, but he’s got a list of replacement players if any of them move on. He has got targets for the next 3,4,5 years down the line.”

It is always easy for fans’ expectations to change as a season progresses, especially when a club is perhaps punching above their weight. At Sutton it has been no different, with the impressive rise into the football league proving impossible to ignore.

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“The expectations have changed, historically we have always been about the 50 points and survival. There were people laughing at us because Sutton were in the automatic spots, but we still need those 50 points.

I do think there will be a sense of disappointment if we don’t make the play offs, the expectations have certainly changed from we want to finish 22nd, to let’s get into the play off or even the automatics.”

Sutton United’s priorities lie a lot deeper than just the first team. There have been changes made on and off the field, due to the promotion to the EFL, which have impacted the men’s, women’s, community and youth teams for the entire club.

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The major change was the removal of the Astro-turf pitch which under current regulations cannot be used in the EFL. There was a huge reliance on the Astro pitch to hold constant games for all teams across the club and community.

“A lot of people were saying you don’t want the pitch to come up as it gives you an advantage.

But we don’t actually care about the first team; they will always have a pitch to play on. It was the knock-on teams that people were really concerned about. Everyone is really proud of the community club ethos.”

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Ahead of the final on Sunday against Rotherham. Sutton United and their fans will take a refreshing approach to the game and occasion by not forgetting the journey that they are on as a local club from South-West London.

“We are never going to be a club that will sulk, we are going there to win and enjoy ourselves and not cry to much if we lose.”

Find out all you need to know about Sutton United here: Sutton United Talk Time on Podcast (@suttonpodcast) / Twitter

Discover more about fellow EFL team Luton Town here: Luton Town – From League Two Relegation To Premier League Aspirations – Sports Gazette