When next season’s fixtures are released on 24 June 2021, the name of Sutton United will represent a new kind of debutant club in recent times.
Of the previous 20 Clubs to be promoted from the National League, 14 had been league Clubs returning to the Sky Bet EFL. None was a traditional non-league club that had spent years in the upper echelons of non-league football flipping promotions with relegations and happy to exist outside the professional game.
Sutton are different.
To say that promotion to the EFL has happened by accident in the leafy suburbs would be wrong, but neither has it been the culmination of a carefully constructed project to achieve EFL status.
It means that plans to improve the infrastructure around Gander Green Lane, to replace the artificial pitch, add new floodlights, new turnstiles and new stands, have been arranged and work is continuing apace. At once, it is breathless and exciting.
Ask about how many full-time employees the club will have in its debut EFL season, what the anticipated attendances will be and how deep changes to the club will run and the answers are refreshingly and endearingly unclear.
Phrases such as ‘we honestly don’t know’, ‘we are still learning’, ‘it will be a complete culture change’ and ‘all these are things we’ve got to find out’ proliferate.
Nowhere did Sutton’s promotion to the Sky Bet EFL see jaws drop harder than at Gander Green Lane.
The remit of rookie manager Matt Gray had been to keep the club in the National League when he succeeded the long-serving Paul Doswell in the summer of 2019.
With finances and the playing budget even tighter amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Gray was tasked with repeating the feat in the 2020/21 season.
Instead, Gray’s team won the title and, with it, automatic promotion. Technically, he had failed his employers, but no-one at Sutton was complaining, mainly because no-one had envisaged departing the National League via the turnstile at the top.
And that included Gray.
“When I got the job, the chairman said: ‘Just keep us in the league because we’re punching above our weight in the National League. That’s all we want you to do,’” he admits.
“But we were on a great run in the second half of that first season when COVID hit. I’d had a year working with the players and I knew I had the nucleus of a squad that I wanted to keep, so I didn’t have to do a lot in the summer.
“I said to the players internally that our target had to be to try and sneak into the Play-Offs.
“We kept all of the outfield players, signed a goalkeeper, got Isaac Olaofe back on loan from Millwall, had a good pre-season and hit the ground running. The consistency in results and performances was there all season.”
The 21-year-old striker Olaofe ended as Sutton’s leading scorer with 14 goals. He will begin pre-season with parent club Millwall, but if he is allowed out on loan again, Gray wants to see him return.
“I’d like to think we’d be one of the favourites to sign him because of how well he’s done and how he fits into our dressing room.
“I’ve let six players go this summer, but they were really squad players who didn’t really feature. Now if I can bring in a handful of players to add competition to a squad that’s already been successful, that’s what I’ll do.”
Sutton’s squad will turn fully professional for its debut EFL campaign. The club’s players were termed ‘three-quarter time’ rather than ‘part-time’ last season. They trained three mornings per week and some of the squad were able to supplement their football income with part-time work elsewhere.
“We’ll be full-time professional because we’ve got to be,” adds Gray, who turns 40 a month into the new season and whose own journey has deviated from the norm.
He played alongside Ledley King in the centre of Tottenham’s youth team defence, with Peter Crouch further up the pitch.
He also attended England schoolboy trials with the likes of Joe Cole, but injuries and operations – three each on his knee and his back – meant that after spells at Cardiff City and then in non-league with Hayes and Havant & Waterlooville, Gray was forced to retire at just 25.
His passion for coaching and management was already shining through.
“I remember going to an England Under-15 trial and for some reason, I went back to the room at Keele University and wrote the sessions down. I didn’t know why I was doing it at the time, but I’ve always had an eye for coaching and management. I did my ‘B’ licence when I was in my early 20s.
“My grandad and dad were both involved in managing a team called Hadley near Barnet, so I’ve always been in dressing rooms and listening to team talks.
“I was an assistant manager [at Eastleigh, Aldershot and Crawley Town] for 12 years, but was I going to walk straight into a top National League club or an EFL club as my first job?
“No, I wasn’t, so I am very grateful to Sutton for giving me the opportunity.
“You earn players’ respect by your honesty in how you treat them and then by your coaching sessions, the information you give them and how you set your team up.
“We’ve tried to recruit well and get the balance right with players like Rob Milsom who’s had a great EFL career, Craig Eastmond who played 10 games for Arsenal and Harry Beautyman who’s played for Peterborough, Northampton and Stevenage.
“Those players are a good age for experience and they are mixed in with young, hungry players who were at higher Clubs initially, the likes of Ben Goodliffe, Will Randall and David Ajiboye, who are trying to move back up the pyramid.
“If we can finish anywhere around mid-table and remain an EFL club, that will be a hugely successful season for Sutton United in our first year as a professional club as well as an EFL club.
“Hopefully we can keep hold of the unity and team spirit within the dressing room and use the momentum from last season.
“It’s going to be a great experience and people at the club are still pinching themselves.”
As they step into the unknown, Sutton hope to attract average gates of at least 2,000, and a primary aim is to remain at heart of their local community, like so many other EFL Clubs.
“We had community teams, disabled teams, ladies teams, academy teams, walking football, so many groups of people playing here.
“It’s very important for a club like Sutton that has such a great community feel and unique involvement with the fans that we keep that as we move into the EFL.”
Did You Know?
Sutton United’s 2-1 third-round victory over top-flight Coventry City in 1989, with goals from Tony Rains and Matthew Hanlan, is written into FA Cup folklore. Less is remembered about the fourth-round tie they earned with that win – an 8-0 defeat away at Norwich City.