It was this time last year that Sutton United had just landed from a 400-mile-round trip to Torquay United, having ground out a goalless stalemate with their fierce promotion rivals. A bitter defeat to high-flying Hartlepool United would follow, seeing the U’s fall out of the automatic promotion berths.
Now, they’ve got a showpiece Final and a second successive promotion in their sights. Who’d have thought? Not the South Londoners.
The U’s fell under the radar as they stormed to the National League title and the EFL’s new kids on the block were more than happy to follow suit this year, but Sutton have soon caught the attention of the wider football world for their unprecedented rise through the ranks.
Their secret, in one word: momentum. Or, at least, that’s according to Sutton United defender Ben Goodliffe.
“We don’t fear anyone,” he said. “Like we all keep saying, anything’s possible and anything can happen.”
The 22-year-old – who came through the Academy at Premier League heavyweights Tottenham Hotspur as a child – has been a mainstay in Matt Gray’s side since signing for the Club following his release from Wolverhampton Wanderers, and continues to make his mark on the team by making the step up to the EFL.
“Obviously, we’ve overachieved again. Us players, us staff and the manager are probably looking at the other end of the table now, with the position that we’re in. I don’t put it past this group of players. We can achieve big things if we put our minds to it.”
A manager with experience at this level is another key component to Sutton’s recipe for success and the South Londoners found that in boss Matt Gray – the mastermind behind promotion to the Sky Bet League Two for the first time in the Club’s 123-year history.
Gray’s side finished the 2020/21 season in pole position, having clinched the only automatic promotion spot, and the head coach himself was recognised as the National League’s Manager of the Year after overseeing Sutton’s ascension to the EFL in just his second full season at the helm.
“It was no different – we were a small Club with a small budget in that division against all the big ex-EFL teams,” Gray explained. “All the chairman wanted me to do was make sure we could punch above our weight and stay in the National League. To go and win the League was unbelievable.
“It was just a case of if we can make sure this Club is still an EFL Club come the end of this season, that would be a huge achievement by everyone connected to the Club and a huge reward.
“To talk about promotion again is a little bit beyond what I was expecting, but I would probably have said that to you this time last year when we were challenging to try and win the National League. The shackles are off so who knows what we can go and achieve. Nothing would surprise me after what we did last year.
“You look at the likes of who have come out of the National League in recent seasons and the success they’ve had, and we’re no different. Who knows?”
It was a case of all hands to the pump, with a four-week turnaround allowing for little preparation before pre-season began. But Gray wouldn’t have it any other way.
The 40-year-old’s biggest feat was keeping the core nucleus of his squad together and he sacrificed his summer to do so. He took it upon himself to look for a new base for the South Londoners, as renovations began on Gander Green Lane – the home of the U’s – and the Club found themselves in need of a new training facility.
“It was 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Gray cast his mind back. “It was ridiculous. I went to Cornwall for a week on holiday and didn’t stop working. We’re certainly not the finished article.
“In the summer, there was only one full-time member of staff employed by the Club and that was the bar manager. The biggest thing was moving all those players from three-quarter National League contracts over to full-time EFL contracts. I spoke to 18 of the current players and their agents, as well as looking and sourcing a new training ground.
“For the first time in the Club’s history, we’ve had to deal with a transfer window. We’ve had to increase out squad from last year because of the window to know that we’ve got the quality to one, give us competition for places, but also, if we have a little spate of injuries, we’ve got the quality to keep us at the level that we need to be.”
Indeed, Craig Dundas was one such player that he was keen to hold on to. The player-turned-fitness coach became the EFL’s oldest debutant, aged 40, in his fourth spell at the Club. And the South Londoners continued to break records, registering their first League win of the season, five games into the 2021/22 campaign, against Stevenage.
The U’s veteran - who is forever etched into the Club's history, by way of a mural adorning one of the stands inside the ground - took the place of matchwinner Richie Bennett with 80 minutes remaining on the watch, which represented a milestone for the forward.
“Matt gave me a call the night before which was pretty exciting for me,” he explained. “He did say before the season that he’d try getting me the debut, but I didn’t expect it to come so soon. It means the world, personally. Having not played in the League before and not thinking I’d ever achieve it at my age, it was a dream come true.
“We were looking for our first win in the League. It was 2-1 at the time and he said he needed someone to help close it out. He said, ‘just go on and do what you do; hold up the ball and try to waste time to get us over the line’.”
And despite clocking over 500 appearances for the Club, he’s still learning along the way.
He added: “I’ve probably retired three or four times. We had our first National League year where I almost retired, but I had a good summer and came back. I ended up starting that year against Leyton Orient at home. I think I played 30-plus games that year. I’ve given up giving myself a timeframe on retirement now. When it happens, it happens!
“It’s been a good experience with it being my first year in the EFL. Every year, we set our goals, no matter what League we’re in. There’s more expectation this year, going into the first League season of the Club’s history.”
The U’s came from behind against Boro to secure their first three points of the season on the back of two draws and two losses, along with a Carabao Cup defeat to Cardiff City which saw Sutton bow out of the competition.
Although he wasn’t as pleased with the outcomes, manager Gray was impressed with what he was seeing on the pitch.
“In all five of those games, we could’ve easily got different results,” said Gray. “It was a last kick of the game winner for Forest Green on the opening day where we were well worthy of at least a point. Then you’ve got Scunthorpe where we missed some good chances to win it; a battling draw at Salford; and a home defeat against Oldham which was really hard to take when we were 1-0 up going into the last minutes of the game.”
Sutton might have made an early exit from the Carabao Cup, but the South Londoners are just one game away from Wembley Stadium and the 2022 Papa John’s Trophy Final.
The U’s saw off Harrogate Town in the Quarter-Final of the competition earlier this week to book their place in the Semi-Final. And the fixture was a mark of how far the two recent additions to the EFL have come, with Sutton taking inspiration from the likes of the Sulphurites, Forest Green Rovers and Salford City, who all occupy the top-half of the League Two standings.
Goodliffe, who has played every minute of the knockout stages, has even had the chance to don the captain’s armband in a competition has historically allowed the future of English football to lead the line.
“It was a good win overall in the end,” he reflected. “It was a good night for Craig Eastmond himself making 300 appearances for the Club and scoring it off with a nice finish from his weak foot on the volley.
“We want to try to progress, not just in the League but in all the competitions that we enter. We’re one game away from Wembley with a chance to create history again at this Club. If we were to get to Wembley, it would be a massive achievement.
“Everyone wants to win trophies and get as far as you can. We’re unbeaten, and other than the game that we drew and had to go to penalties, we’ve won every game. If we can keep that mentality going into the Semi-Final and if we win that and into the Final, you never know what can happen. There are still some big teams still in it. Whoever we get in the next round, I’m pretty sure we’d be confident going into the game.”
Gray’s side are riding the wave right now but there have been lows, and Dundas has been there by the Club’s side throughout it all.
The attacker, who has spent the majority of his career plying his trade in the non-League pyramid, first landed on their doorstep in November 2007 at a very different Sutton United to the one he knows today.
“There’s been a lot of change,” he noted. “In my first spell, we were bottom of the Conference South when I signed. I’d just signed from Carshalton with no expectation because I did think we were probably going to get relegated. The Club wasn’t in a great place; players were leaving, and we were having different managers.
“From then, the Club has gone from strength-to-strength and pushing up to get into the EFL which we’ve finally done now.”
But after suffering several bouts of Play-Off heartache, narrowly missing out on promotion to League Two in 2017/18 after bowing out at the Semi-Final stage to Boreham Wood, Dundas and his team-mates finally achieved the unthinkable last season.
“Six or seven games in, I was talking to one of the players when we were warming up,” he said. “We were just looking at the team and thinking, ‘we’ve got a chance here’. With that game at home against Hartlepool with the fans coming back after lockdown. It will be one that goes down in the Club’s history and one that we remember for ages.”
Striking a balance between experience and youth is another thing that Sutton United have going for them, from Dundas down to Goodliffe.
A close-knit group have stood them in good stead this season, with the addition of a handful of new faces, and it doesn’t get much more close-knit than a father-son relationship, but Ben Goodliffe and dad Jason – also Sutton’s assistant manager – have made it work.
“Some things aren’t meant to be, especially at a young age,” continued Goodliffe, discussing his release from Wolves. “There are older and more experienced players that I know – not just in this Sutton team but in other dressing rooms as well – that haven’t even achieved promotion. It’s good for myself to keep my CV nice.”
“I’ve been really proud to achieve promotion with my dad involved,” he added. “When I first signed for Sutton, I was still living at home, so it’s a bit more challenging now. We would literally park football aside as soon as we got in the car to go home. We had an agreement that we wouldn’t talk about football, other than when we’re at football itself. We didn’t want to clash because he wasn’t telling other players something and giving me any other treatment. It was literally, ‘you treat me as a player and I’ll treat you as a coach’.
“At the time, I was a bit sceptical. I didn’t really want to be in an environment where my dad is – that was the main concern. I wanted to try and make it on my own path. Looking back now, it’s the best decision that I made; I don’t have any regrets signing for this Club.”
Only the end of the season will tell but Gray and Sutton have made a point of setting their stall out early and it’s clear that nobody should underestimate the U’s.
“Everyone’s mentality around the Football Club is that we’re not just here to make the numbers up and we’re not just here to tread water for as long as possible,” the Sutton boss reaffirmed. “We’re here to stay and we’re here to build.”