‘We never imagined this’: Sutton get ready for first shot at the big time

It is Tuesday afternoon and four hours before kick-off Sutton United’s kit man, Clive Baxter, is in his van just off White Hart Lane waiting for the gates to be unlocked at Haringey Borough’s stadium. The 70-year-old has volunteered at the club for the past 60 years, taking in more than 3,000 games, and his zest for all things Sutton embodies everything about a modest club still pinching themselves as they prepare to take their first steps in the Football League.

Unsurprisingly, it was Baxter for whom the players and staff made a beeline after securing promotion against Hartlepool, who went on to reach League Two via the play-offs. Since gleefully taking the role of tea boy in 1961, at a time when both sets of players and officials would head into the clubhouse after a game to sit side by side for a three-course meal, Baxter has missed only five Sutton games, the last 10 years ago, a pre-season friendly against Eastleigh that clashed with his daughter’s wedding.

The Sutton manager, Matt Gray, a former assistant at Crawley and Aldershot, helped his squad give Baxter the bumps amid the champagne-drenched celebrations. Happy tears followed. “The players call me a legend and I say: ‘That’s a bit much, Dundo [Craig Dundas] is a legend; he’s played 500-odd games and scored more than 100 goals, so he’s a legend.’ The people who made this club, they are legends. No money in the world would replace this. If I never get a penny, I don’t care. It’s just about being there in those moments.”

There are great stories everywhere you look at Gander Green Lane. Dundas, a midfielder these days primarily employed as the fitness coach, could make his first Football League appearance at the age of 40 after a career in non-league, while Bruce Elliott, the chairman, first attended Sutton games as a teenager and later started the club shop. “You can pick up a [match-day] programme from 25 years ago, my first year as chairman and, of course sadly one or two of the officials have passed away, but a number of them would still be working at the club,” says Elliott. “There has been great continuity, stability. We have tried to do that on the pitch as well. Prior to Matt Gray taking over, we had Paul Doswell as manager, and he did 11 years with us.”

, ‘We never imagined this’: Sutton get ready for first shot at the big time, The Nzuchi Times Guardian
Sutton enjoy their promotion, which has cost almost £1m in stadium upgrades. Photograph: Paul Loughlin

One of the biggest changes was enforced on Sutton this summer, with the multi-purpose 3G pitch ripped up and replaced by a hybrid grass pitch at a cost of £550,000 to meet English Football League regulations. An online stream of the installation is available on the Sutton website. Factoring in the required upgrades of turnstiles, floodlights and seating for away supporters, Elliott estimates almost all of the £1m they will receive for winning promotion has been spent on stadium improvements. The pitch, which was used by women’s, disability, academy and walking football sides, was also the first team’s training pitch so they now train on fields that belong to Sutton Grammar school. “I loved it when we went to the 3G because I didn’t have to clean their boots and the kits had no mud on them,” Baxter says, laughing.

Another difference this season has been the shift to training four mornings a week, having been a “three-quarter time” club in non-league, allowing some players to do part-time jobs to supplement their income. Ben Goodliffe worked as a personal trainer, Kenny Davis as a black-cab driver and Louis John as a car salesman. Gone also are the days of Sutton travelling to every away game on the day, with long trips to Barrow and Carlisle to come this season. “We have had to make changes to bring ourselves up to standard both on and off the pitch,” says Gray. “With so many clubs based up north in League Two, we have to go and give ourselves the best chance to compete.”

, ‘We never imagined this’: Sutton get ready for first shot at the big time, The Nzuchi Times Guardian
Sutton’s manager, Matt Gray. ‘There are no prima donnas or big-time Charlies here,’ he says. Photograph: Action Foto Sport/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

But Gray insists some things will never change. “Our supporters and the community spirit we’ve got within the club is not going to be lost just because we’re now a Football League club,” says the manager. “I make it compulsory for the players to go into the bar after the game and mingle with supporters and get to know them because they’re the ones who are paying their money to come and support us. That is one thing myself, my staff and all the players will do. I want an honest, hard-working, down-to-earth group that will give their all for the club. There are no prima donnas or big-time Charlies here.”

Volunteers such as Elliott run the club; all the directors and management committee are volunteers. Beyond the first-team players, management and academy staff, there are only two paid full-time staff: a bar steward and Bobby Childs – officially the business development manager – whose main task last season was taking bookings for the 3G pitch in between doubling up as a physio. “We are a traditional non-league club, and non-league clubs only exist because of their volunteers,” says Elliott.

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The running joke, Elliott says, is that the manager failed to meet expectations last season, having not kept Sutton in the National League, the aim at the start of every season since they were promoted five years ago. “The intention was to get to 50 points and stay in the division,” Elliott says. “We never imagined we would end up promoted as champions. It is all a bit surreal and we are just being swept along at the moment. I think the words used over the last few weeks have been ‘daunting but exciting’, which is quite a nice way of summing up the situation.”

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