Matt Gray is rattling off his sales pitch as to why London’s football fans should give Sutton United a try.
‘There is a lot of publicity about the way the Premier League game has gone, about VAR and so many reasons why some supporters at Premier League clubs are getting a bit disgruntled,’ says the club’s manager.
‘You’re going to see a really warm and friendly football club that welcomes you in with a great atmosphere.
Sutton United are enjoying their first-ever season in the EFL and back-to-back promotion are a real possibility as they sit third in League Two
Sutton’s manager Matt Gray celebrates another win with his side in excellent form
The south London club, sitting third, entertain fourth-placed Northampton on Saturday
‘A unique, old school ground and a team that is full of energy and is entertaining.
‘We are one of the highest goalscorers in the league, we’re winning games of football as well and whatever happens, whatever the result, we have an honest group of players who give their all on a Saturday afternoon.’
It all amounts to a tempting offer. Sutton are competing in the EFL for the first time in their 123-year history and they’re thriving.
The south London club were a prominent name in non-league football, famous for the FA Cup giant killing acts such as beating first division Coventry City in 1989 and, more freshly in the memory, Leeds United in 2017.
But they’ve made the step up look effortless so far and sit third in the League Two table ahead of Saturday’s home match against fourth-placed Northampton Town.
Sutton were required to upgrade their stadium at Gander Green Lane after winning promotion
The club are hoping to attract new fans after reaching the EFL for the first time
What’s more, Sutton are just two games away from Wembley in the Papa John’s Trophy and host Harrogate Town in the quarter-finals on Tuesday.
But the step up has not been without its complications. Sutton have spent the best part of £1million upgrading their Gander Green Lane stadium to EFL standards with new turnstiles, floodlights and stand for the away supporters.
They also had to rip up an artificial pitch that was hired out to the local community and bolstered the club’s coffers to the tune of about £200,000 a year because EFL rules only allow grass surfaces.
There is also the small matter of trying to maintain the non-league spirit embodied by volunteers who in some cases have served for decades while making the leap to being a full-time professional outfit.
‘There is a great spirit that is set by the chairman and the board of directors that just filters down through the whole club,’ Gray, who became manager in 2019 and led Sutton to the National League title last season, tells Sportsmail.
Sutton famously knocked first division Coventry out of the FA Cup back in 1989
James Collins celebrates after scoring against Leeds United during another Cup shock in 2017
‘I am very big on the players understanding the history of the club and where it’s come from.
‘Just because we’re a Football League club, it doesn’t mean we want to lose that certain feel and that special community spirit we have.
‘Pre-Covid I was encouraging my players to go in and have a drink with supporters after the games and really build the links between every aspect of the football club.
‘Even though we are trying to establish ourselves in the EFL, I really don’t want that to change.
‘The pitch was a huge source of revenue for the club as it was always in use with the ladies teams, the disability teams, the academy teams, walking football… It was always being hired out.
‘It was a shame because it was a real hub of the community and so for that to be taken away was certainly one of the down sides of the promotion.’
Alistair Smith celebrates scoring the winner as Sutton beat Colchester in the Papa John’s Trophy – they are now just two games from Wembley and play Harrogate on Tuesday
Not that the adaption to a grass surface has disadvantaged Sutton. They took four games to achieve their first EFL win but have been steadily climbing the table ever since.
A run of three wins and two draws from their last five games has elevated them into one of the division’s three automatic promotion places.
‘It was a little bit frustrating for me last year when people would label us and go “they’re only strong at home because of their pitch, it’s an advantage to them,” says Gray.
‘I think we have proved this season by putting the grass pitch down, on points per game we are one of the top home teams in League Two so we have answered all those questions.
Manager Gray said Sutton’s first ambition was to reach the 50 points needed for survival
‘The first target for us is getting to what seems to be the magic number of 50 points which seems to keep you in the division [they currently have 43].
‘For Sutton United to still be a Football League club by the end of the season would be a huge success for everyone connected to the club. But as a manager, staff or group of players, we weren’t just settling for that.
Sutton defender Ben Goodliffe celebrates during the recent game with Exeter
‘I’m sure we will be an EFL club come the end of the season from where we are currently sitting. So can we get in the Play-offs? Can we even flirt to get in the automatics?
‘Nothing would surprise me with what we’ve got and that would just be an unbelievable achievement.’
One of the mainstays of the Sutton team is 22-year-old defender Ben Goodliffe, whose father Jason is Gray’s assistant manager. He isn’t setting any ceiling on Sutton’s ambitions.
‘We all strive to push up the table, the direction we obviously want to go in, and you can never say never,’ he says.
‘The main thing is the club and the gaffer kept the core of the group that won us promotion last year with great additions that have come in.
‘That momentum carried us into this season and hopefully can keep us going with the run of form we have been on until the end of the season.
‘We never give up on things with the character and quality of the players we have got. We have shown we can achieve anything if we put our mind to it.
‘We showed that this season and hopefully again we can achieve things this season.’
A double of League Two promotion and a Papa John’s Trophy triumph would do nicely.
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