Sutton United’s turbulent season – a fan’s perspective

It has been nearly three years since Sutton United reached the Football League in May 2021. The promotion meant fans of the south London club would be watching the U’s play in League 2 for the first time. One of these fans is Dan Taylor.

Taylor first visited Gander Green Lane in Kingston’s neighbouring borough in 1982 with his godfather and after watching Mickey Joyce rifle in an early goal, he has been a devoted follower of the club.

In 1998, Taylor started the Gandermonium website allowing himself and others to write about Sutton and the misadventures that ensue when travelling to watch your beloved lower league club.

“We just wanted to be as competitive and be as high up the non-league game as we can be. We just had one year where the team clicked, it worked and everything kind of fell into place and here we are [in League Two],” he said.

In the two seasons that followed the promotion, they were able to successfully maintain their status as a League Two club, even reaching the final of the Football League Trophy in 2022. They were seconds away from winning it as well, but Rotherham went on to win the game 4-2 in extra-time.

Despite the loss in the final, the fans still viewed the campaign as a huge success and made the squad aware of this when they returned from Wembley.

Taylor said: “The party back at the club afterwards, you would have thought we had won it. It was one of those memorable evenings with everyone back. I think the team came back thinking it would be a bit more of a wake.”

Unfortunately, since the highs of the cup final, the club and its fans have found themselves in a much more sombre situation. With four games of the season remaining, Sutton place 22nd out of the 24 clubs in League Two with the U’s collecting 39 points in 43 games, winning nine, drawing 12 and losing 22.

This means they have spent most of the season in and around the relegation zone (23rd to 24th)

This poses the question: why have things gone wrong for Sutton this season? Taylor highlights unity within the squad this season being an issue.

“Last year we had a lot of injuries and we had a lot of makeshift sides out, but they all just dug in and got the job done.  [This season] we didn’t quite have that same spirit or that togetherness, [there were] a lot of new faces in there and it just didn’t work,” said Taylor.

In the summer prior to the 2023/24 season starting, Sutton’s philosophy shifted as they brought in a wealth of players with football league experience, rather than using players that had come up with them to the league.

“It just didn’t really click. Something just didn’t work. Barring sort of the opening day and a couple of the earlier performances, it unravelled pretty quickly.”

As well as player incomings affecting the performance of the team, player outgoings have also had an impact. While many Sutton fans focus on the departure of journeyman striker Omar Bugiel in June 2023, as a particularly poor piece of transfer business, Taylor believes there was a more damning player exit.

“I think the real one that hurt us was losing Ali Smith to Lincoln.  He and Craig Eastmond in the middle had a great partnership. You had the experience, but you also had Ali who was very versatile. He could break play up, win you the ball, pick a pass and he would always chip in with a few goals as well.”

This failed rebuild would ultimately catch up with then-manager, Matt Grey, who would leave the club in December 2023.

“We were really bad in defence, the midfield just disappeared completely and once you got to that point of eight, 10 defeats on the trot after opening day, you’re in kind of a hole and it gets difficult to turn it around.

“I think Matt [Grey] was always fighting sort of a losing battle. He believed he could turn it around, that’s the type of guy he was, he was always confident in his own ability, but something didn’t work.”

Poor results are not just the only factor going against Sutton fans this season, as transport to games becomes an increasing issue for fans not just of the U’s but those all around the country.

Data from the Office of National Statistics showed that the average price of a litre of unleaded petrol increased by 30p between Q1 of 2021 and Q4 of 2023. Furthermore, the price of rail tickets have been rising at record levels, as the government cap on train fares continue to increase and exceed inflation.

“You’d always be around sort of, £65 return per train average with booking in advance and having a few of you booked together.  This year, I’d say it’s probably closer to £80 on average. It’s a noticeable spike. Most of the [away] games are going to be around £100 once you’ve paid your train and paid for your match ticket.”

Strike action also continues to plague the rail network, making certain trips for fans impossible.

“I’m not able to go to Salford tomorrow for the game because there’s no trains out of Euston. You can get up there, but you’ve got to go round via Doncaster and it’s like nearly £90. It’s just one of those ones, I can’t justify it.”

Steve Morrison
Newly appointed manager, Steve Morrison, has brought a wealth of experience from all levels of English football to the post. Credit: Ryan Browne/Shutterstock

However, as we enter the business end of the season, things might just be looking up for Sutton. Former Cardiff City and Hornchurch FC boss Steve Morrison was appointed in January 2024, and although he failed to make an immediate impact, his methods may finally be paying off.

“I think the consistency has improved, whereas it was way more up and down under Matt [Grey]. And defensively, we’ve certainly improved.

“Until recently, he’s not really been able to get the side [to go] that little step further, that edge to get wins where games could have been won. [However] they’ve grown. I think that is the main reason why we are still kind of fighting it out in that bottom three.”

There is now hope for Sutton fans that the season might be able to end on a high as for the first time this season they have won four games in a row.

Results against Forest Green, Accrington Stanley, Salford City, and Swindon Town, see the U’s sit one point above Colchester United in 23rd. The Essex side have three games in hand over Sutton but it will not be an easy task for them to exit the relegation zone.

“The [clubs] around us, Forrest Green and Colchester have got games in hand on us, but they’ve still got to win them, and they’ve got, on paper, harder run-ins than us.

“So, we’ve just got to keep plugging away. I’d say it was probably 10% chance after the Grimsby game [1-1], I’d say we’re probably closer to 50-50 now we’ve closed the gap.”

Football is a cruel and fickle game at times, and not everyone can experience a fairy tale ending. Two teams have to be relegated from League Two, and Sutton United might be one of them. But what can be said for sure is that the last games for the U’s will be an entertaining spectacle if Morrison can maintain the recent run of electric performances.

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