Ahead of Sutton United’s FA Cup third round tie against AFC Wimbledon this Saturday, Dominic Bliss spoke to striker Matt Tubbs, manager Paul Doswell, and chairman Bruce Elliott, to find out more about a club sticking to tradition in non-league…
Matt Tubbs has been here before. The journeyman striker made his name with goals in FA Cup giant-killings for both Salisbury and Crawley Town before going on to enjoy a league career with the likes of Bournemouth and Portsmouth.
Now he is back in that familiar role as the spearhead of an overachieving non-league side as his new club Sutton United prepare to take on one of his former teams, AFC Wimbledon, in the FA Cup third round.
There may be an element of familiarity about it all for Tubbs, but there is no disguising his excitement as he sizes up the task facing Sutton in front of a sell-out 5,000-strong crowd at the Borough Sports Ground this Saturday.
“It’s massive,” the 32-year-old tells The Set Pieces. “You watch the FA Cup every year and there’s always one non-league team that gets a good cup run. Eastleigh were the ones who did it last year and Crawley a few years back when I was there, so this season it would be brilliant if it could be Sutton.”
Tubbs made an immediate impact after joining the National League club on December 1st, scoring a debut goal in the second round victory over Cheltenham Town two days later. That strike brought Sutton level just after half-time and set them up to go on and clinch victory six minutes into stoppage time.
“The first half wasn’t great,” Tubbs admits. “Cheltenham dominated, but we kept it down to 1-0. Some strong words were said at half time and we came out and scored at a good time, in the 46th minute. Then we obviously took the game to Cheltenham and Roarie Deacon scoring in the last minute was just the icing on the cake.”
The chances are that those strong words were spoken by Sutton’s long-serving manager Paul Doswell, who has overseen nothing short of a transformation at Gander Green Lane since his arrival in May 2008. A smiling, charismatic figure, who stops to talk with everyone he encounters in the short time I spend with him at the ground, Doswell appears to love what he does, giving the impression of a proud father-of-the-bride shaking hands with guests at the bar.
He has every reason to look that way. Sutton have achieved two promotions during his tenure, moving up from the Ryman Premier League to the National League, and his legendary ‘little black book’ has enabled him to bring in some pretty astute signings. Winger Craig Eastmond, for example, made 10 appearances for Arsenal, including one in the Champions League, while midfield playmaker Nicky Bailey represented Charlton and Middlesbrough and once moved for more than £1 million. Now he has returned to the club where it all started for him and it already looks to have been quite the coup for Sutton.
Doswell’s popularity with the supporters is clear for all to see. After the win over Cheltenham he strode onto the pitch, punching the air, with a look of unadulterated joy spread across his face. The fans behind the goal that Deacon had just fired the winner into let out a huge cheer as the manager came into view and he mimed a worshipful, ‘not worthy’ bow to them in return. Then, as the celebrations became less restrained, a collection of supporters leant over the hoardings at the front of the stand and hugged him tight, one after another.
“I was pleased for them as much as anything, pleased for the club,” Doswell tells me in Sutton’s press room – a small space under the stairs that leads up to the directors’ box. “The club’s been buzzing because of that. It’s funny in football, but one little thing, one little goal and everything starts moving in fast forward.”
‘Doz’, as he is affectionately referred to, is not your average football manager. In fact, by day, the 50-year-old is managing director of a construction and development business, and he doesn’t take a wage from Sutton United. He has even dipped into his own pocket to invest in the club’s infrastructure. “I’ve also got seven children!” he adds when I ask about the various commitments he has to juggle.
With so much going on in his life away from the game, where does the motivation to manage a semi-professional football club in the fifth-tier of the English league pyramid come from? “I’ve always loved the game,” he states, simply. “I know that, without football, my life would be a bit difficult. I’ve either played it or managed almost from the day I was born. So it’s a huge part of my life and then I’ve got the other two good bits, which is the family and work to go with it.”
Despite competing regularly against professional clubs, many of them former established members of the Football League, Doswell’s squad train two mornings a week and many of them have day jobs. Yet, when I meet him, his side have just defeated Wrexham 1-0 in a league match. “Wrexham beat us 5-0 here four years ago and, whilst it wasn’t the best game I’ve ever seen today…to beat them 1-0 here in front of 1,600 people, the week before Christmas, shows how far we’ve come.”
For all that Sutton have progressed on the pitch, the club doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. It feels like an authentic local club, very much in the traditional sense.
“It’s still got a non-league mentality,” Doswell agrees. “That’s one of the reasons I fell in love with the club. In the time since I’ve been here the club has taken huge strides forward – having the 3G pitch has made a huge difference, for example – but it is still totally a community-based football club. Offering season tickets for 100 quid to adults was a stroke of genius, I think, because [the number of season-ticket holders] has gone from 110 to almost 1,110 and that’s a massive increase by anyone’s standards.”
Lowering the price of a season ticket to bring more fans through the turnstiles and guarantee the goodwill of the staunch regulars is just one of the reasons why Sutton can rely on their supporters to volunteer for various odd jobs around the ground. But it also makes good business sense – as does the artificial playing surface, which allows Sutton to lease their pitch to various other local sports clubs on non-matchdays, thereby swelling the coffers without fear of churning up the turf. And that’s without mentioning all those avoided postponements.
There is little doubt that this is a club punching above its weight, and that is why the Sutton story is so intriguing.
On those few occasions when non-league clubs find themselves the subjects of national media coverage it is usually because a fan-run club has emerged from the ashes of a fallen old favourite, or because a wealthy benefactor has bankrolled his local team’s surge up the pyramid. Sometimes we are invited to peer into the souls of those former Football League perennials who now find themselves trapped in the purgatory of the National League (formerly known as the Conference) after suffering the humiliation of dropping out of the top four divisions.
But it is increasingly rare for a traditional part-time non-league team, run by local volunteers in club blazers, to fall under the spotlight. Ahead of Sutton’s FA Cup third round tie against AFC Wimbledon, it feels rather good to see this throwback of a club – whose management openly admits that promotion to the league is not on the agenda – taking on the storied old clubs who have fallen from grace.
Among those enjoying the ride is Sutton’s chairman of 20 years, Bruce Elliott, who was keen to join his manager in pointing out the difference between his club and their professional opponents throughout the season. “Wrexham came down yesterday, stayed overnight at the Marriott Hotel, did it all properly – what you would call professionally – and that costs a lot of money,” he tells The Set Pieces.
“We’ve already been to Wrexham this season, and we were unlucky to lose, but we did it all in a day. We were up at the crack of dawn, met up in town, got on the train to Wrexham and came back again the same day. That’s why we’re particularly pleased we’ve managed to get some points against these proper football clubs.”
Don’t mistake Sutton for a bunch of pub footballers, though, just because they are proudly semi-pro. Doswell has assembled a talented squad of players, nearly all of them with league experience, and Tubbs points out that the difference between a part-time and full-time schedule is not as marked as you might think.
“In a normal week, let’s say a professional team trains Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday,” he explains, giving us the benefit of his experience at both levels. “Well, Monday would be a light session after the game on Saturday, and we don’t train that day at Sutton. Then, on Tuesdays, everyone will work hard regardless of which club they’re at. Wednesdays, everyone is off. Thursdays, everyone will work hard because they’ve all had a day off. Then Fridays, when we are off, the full-time teams will just have a light session ahead of the game on Saturday. So there’s not too much difference.
“Plus we’ve got lads in our dressing room who won’t just sit on the couch on their days off, they’ll be active with it – some of them might have to with their jobs. So it’s not a case of people sitting on their arses and not really doing anything with their time off, it’s a time for you to actually get up and do something.”
Even so, to any long-suffering supporter the idea of Sutton meeting the likes of Wrexham, Tranmere Rovers and York City on an equal footing would have seemed ridiculous eight years ago. But when I ask Doswell if club’s progress over the past few years has outstripped his expectations when he took the job, he is unequivocal. “No, because if you know me, I’m very, very ambitious and I always felt I could get them to the National League,” he says with customary assuredness.
“Now the next plan is to be a good National League club, because we don’t want to be a League Two club – that’s not part of the ambition. The ambition is to be the best non-league club we can be within the National League, knowing that we’re competing against [clubs] that are just way beyond anything that we know.”
Elliott is grateful to have a manager like Doswell, who has bought into the club’s traditions and knows the limitations of Sutton’s setup. It feels more like a partnership between board and manager than the usual club-employee relationship, and the chairman is clearly delighted with the way things have gone under the former Eastleigh boss. “When Paul Doswell came to us, we were languishing a little bit,” Elliott recalls. “My version of events is that he interviewed us and appointed us as his club!
“He wanted to do the football and have somebody else to do off-the-pitch, whereas previously I think he had ended up doing both. So we ended up in a situation where, having put that brief to us, he then said, ‘I don’t want any money for it. I want to do it for love.’
“He’d obviously done a lot of research about us as a club, he’d done his homework, and he said, ‘Look, I don’t want paying. I’m just happy for the money you’d normally pay a manager to go back into the playing budget and that means I can get an extra player or two in the squad.’
“It’s all been a very quick rollercoaster ride since then. Doz was the perfect fit for this club, and he loves it. He’s bought into it 101 per cent and he knows what a special place it is. The runaway train seems to keep going faster and we’ve just got to make sure we don’t fall off.”
Six years before Doswell took over at Sutton, the club hosted the newly-formed phoenix club AFC Wimbledon in their first-ever fixture. That friendly match in July 2002 ended in a 4-0 win for Sutton, but since then the Dons have risen through the leagues relentlessly, reaching the dizzying heights of League One last summer – an incredible achievement for a club founded in protest at the decision to move Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes.
Yet, although the two sides have never actually played in the same division (Sutton were relegated from the Conference South in 2008, just as AFC Wimbledon were promoted into it), they remain bonded by that first meeting. In fact, these two clubs go way back. Only five miles separate the two towns, in an area once regarded as north-east Surrey that has long-since been absorbed by the Greater London sprawl. Older supporters will remember the days when Sutton and Wimbledon vied for local non-league supremacy, culminating in the Dons’ 4-2 win over the U’s in the 1963 FA Amateur Cup final at Wembley.
Before he was chairman, Elliott was a Sutton supporter, having first shown up at the Borough Sports Ground as a schoolboy. He comes alive as he contemplates the renewal of the old rivalry this weekend. “Other than drawing one of the big clubs, this was probably the best draw we could have had,” he says. “A local derby, with so many connections between the clubs – it’s the story game of the FA Cup third round. Ignore what’s being shown on live television, at the end of the day there is no question that this is the match, and I’m not surprised it’s sold out. We could have sold it out twice.”
Elliott has been around long enough to have seen the ground full up before and points out that – in the pre-Taylor Report days – Sutton managed to fit 14,000 people in for an FA Cup fourth round tie against Leeds United in 1970. Although that game ended in a 6-0 defeat for the men in chocolate and amber (don’t let the locals hear you describing their colours as ‘yellow and brown’), it is still fondly remembered as one of Sutton’s legendary encounters with the big boys.
Of course, their famous 2-1 victory over then top-flight Coventry City in 1989 is the most fabled of all. That game – which has its own Wikipedia entry – is recalled in vivid detail every year on British television and was surely the main reason why the BBC decided to broadcast Football Focus live from Gander Green Lane ahead of the second round fixtures last month.
For Doswell, however, this is an opportunity to add a new chapter to Sutton’s FA Cup history, so that younger fans and the current crop of players no longer have to relive past glories.
“I mean this in a very positive way,” he says, prefacing his feelings carefully. “Ever since I’ve been here everyone talks about Coventry, Leeds, Middlesbrough and the Norwich games – especially the Coventry game – and you’re reminded of it, either by looking around the club at the pictures or by the fact that so many people mention it to you.
“What we’ve done now is made some more recent memories for them because you can see the buzz around the place, and whilst we haven’t got the glamour Premier League opponent, we have got the local derby and it’s a sell-out already. So, from our point of view, this current team has won promotion and it’s got through now to the third round of the FA Cup and the last 32 of the FA Trophy. They deserve some praise now as well.”
Whatever happens on Saturday, Doswell’s Sutton vintage have already secured their place in the club’s history. But don’t rule out an encore – Matt Tubbs certainly hasn’t.
“It’s the third round of the FA Cup. It’s a game that both teams can probably see themselves winning and both teams will approach it exactly the same way. The opportunity to get into the fourth round of the FA Cup is one that some players don’t get too often. We’re going to approach it like we approach every single game – all guns blazing.”
Thanks to Ben Jennings for the photos.