“What’s your prediction for the game?” SportsPro asks Bruce Elliott, chairman of non-league soccer team Sutton United.
His reply is genuine.
To the millions of English soccer fans worldwide who only discovered as 2016 crept into the new year that a small, semi-professional soccer team called Sutton United existed, it will seem astonishing that the club’s patriarch had anything other than his team’s high-profile, winner-takes-all contest against Premier League giants Arsenal in the fifth round of the FA Cup on his mind. What else could possibly preoccupy the custodians of this south London club - with their modest ambitions, leaking roof, and plastic pitch - than to concern themselves totally with the visit of two Fifa World Cup winners, the Premier League’s top goalscorer, and the most successful manager in the competition’s history?
Of course Bruce Elliott is fully aware of what is to come when Sutton host the under-the-camera-lights clash live in prime time on Monday, in front of a global audience of tens of millions. But at Sutton’s 5,000-seater Ganders Green Lane stadium, the club’s denizens, who largely work on a voluntary basis, won’t permit the circus that has suddenly descended upon their doorstep to allow them lose sight of their priorities - including the important league matches preceding the FA Cup tie - and what it really means to be Sutton United.
“We would call ourselves a traditional non-league football club,” Elliott says. “We always have been part-time and, for the foreseeable future, I am sure we are going to continue with that description.”
It’s an identity Elliott, an accountant by day who has worked for the club in several capacities for decades, is proud of. Sutton currently compete in the National League, English soccer’s fifth tier and the highest competition on offer for semi-professional teams, after achieving promotion from National League South last season. To earn the right to play the calibre of Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool on a weekly basis, Sutton would have to manoeuvre their way upwards past 92 teams and through three leagues - League Two, League One, and the Championship - before enjoying all the splendours that come with being able to call yourself a Premier League team.
In this case, they’ve earned their meeting with Arsenal thanks to their improbable run in the FA Cup, soccer’s oldest knockout competition, by defeating a team from every division that stands between the locally monikered U’s and Arsene Wenger’s team. Their accomplishment to date certainly suggests manager Paul Doswell, with the support of Elliott and the club’s board of directors, has within his reaches the perfect potion of mental toughness and requisite technical abilities to build a full-time, professional outfit. However, for teams plying their trade towards the bottom of the English soccer ladder, progress is almost never that straightforward.
As things stand, there is, ironically, a much-loved barrier to that vertical trajectory: the 3G, all-weather pitch they currently play on is not permitted from League Two and above. Replacing the surface with grass is a problem very much surmountable, Elliott explains. However, in addition to the financial benefits of being able to rent the surface throughout the year for a club that “at best hopes to break even” at the end of any given season, the 3G pitch has helped Sutton’s quest to build a communal ethos.
The Sutton first team train on their artificial home pitch, whose resilience allow it to be used by youth and community teams
“It’s enabled us to become much more of a community club than we were previously because we have brought all the junior sides, disability sides, female sides into the mix,” he said. “They train here, and play here, so we have brought everybody home.”
The importance of community and home are themes Elliott returns to time and time again; values critics believe are severely lacking amid the millionaire luxuries for which Premier League clubs have become accustomed.
The FA Cup journey has brought with it many benefits for Sutton, not least of which is a sudden, unexpected injection of funds from progressive prize monies and an ever-growing, television-moulded pot of gold. That has “taken the financial pressure off” and will allow the club to possibly fix that leaking roof, or purchase that extra player, before saving for a rainy day. But Sutton don’t only exist for high-profile games like the one against Arsenal but, more crucially, as an all-year hub for fans and local residents. Two seasons ago, the club introduced UK£150 (US$200) season tickets to encourage local residents who they recognise might see Sutton as their “second team” to join their journey. As chairman, Elliott’s top priority, he emphasises, is to ensure that “we exist”. It may seem an obvious target, but for Sutton and the teams around them, the future is often precarious and in need of careful balancing.
“Everybody thinks being chairman of a non-league football club is all wonderful news, but people get bored hearing about finances and we’ve seen that lots of other non-league clubs who have played at the same level as us over the last few years don’t exist anymore,” Elliott says. “There are a lot of expenses, and there is a constant worry that you’ve got to make sure that all the bills can be paid promptly and we don’t allow ourselves to get into any sort of debt. That’s why this cup run is such a huge bonus, because it will enable us to do some things that we have always wanted to do but never quite got to the top of list.”
Driven by a desire, at the very least, to maintain the possibilities of Sutton’s future, Elliott has vowed not to “splash the cash”. Instead, at the end of the season, he and the directors will sit down and responsibly assess where best their new-found riches can be invested to ensure the long-term stability and security of the club. One area that will certainly need to be addressed is a loan given to Sutton by Doswell to install their artificial pitch. Elliott promises one of their main aims will be to ensure that is “dealt with as quickly as possible”.
When it's put to the chairman that nobody would begrudge Sutton should they decide to treat themselves to one or two things that fall in the ‘want’, rather than ‘need’, category, Elliott remains unwavering.
The away dressing room at Ganders Green Lane
“I think it’s fair to say that everybody has a different idea as to what the money should be spent on; I’ve heard one or two rather silly ideas, in my opinion,” he says, unable to mask a huge smile. “I think we should just sensibly sit down and look at the options, and make sure that this money that we have generated from the cup run, which is an unbelievable amount of money for a football club like ours, will not be wasted. And we’ve seen it in the past when, unfortunately, one or two clubs have let it go to their heads, and I’d like to think we are a bit too responsible and boring to allow that to happen.”
Amid all the talk of money and new tiles for the changing rooms, a sporting contest remains. Though Arsenal are very heavy favourites to progress to the quarter-finals - despite a poor run that culminated in a 5-1 thrashing at Bayern Munich, in the parallel sporting universe that is the Uefa Champions League - the often low, singular scoring structure of soccer means that the impossible is often relatively plausible.
The north London visitors, should you believe the accepted wisdom, are currently in crisis - a notion Elliott laughs at. The FA Cup is now Arsenal’s only likely source of silverware this season, which could possibly be the motivation they need to ensure they don’t become the punchline in the tale of the greatest upset in the cup’s history or, alternatively, the debilitating factor that makes them freeze on the night and succumb to forces beyond the basic alchemy that traditionally governs the sport. Either way, the current mood around Arsenal’s 60,000-full theatre is certainly different to the sense of wonder and achievement that fills the hallways of Sutton’s home.
If you’ve never made it to Gander Green Lane, it’s likely you’ve been somewhere like it, or one of the many similar cramped and hallowed local grounds that litter England. The pitch is framed by a main stand and banked standing areas fixed with railings to prop up locals who don’t so much attend games, but wander in when the mood takes them on a given Saturday.
If the players are nervous on the day of SportsPro’s visit, they aren’t showing it; though they have every right to be as camera drones chronicle their efforts from overhead, and photographers flank their training session to freeze moments from actors staging the most impressive of twists. Monday’s match is an opportunity for many to showcase their talents to the biggest audience of their careers and prove they deserve to play at a higher level. Craig Eastmond, an Arsenal academy hopeful before he was released, is certainly relishing the opportunity to make this moment count.
Craig Eastmond (centre) and his teammates celebrate their FA Cup fourth-round victory over Championship side Leeds United
“Teams don’t like to play on our pitch,” says Eastmond. “We don’t just want go out there and have fun, we want to show what we can do.”
The extreme focus on display throughout the club on the task at hand hasn’t replaced the natural, emotional reaction to this potentially once in a lifetime showcase. Elliott knows he will never forget the moment he saw the ball denoting Arsenal get drawn out of the hat straight after Sutton’s; “how life seemed to stand still for a moment” as he and everyone else came to terms with this “mind-boggling” turn of events. He speaks graciously and generously of his players and of all they have achieved for the club, displaying not one shred of doubt that they will give the club even more to be proud of on the night, regardless of the result.
“One of the important things for us is that people have enjoyed getting on this train ride that we’re on and we’re just making sure we don’t fall off it,” he says.
Whatever finally punctuates this chapter, the business of Sutton United will carry on, albeit off a special springboard of their own crafting. But when the history of this season is written, reviewed, told and told again, what do Sutton and their small band of local servants hope to have achieved most?
“I think we already have achieved more than we could’ve dreamed of,” said Elliott. “I hope we shall look back and know it made life a little bit easier for the people running the club and it gave us the chance to build on the plan we already had in place for the future and ensure this club continues doing as well as it can.”
And that prediction?
“2-1 Sutton, with Max Biamou as the first goalscorer,” dreams Elliott.
A mere detail, anyway. Whatever the score, Sutton United have already won.