It’s fair to say the 2020/21 season was one to remember for Sutton United.
The U’s, spearheaded by manager Matty Gray, secured promotion to the English Football League for the first ever time in their 123-year history, an incredible feat that was richly deserved after an excellent National League campaign.
Operating on a considerably smaller budget than many other clubs in the league, Sutton defied the odds and secured the National League title by beating Hartlepool 3-0 at home to ensure they had enough of a buffer between them and second-placed Torquay with one game to play.
What makes the achievement all the greater is the fact that it was Sutton boss Matty Gray’s first full season as as a manager, after he succeeded the long-serving Paul Doswell in the summer of 2019.
For many involved with Sutton, they may have expected their FA Cup heroics back in 2017 against Leeds United to be one of the club’s best achievements in recent times, but this promotion has superseded that, and will now stand proud in Sutton folklore.
Speaking exclusively to Football League World Chief Editor, Sam Rourke, Sutton United boss Matty Gray explained just how it felt to secure promotion and a spot in the EFL for the first time: “Obviously, I’m hugely proud and excited. There are loads of emotions that go with what we’ve done, relief is certainly one as well.
“It’s something I’d probably not dreamt about come the start of the season, it was my first full season as a manager, we had a tricky start but a great second half of the season, I thought if we could have a good start to the season realistically a play-off push would be certainly something we could be looking at as a group of players.”
For many including Gray, the thought of automatic promotion at the start of the season was merely a pipe-dream, but as the season progressed, ambitions started to shift quickly, as Gray explains:
“I thought play-offs would be a great achievement for the club but as the season wore on and we’re still there, 15 games to go, 10 games to go and before you know it you’re right in the mix for the title race. I think that is where the pressure really started to build and the reality started to kick in that we can actually do this.”
It’s evident that Gray has lofty ambitions for the U’s and his hunger to impress at EFL level is there, as Gray continued: “I’m desperate to be an EFL manager, I’m desperate to win things and I’ve managed to do that in my first full season as a manager. For the club, there are so many great people, a brilliant board of directors.
“To be the first manager, the first squad to get to League Two, and hopefully the last to ever do it because hopefully we’re not going back, is truly remarkable.”
But what was behind the success of Sutton’s National League success last term? Dubbed by many as a fairytale, Gray explained the reasons behind the club’s success: “There’s many factors, you’ve always got to build your foundations to be successful in anything and recruitment is a massive part of that.
“I’m massive on people, characters who are coming to the football club and are wanting to play for us for the right reasons and have got the hunger and desire to achieve and cross the white line and give their all for me and the football club.
“I think we were one of the fittest teams in the league, the athleticism and the players that we signed were great, we didn’t have many injuries and that wasn’t just down to luck.
“I’m extremely hardworking in-terms of opposition analysis, me and my assistant Jason don’t leave a stone unturned on the opposition so our organisation and our preparation is all there leading into that 90 mins.
“They are a great bunch of lads who will run through brick walls for you and who are fit, strong, powerful and they all know what is expected from them, and how we can hurt the opposition.”
Naturally, as Sutton United make the transition from being a non-league club to a fully fledged full-time EFL side, there are issues and things that need to be sorted as soon as possible, to ensure they adhere to all the requirements and guidelines that are needed to be followed within the EFL.
Speaking exclusively to FLW, one of Sutton United’s directors, Martin Copus, explained the challenges the club now face as they prepare to kick-off their season on August 7th with a trip to Forest Green Rovers, Copus said: “As a board we’ve now got a huge, huge problem, Matt’s only got to worry about what’s on the field!”
One of the main issues that needed to be resolved at Sutton United was that the club needed to replace the 3G pitch at Gander Green Lane as it is a requirement from the EFL that a grass pitch is laid, with it being reported that it will cost in excess of £500,000 for it to be replaced.
Work is well underway with regards to the pitch, whilst the club are installing new turnstiles and a new stand.
The upgrade will see segregated home and away fans meaning Sutton will be adding a new grandstand – boosting the capacity at the ground to a figure closer to 5000 with a higher proportion of seats.
But as Copus explains, there are a considerable amount of hurdles that need to be overcome between now and the start of the season: “Seriously though, we have a list of 40 things we have got to do by August and actually the list is growing by the day, one item is replacing the pitch, one item is replacing the floodlights and there is another 38. It’s quite extraordinary the amount of work we have to do. There are 12 people on the board and two board members are allocated to each of these assignments, so everybody has got six or seven assignments they need to be looking at.
“It’s everything from merchandise, as a club we’ve never been too focused on merchandise, the fans will buy the replica shirts but now as a club we’re so visible that we’re getting a lot of attention, not only from within the country, but from outside.
“There’s so much attention on what used to be called ‘little old Sutton’ and the thing is we’re not ‘little old Sutton’ anymore.”
For Sutton, next season will be a historical one but at the same time it’ll be a challenging one, but as Matty Gray explains, he simply cannot wait to get stuck into it: “The Football League pyramid in England is the best in the world, the strength in depth as you go down the leagues is the best in the world so to be in the fourth tier now as an EFL club is amazing.
“There are three former Premier League teams in League Two next year with Oldham, Swindon and Bradford all involved, it’s going to be a historical season and one to remember for everyone connected with Sutton, and I’m proud that iIm manager and able to lead us out at some of these big clubs.
“We’ll certainly go there to enjoy it, but we’ll certainly go there to win as well, we won’t be a soft touch and we’ll be looking to mark our stamp on the league.”
We’ve seen the likes of Harrogate Town and Barrow of late secure promotion from the National League and maintain their berth in the EFL the following season, for Sutton you’d expect that to be the initial target.
For Gray and his Sutton side, hitting the ‘magic 50’ point mark is the first aim, as he delved into his objectives for the EFL to Football League World: “Well, It was my objective to remain in the National League so it goes to prove that anything can be done. First and foremost, it’s all about getting safe as quick as possible, so if we can get that with 15 games to go, 10 games to go or five games to go.
“There’s always that phrase that managers talk about ‘the magic 50’ and you’d be very unlucky to go down with 50 points but Im going to keep the same mentality that I did in the National League, when I spoke to the players at the start it was about getting to 50 points as quick as we can, then we definitely know we’re a National League team, and then the pressure is off and we can look up.”
With the transfer window wide open and EFL clubs starting to make their moves in the market, Sutton know they will need to enhance and bolster their squad as they embark on their maiden campaign in the fourth tier.
They’ve already been active having secured six new signings, with Enzio Boldewijn from Notts County certainly an arrival that has stood out as they gear up for the new season.
As Gray explained to FLW, the transfer window has proven to be a hectic time for him as he adapts to life in the EFL, Gray said: “I’m being bombarded with agents informing me about players that are available, my phone is literally popping, my emails are not stopping, it’s literally ridiculously busy at the moment.
“It’s going to be a fun summer, but an extremely busy one.”
As the world slowly gets back to normal and restrictions lift, fans returning to stadiums will be a welcome sight and for many clubs across the EFL, will provide a valuable and much-needed source of income after months and months of little to no revenue.
As U’s fans prepare for the new season, Sutton director Martin Copus revealed what he’s expecting from the Sutton fan-base, and how it will affect the club: “We’re expecting a quite significant increase in fans being back in the ground, last time we had a proper full season with fans back our average gate was 1400, and the range was from 900 to close to 3000 fans dependant on which team was in town.
“Obviously, every club coming this year is a big name and League Two football is something that the borough of Sutton has not had before so we’re expecting an increase in our own gate, and an increase in the number of travelling away supporters.
“We have a significant outlay immediately, so season ticket sales are pretty important for us.”
Whatever lies ahead for Sutton United in the EFL is uncertain, but if Gray can instil the philosophies and qualities he exhibited in their National League success, then they have every chance of thriving.
Time to enjoy the rollercoaster that is the English Football League, welcome aboard Sutton.