Sutton United have made their football league debut for the first time in their 123-year history. But the promotion comes at a cost…
Hi, I’m Chloe and this is the Playmaker.
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Today: A whole new world for Sutton United?
On Saturday, Sutton United played in the Football League for the first time in their 123-year history.
And we know how difficult it is to get out of non-league, so you might have thought they’d done the hard bit when they went up.
But it turns out, that was only the very start…
“And I think now Sutton have made all their changes, I think Wayne Shaw has decided that now is the time to get stuck into a pie, safe in the knowledge that whatever happens, he won’t be coming on…”Sutton United v Arsenal, 20 February 2017
Sutton are the absolute epitome of a community club. And they’ve had some amazing FA Cup runs over the years. You might remember that tie with Arsenal when their keeper ate a pie on the bench for a bit of a PR stunt. Anyway, in the league they’ve never got above the Conference. Until…
“It’s over! Sutton United are promoted to the Football League, and achievement which only we could dream of, so many years ago. We’ve done it, mission complete… this is the moment we’ve all waited for…”Sutton United v Hartlepool United, 23 May 2021
That amazing moment was just over ten weeks ago. A 3-0 win over Hartlepool, and suddenly Sutton were in the Football League for the very first time. Makes it sound easy – but it wasn’t.
They were surrounded by the big boys with deep pockets – full time ex-Football League sides like Stockport County, Chesterfield & Notts County. And it was little part-time Sutton who got that ultimate prize.
Once they got promoted, their Chairman Bruce Elliott said the Football League would be a “whole new world” for them.
And he’s right.
Sutton don’t just have to up their game on the pitch, they’ve got to do it off the pitch as well, and because of the rules imposed by the Football League, they can’t even do it on the same pitch as before….
“Now it’s been something of a bittersweet result for one of London’s clubs. On the one hand, Sutton United have moved up to League Two for the first time in their 123-year history, but on the other, it also means removing their current football pitch, which cost them half a million pounds.”Clip from BBC London News, 2 June 2021
They must have been devastated when their first job was to rip up the pitch they’d won promotion on. Why? Because it was artificial… a 3G pitch, as they’re known.
Now, I know that – after failed experiments by the likes of Luton and Oldham in the Eighties and Nineties – artificial pitches got a bad reputation. But the technology has moved on since then. And you’re not gonna get burned skin when you slide tackle. And the ball moves much more like it does on natural grass.
Sutton have been playing on their 3G pitch since 2015. It passed FIFA standards, which meant, in theory, it could’ve been used for World Cup qualifiers and Champions League games.
And I know what you’re thinking, Sutton fans – if only!
But the really interesting thing about that plastic pitch is that when Sutton ripped it up, they ripped up their business model as well. And that is a huge risk for them.
The club saw massive growth through hiring out the pitch when it wasn’t being used by the first team. Over a thousand locals used it regularly for all the things you’d imagine with astroturf. Corporate match days… kids parties… company football nights…all that stuff.
And men’s, children’s, women’s and disabled teams from the local area…they all used it. And from that they hugely increased visibility in the area – and the crowds at Sutton games trebled.
“So with the exception of men’s and women’s matches, they’ll have to find a new venue for everything else.”
“That’ll impact all our teams going down to under-8s, so we’re on the hunt for other avenues at the moment, we’re looking at a couple of possibilities but it is incredibly difficult to find anywhere. There’s a real shortage of training facilities throughout the whole country really.”Duncan Miller, Sutton United Women’s and Girls’ chairman, being interviewed on BBC London News
Paul Doswell (Doz) used to be Sutton’s manager. And he’s always talking about the benefit of 3G pitches – so much so, that he actually loaned Sutton the money to install theirs.
And he’s persuaded his new club – Havant and Waterlooville – to do the same. And they said they were “overwhelmed” with interest when they started taking bookings for that new pitch last year.
For these small sides, community is at the heart of everything they do, and the 3G pitch seems to have played a huge part in Sutton’s recent success.
EFL member clubs have voted to continue disallowing artificial playing surfaces. So they insisted non-league clubs would have to tear up any artificial pitch if they got promoted to League Two.
And Paul Doswell said it would “destroy the work in the community”, and the Sutton Chairman went one further and called them dinosaurs.
You can’t really blame him when it’s already hurting Sutton’s bank balance. They earned about half a million pounds by getting promoted. And they’ve had to spend most of that laying the new grass when other sides would be busy strengthening their squad.
It’s realistic to say Sutton will be expected to go straight back down this season, and their 2-1 defeat to Forest Green at the weekend does nothing to dispel that theory. And if they do get relegated, they’ll find themselves back in the National League, but without the revenue from their 3G pitch.
And Paul Doswell was pretty vocal about the potential dangers of just that when he left Sutton in 2019.
“And the problem has always been: how do you go into League Two with a football club when we’ve got such a fantastic community with the pitch and unfortunately the league aren’t gonna bend on 3G pitches, I don’t think it’ll bend in my time in football, so it left us with a real dilemma, you know, do you go into League Two and probably bankrupt the football club ‘cos that’s what it could’ve done, or do you stay as a competitive National League club?”Paul Doswell when he stepped down as Sutton United Manager on 22 April 2019
Of course, for the moment, promotion is exciting for Sutton fans – like it always is. And the club says an “army of volunteers” have been steadily grafting to renovate their ground ready for the first home match against Salford City next Saturday.
They’ve had to do things like install new turnstiles and floodlights and making improvements to the stands.
And the club’s been tied with agents to convert every member of their squad – that’s 18 players who previously earned an average part-time wage of about £750 per week – over to full-time contracts.
And they’re buried under a mountain of paperwork, too. The stadium needs all the usual health and safety stuff, players need new medicals and insurance.
In a normal off season, the chairman reckons they would have had just a couple of big projects to do. But this summer, they’re looking at around 20.
And you have to hope for the best for Sutton. But at the same time you have to wonder, is this “whole new world” of the Football League really worth it for a team like them?
And at the very least, couldn’t the EFL understand that it’s not just a club which is at the heart of its community, it’s the pitch as well? And – as Sutton have proved – a 3G pitch can do that job much better than grass.
Today’s story was written by Chloe Beresford and produced by Tom Kinsella.