Two Men In Search of The Beautiful Game head to Sutton’s Gander Green Lane to witness a milestone for a local legend.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
From one end of the Northern line, to the other is how I start my day getting off at the station so many trains I have travelled on in the past terminate at, but have never been to. Tom is prompt as ever, standing outside the station, as I drag my slightly cold affected body into the light, on what in compared to recent weeks, could be considered as a ‘nice day’. Seeing an old friend you might expect a “hello”, a high five, I’m not even averse to a fist pump, but Tom decides to inform me “they have a Wimpy”.
‘They’ are the people of Morden, no not the place that the ring must be tossed into, and as lucky as they are to be able to enjoy square burgers and the novelty of crockery in a fast food restaurant, we don’t have time for a milkshake as there is a bus that needs to be caught. A straightforward and quick journey gives us enough time to have a catch up and notice that someone has gone to the effort to write ‘penis’ on the chair in front of me, which is nice.
It’s not cold, and it’s not raining, so a short walk through a park not far from the bus stop at the end of our anatomy lesson bus ride is quite a pleasant one. People have ventured from their houses, marveling at a yellow thing in the sky, some kids are in the skatepark doing a bit of synchronized scootering on a half-pipe.
“Testing one, two, testing” echos in the distance, followed by a bit of Rihanna, who is then rudely interrupted “testing one, two, testing”. Beyond the Merton X-Games a yellow sign above a barbed wire topped fence proclaims “home of football”, which has us intrigued.
The usual things greet us at the entrance to Gander Green Lane home of Sutton United FC (SU) a board telling us the next fixture and kick off time, the fact that AFC Wimbeldon Ladies team play here, something we are seeing quite frequently like at Borehamwood and Staines. The party animal in Tom though is quick to see a relatively small sign in comparison to its much larger neighbours, advertising the nearby ‘Boom Boom Club’. Inspecting its upcoming events he is sad to learn that “we have missed ZZ Top” but his mood is improved by reading it’s “Mods tonight”.
It is impossible as we walk through the car park to pick up our tickets to ignore the splendidly adorned shipping container, not unlike the one at Clapton FC’s Old Spotted Dog ground. I’m sure it’s use is a very practical one, but instead of having some great eyesore ruining the surroundings, it’s been graffitied extremely well, this isn’t some arse spraying ‘cock’ on the wall, this is art. One end is like a yellow and white Battenburg cake with SUFC in each quarter and along one side is the club’s crest and “for the fans, by the fans, come on you yellows”.
My own raffle addiction is well documented its a problem I live with day to day, and I’m not one to shy away from talking about it, you might call me the Tony Adams of the raffle world, but SU are not helping the problem when almost instantly on arrival the friendly man on the door or as I call them ‘pushers’ is on me, he can sense the loose change in my pocket.
“Afternoon can I tempt you with a scratch card?” he hits me with his much used opening line “Sutton’s very own” he draws me in, “50p a scratch you could win a grand”, I’m like putty in his hands, “never know your luck”. Next thing I remember is turning to a disappointed Tom with two cards in my hand. I would’ve given him my children’s college fund if I could have, he was a pro, great patter, he must be one of the top earners.
‘Welcome to SUFC’ is written above the door as we walk in the bar past the club’s hall of fame. We both feel underdressed and underage, as almost every man is in a club blazer and tie, except for the person in a club shirt playing darts, and with a few exceptions most people have about 20 years on us. Whilst everyone else is on the pints, Tom and I are on the tea and grab one from Jenny’s below the blinking blue and red ‘open’ sign above a hatch at one end of the bar.
“Time for lunch” announces a well turned out man, and the room empties, Jenny’s closes too, much to Tom’s annoyance, he had only just said “I’m getting a bit peckish”. So it’s us, the guy at the oche, Norwich vs Liverpool on the TV and further proof that non-league tea is hotter than normal tea, because we still don’t dare take a sip. We do both wonder what is happening in the very grand sounding ‘Times Square Lounge’ after spotting a sign on the wall. If it’s like the Times Square of the late 70’s early 80’s it could be very interesting.
We swap our stalls in the corner for a table in the middle of the room, and Tom studies the menu from afar, he lets me know that ‘Jenny’s Healthy Chicken Wrap’ would fit my new outlook on a healthier lifestyle.
A group directly behind us are as uninspired by the game on the TV as we are and have set themselves the goal of working out a starting 11, of players with only three letters in their surname. Although not struggling for ideas, plucking some names deep from football history, I can’t help but chip in with the name of the first person I had on a Spurs shirt, Ruel Fox, “good shout” replies one of them. Their game is momentarily interrupted by the SU Manager Paul Doswell in a long dark blue jacket, after he asks the room if anyone has a “lap top”.
Tea done, and outside, taking the exit from the bar, which is up the players tunnel. “Impressive stadium” says Tom and I could not agree more. The main stand from which we have emerged is huge, all seater, and almost the full length of the pitch. Taking up a seat in the front row, as Tom has a wander, there is a bit of a gap between me and the pitch, as well as the dugouts, but my elevated view, stops that from being a problem. Behind each goal, and opposite are standard covered terraces.
The most interesting feature by far are the two curved banks of uncovered concrete steps, with yellow railings on two of the four corners of the ground. They have the air as Tom puts it of being very “European” it’s not hard to imagine seeing a Tifo display or some coloured smoke pouring off it at kick off, the Curva Sud of Gander Green Lane.
Two games are being played on the 3G pitch, one team in Barcelona shirts according to one person are “struggling”. He finds the fact that a bunch of kids in the Catalan kit not playing well is such a hoot, a juxtaposition so noteworthy he has to say it two or three times, waiting for a laugh, which never comes. I’m a little distracted by the Millwall flag flying in a nearby garden which is not out of the ordinary, but I always find the fact that someone has had a flagpole erected a little unnerving.
Both of today’s squads sit in their respective dugouts, their kit bags littering the ground. From behind they all looking very similar, each with almost exactly the same hair cut, Tom a barber himself ponders if they are “sponsored by Brylcreem”.
As well as the games playing, the high pitched children’s voices shouting things like “mark up” or “get a shot in”, the rest of the ground is bustling. A boy in a red apron pushes a trolley heaving with bread, a man appears with a box full of SU yellow ‘clappers’ and starts to place them on the seats in the stand. Tom notices that the “banging tunes” have started in the changing rooms beneath us, but more importantly points out that Jenny’s has a “bit of competition” bringing to my attention ‘Roses’ a second burger bar opposite the main stand. Is Sutton big enough for the both of them?
With some time to kill we head to the club shop, a yellow portacabin behind one goal, protected by a high net. Standing outside it’s not long until Tom emerges beaming “it’s a treasure trove”, thinking I have not seen him this happy since his Pot Noodle at Edgware Town, I have to check this out for myself. An older man head to toe in SU gear, is barely visible behind the overflowing counter covered in boxes full of programs from clubs all over the country, surrounded by cork boards covered in football pins and shelves of DVDs and books. SU towels, scarves, shirts and flags hang from every available place in this non-league Aladdin’s cave. My eye is drawn to a large World Cup ‘90 book, with a picture of Gazza on the front, the price is as with everything else written on a neon star shaped piece of card.
If the scratch cards weren’t enough to take in one day, one of the two ladies talking about “the big game”, breaks away from her chat and offers me a 50/50 ticket, and like the chump I am, I hand over a couple of quid, hiding the tickets in my notebook, hoping Tom has not seen. I can’t take the judgement.
As I leave, the question of who the Jenny of ‘Jenny’s Cafe’ is, becomes crystal clear thanks to a poster on the back of the club shop door. Having thought she was the lady who runs it, it is in fact the name of SU mascot Jenny The Giraffe, who apparently is being entered into the ‘world famous’ mascot grand national. It does make me then wonder who Rose is. Perhaps another member of the mascot menagerie?
The noise of change dropping into the float of the girl on the turnstile, the clunk as she unlocks it, and the click as it turns can mean only one thing, the fans are starting to arrive including those of today’s away team Dartford FC (DFC).
Paul Doswell is clearly hands on and is constantly on the move. We get a passing but very warm welcome, as he makes his way on to the pitch, he moves around talking to people clutching his mug. He chats to some of the children finishing their game, and then with a member of staff about the clappers, asking about their whereabouts. He only stops for a moment in the dugout to have a drag from his vape cigarette.
Having now seen various stations of clappers around the ground, inviting you to take one, they are clearly a big contributor to getting an atmosphere going, very encouraging that the club are actively trying to improve it.
‘The Never Ending Story’ by Limahl plays as the team comes out, followed by 80’s hit after 80’s hit. “The sprinklers are out” comments Tom, spraying high and wide, giving the pitch a good drink, some players are hesitant to get wet when they chase a loose ball.
“I don’t usually butt in this early” says the voice on the tannoy half way through another 80’s classic. Such is the absurdity of the Norwich Vs Liverpool result, which was 0 – 1 to Liverpool when we left the bar, he feels he must break with protocol and announce it has ended 4 – 5.
A noisy mob of tiny SU kit wearing mascots appear from the tunnel, are corralled into posing for a picture, and then are coached on what they are to do. Today is the 400th club appearance of what I think is fair to say club legend Craig Dundas, this milestone along with it being 3rd vs 4th in the league means that the main stand and the rest of the ground are “filling up nicely” says Tom. The clappers on the seats are already being brought to life, warmed up for the game,“Sutton”.
A man in a long black DFC coat chatting at the edge of the tunnel, tells them he has “got to gee them up” and makes his way to the changing rooms.
“Welcome to Gander Green Lane”.
A crowd has gathered waiting for the team’s two or three deep up against the railings, as they appear people try to get a glimpse of the 400 man. As they make their way out a fan loudly offers his support “good game today boys”, he receives a nod of appreciation from a player as he passes, SU’s Captain does his bit as well, “come on yellows”.
“Dundo’s gonna get ya, Dundo’s gonna get ya” sing the fans as the man of the moment appears, getting the biggest cheer of all. He walks between a guard of honour formed by both teams, occasionally stopping to shake hands with various players. We’ve been told there are going to be up to twelve separate presentations, which get underway in earnest. Dundo is handed a picture, flowers, multiple bottles of booze, including some Malibu and stands smiling next to a large yellow banner with him on it. One presentation is made by a fellow member of the 400 appearance club.
Paul kisses and hugs his daughter on the edge of the pitch as the voice over the tannoy announces it’s time to “hand over to the match referee”.
“Come on blues” shouts someone from the very healthy travelling support, who have a large flag hanging over the railings around the pitch.
Our view is slightly obscured by the dugout, so we make our way around the pitch to the already noisy SU fans behind the DFC goal “yellows, yellows, yellows”. The short walk is ever so slightly impeded by a boisterous young boy, there are other words that could be used to describe him, but I will leave that to your imagination. “Are you a Dartford fan?” he sneers, “no” I reply, “good” says the pint sized oik. I’m so glad to get the approval of someone I have had bigger sandwiches than.
A DFC penalty appeal in the first moments of the game, is waved away, as the game quickly descends into a bit of a scrappy one. They do get a chance from a free kick, which is well struck but equally well saved, each team is restricted to half chances at best.
Standing behind the goal of the pink shirt wearing DFC keeper, it reinforces how much I think is great colour for a jersey. There is something very Serie A, something very Gianluigi Buffon about it, one SU fan is perhaps not as enamoured by it as me, “you pink bastard”.
The referee quickly plummets from the top of each set of supporters Christmas lists, after a string of odd decisions. One tackle in particular or “assault” as Tom describes it, goes unpunished. The fans around us are less than impressed “you don’t know what you’re doing”, one fan describes him as a “right package”, no I don’t know either!
Thankfully there is enough going on around us to keep us entertained, the group of fans on the terrace are good for a song, it’s a mixture of the familiar “come on Sutton, come on Sutton”, and the not so familiar, “singing pie, pie, chippy, chippy pie”.
Although it’s a pleasant day, the sun is bright, and it’s relatively mild, Tom however can’t get his head around the chap in flip flops standing next to us, “he has socks on, but is he fucking mental?”
“La, la, la, la, U’s”
Dundo uses all his experience and size to shrug DFC players off the ball and on the half hour mark SU have the best chance of the game so far, and it’s wonderfully crafted. A cross from the right is knocked down to a player in the box, who plays a short square pass to the edge of the area. “Got to be” says Tom as the player tees up his shot, which he tamely fires into the arms of the keeper. The creativity is appreciated by everyone, “United, United, United” rings from the main stand along with the distinctive noise of the clappers.
The DFC fans have been quiet since the start, but come to life when of all things, they get a corner “come on you Darts”
In the last five minutes of the half “the tight top four game” as Tom describes it, has a flourish of chances, all for the home team. First a header just wide, that sends the keeper sprawling, “time to score boys” shouts a fan. Dundo hits a nice volley after latching onto a flick on, that is just deflected wide. The resulting corner is played short, a quick one two, and original taker just on the corner of the area lets fly a curling right footed shot, that sales over the DFC keeper, only to be kept out by the underside of the bar, crashing down the wrong side of the goal line.
“Yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow”.
The compulsory half time non-league leg stretch goes off without a hitch, as the fans swap ends. Tom spots a man with a thermos flask the size of an artillery shell, that reminds him it’s my turn to get the tea, but the queue at Roses is too long, so I sherk, and tell him I will get them once it goes down. Me not winning the 50/50 makes Tom think about our upcoming trip to Germany “I wonder if they have one at Dortmund? I would buy a ticket for that”.
“Come on you U’s” is followed by the clack, clack, clack, all whilst ‘The heat is on’ from Beverly Hills Cop plays around the ground, as the teams come out for the second half.
“We’re Sutton United, we’ll never be defeated”.
It’s a fan rather than a player who shows the first skill of the half. In his black and yellow bobble hat, he volleys a clearance back on to the pitch, with his half time snack still in hard “managed to keep his chips” says an impressed Tom. The fan raises his hand, and gets a cheer from the crowd.
It’s all SU early doors, they have maintained the momentum they had started to build at the end of the first half, that was halted by the break. A player who we saw last season at Cray Wanderers, whose talents really shone, who we predicted would shortly be making a step up, and now wears the number 7 for SU. He tests the DFC keeper with a powerful shot from just inside the left corner of the box, which is forced around the post, “Tom Bolarinwa, Tom Bolarinwa” chant the supporters.
Like a cork bursting free of a bottle, with just over a quarter of an hour gone, SU’s mounting pressure finally culminates in an exquisitely assisted goal. A cross from the right is timed perfectly with the run of the forward, flanked by two defenders. Such is the quality of the delivery, the first defender can only watch the ball sail over him. The second defender is also a spectator, as the SU attacker controls the ball and pokes it in on the half volley from close range.
The hoardings take a battering as the fans rush the fence, banging away to make even more noise, “la, la, la, Sutton”. The scorer has wheeled away behind the goal, high fiving the fans.
SU perhaps still revealing in their goal, almost undo all their hard work moments after the restart. Only thanks to their keeper, who pulls off a point blank save following a DFC corner does it mean it’s not all square, “there’s only one Ross Worner” sing the appreciative fans.
“Attack, attack, attack, attack” demand some fans in the main stand, they are thirsty for more goals, and it’s not long until the team oblige, but not before Tom asks me one of life’s important questions “have you ever had Bovril?”
About five minutes after the first goal SU get a second, and it’s the least that they deserve. Another cross, another knocked down ball, the first shot is blocked, but luckily for SU the loose ball bobbles about just inside the six yard box and is a simple tap in. The hoardings get a kicking again, “falling in love with U’s, U’s, U’s, U’s”.
A third goal nearly follows quickly after, only for a super one handed save from the DFC keeper. Dundo “wants his goal” says Tom, what better way to crown his big day, as the clock ticks down his runs into the box seem more and more frequent.
It must be said that the main stand, as well as the terrace have been in good voice today. Occasionally requesting Paul Doswell to “give them a wave” which he does, “yeahhhh”.
One of the ladies from the club shop stands in a doorway, taking in the “big game’s” final moments. A few people start to leave and get a bit of stick “is there a fire drill?”
With the three points now all but secured, a victory over top place rivals, means songs in the stands turn to thoughts of promotion “we are going up, we are going up”. One fan is particularly boosted by the win, the current thirteen league game unbeaten run means that perhaps he is quite right when he shouts “we are unbeatable”. The fact is DFC are on an equally impressive eleven league game unbeaten run, proves the value of today’s victory cannot be underestimated.
A big crowd once again has gathered around the tunnel cheering the players off, “we’re proud of you” says one fan, the players repay the compliment by applauding what has been a fantastic crowd. The biggest reception is of course for the 400 man “Dundo’s gonna get ya”. The DFC squad contemplate the loss with a huddle on the pitch. Once the players have disappeared, the fans follow them down the tunnel doing a right to the bar instead of a left to the changing room. The bar is already heaving, one chap stood at the back is forced to use binoculars to catch up with the day’s result on a small TV high on the wall.
We are lucky that Paul Doswell gives us few moments of his time, escorting us to the media room, where quite by accident we end up chatting in front of the media board, with Tom taking pictures, for a brief moment it all feels very ‘Match of the Day’.
His assessment of the day is bang on, “first 15 minutes of the game Dartford had more of the play”, but after that there was a noticeable shift in “momentum” and SU “pinned them back on the ropes”. He is emphatic when he says it’s an “important win”. I ask him if even a small part of him is able to think about promotion or the playoffs, but he has been around too long to make that mistake, he won’t let that cross his mind until “March”. He fully expects “Dartford to be there with us”, but today SU “were better, all over the pitch”. His praise is not only reserved for the team, and makes the point of praising the fans “today was a good advert for the National League South”.
As we leave we bump into SU number 7 Tom Bolarinwa, whose own career is worth a blog in itself, I’m sure it’s not everyday a player moves from playing in Thailand to non-league football in England. He is humble, and welcoming as everyone has been, and is more than happy to share his thoughts when I ask him what kind of impact a good home support can have, “sometimes you just don’t feel up for it, but when the people get behind you you can’t help to be”. By his own admission it’s been a “slow” start but he has kept his head down and is taking to the step up well.
The park is now dark as we make our way home, a large full moon hangs in the sky, and Tom who is always good for a quote sums up the day perfectly, too perfectly some might say I wonder if he is at home practising,“good game, good club, good victory”.
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