Saturday 9th September 2017, 1500 KO
Sutton United FC vs Gateshead FC
The Build Up
A last minute change of plans for this weekend saw me unexpectedly free on Saturday afternoon. I thought carefully about what to do. Should I spend it with my girlfriend? Cinema? A nice walk, perhaps? Not this callsign. Gander Green Lane was hosting Sutton United vs Gateshead and it was there I was headed.
Sutton United captured the hearts of the nation last season with their extraordinary efforts in the FA Cup, making it all the way to the 5th Round before eventually being defeated by Arsenal. Their league form was rather more benign, finishing as mid table as mid table can be, in 12th place. A fine start to this year sees them in 4th though, only one point behind big hitters Leyton Orient and Dagenham & Redbridge at the top. Impressive wins at home to Orient and away to Tranmere have been somewhat undermined by last week’s loss to newly promoted Maidenhead, so a win today would be vital to maintain the good start.
Looking through Sutton United’s squad, there are some names which immediately jump out. Nicky Bailey brings a lot of league experience, and was once transferred for £1.4 million to Middlesbrough, whilst fellow central midfielder Craig Eastmond has Champions League football under his belt with Arsenal. Former England youth international Simon Walton is a familiar face to me following his time at Plymouth Argyle, and Aswad Thomas is one of three players looking to establish himself after a mass summer move from league rivals Dover Athletic (maybe they all car share).
I must confess that I really don’t know much at all about today’s opposition, Gateshead. The nature of watching local and regional football is that most of the teams are, well, regional or local. Gateshead, located so far north they’re all inducted members of the Night’s Watch, are certainly neither regional nor local. Managed by Neil Aspin, a man who racked up over 600 Football League appearances, there is no lack of experience within the backroom staff. They’ve had an inauspicious start to the league, and currently sit 11th. One thing I do know about Gateshead is that their ground is massive for the National League, holding 11,800, with only Halifax and Tranmere larger. Research also teaches me that Sutton may not hold happy memories for Gateshead – it was here that they suffered their largest ever defeat, a 9-0 shellacking back in 1990.
I’ve been to Gander Green Lane before, to watch a youth cup final, and it’s a great stadium. Accessible, although with somewhat restricted parking, it is only a two minute walk from West Sutton train station. This ease of access may have contributed to the consistently high attendance this season, with Paul Doswell’s side drawing over 2,000 fans on more than one occasion this season.
I received my first ever official media pass for this match, courtesy of Sutton’s impeccably helpful Press Secretary. Tony Dolbear was my first point of contact with Sutton United, but everyone attached with the club was mega welcoming and friendly. I enjoy my Saturdays watching nonleague, but even more so when the club staff are like this. The tickets are £15 for standing, and then there’s £2.50 for a very thorough programme. Once I’d added my customary pie and diet coke (£4.50) you’re looking at more than £20, but at National League level, that’s still good value.
Sutton had a big crowd, which was “bolstered” by a few hardy Gateshead supporters. Absolute credit to those fans who made the 87 hour round trip to support their team. One thing which was really noticeable about the crowd was how youthful it seemed. Literally hundreds and hundreds of kids bedecked in Sutton United strips. The ground had a real family atmosphere to it.
Sutton started the match at a frenetic pace, and created their first chance inside a minute, when a cross was headed clear dropping invitingly to Battersea-born Craig Eastmond. His technique on the volley was immaculate, as you’d expect from a man who came through the Arsenal academy, but sadly the direction was lacking and it zipped into Dan Hanford’s midriff. Eastmond had a second good chance ten minutes later, but fired over when the ball broke to him invitingly on the edge of the area.
Both teams were set up to play good football, and although Sutton’s midfield of Walton and Eastmond had the beating of Gateshead in the engine room, it was tempting to clip long balls into the aerial prowess of Kwame Thomas and the pace of Craig Dundas. In the 15th minute Gateshead took the lead, when centre forward Danny Johnson burst into the right hand side of the box. He was pulled down, the ref awarded the penalty, and the former Real Murcia frontman, and part time Damien Lewis lookalike, stuck his penalty high and left. Goalkeeper Jamie Butler went the wrong way, and that was 1-0.
Although the play was relatively even, Sutton were creating by far the more presentable chances. A 23rd minute left wing cross found centre back Louis John loafing in the opposition area – something that would happen frequently, he’s like a 21st century Dion Dublin – and his glanced header beat the ‘keeper but not the crossbar. Caught unawares by the rebound, Dundas could only volley into the deck and up into a grateful Hanford’s hands.
Less than a minute later the U’s had a penalty shout of their own, but it would have been soft. A hopeful ball up to Coventry loanee Thomas saw a WWE style tussle for the ball between him and Jamal Fyfield. Both players were so handsy I think they’re now due a second date, but it was six of one and half a dozen of the other. No pen. Three minutes later, however, and the score was even for both penalties and goals. When Craig Dundas muscled his way into the box, left back Theo Vassell had no response other than a push from behind. Vassell protested his innocence, but he was right in front of me and I’m afraid it was a cast-iron foul.
Former Argyle midfielder Simon Walton stepped up to take responsibility, and even though Hanford managed to get a hand to the spot kick, Walton claimed his first goal of the season to level up the scoreboard. And for once, there actually was a scoreboard – Sutton being the first team I’ve visited to have one!
An action packed first half continued to be just that, when Gateshead’s number eight, Richard Peniket, shot against the post from the edge of the area. Peniket is a tall, awkward looking striker, but he is a handful for defenders. All elbows and knees, the Sutton centre backs will be nursing some bruises on Sunday morning.
Sutton launched an absolute aerial bombardment of the Gateshead back line towards the end of the first half. The head of Kwame Thomas was inviting, and he was genuinely impressive with his flick ons. His standing jump is absolutely absurd – getting so high off the ground he needed air traffic control clearance at one point.
Sutton should have gone in ahead at the break, when left winger Josh Taylor curled a shot against the post. A short throw in from the left resulted in some nice one touch triangles featuring Taylor, Thomas and Thomas, before Taylor found space in the box. A curled effort bent around the outstretched arm of the ‘keeper but clanged cruelly against the post.
One all at half time, and a half played out in delightful early September sunshine. However, within minutes of the break the weather did an about face, and promptly started to utterly shit it down. Thunder and lightning saw the second half kick-off delayed by fifteen minutes whilst all 1,805 fans crammed under the covered areas. I think that delay, and the subsequent hail, contributed to the slightly lethargic opening to the second period.
That all changed on the hour mark, when Sutton seemed to realise that actually three points would be quite nice, and began to consistently hammer at Heed’s door. A shaky clearance was intercepted by Kieran Cadogan on the right wing (who was a threat all match) and his cross found Thomas, K in the middle. He couldn’t direct his header on target though, and it sailed wide. Five minutes later, and an almost carbon copy cross found Louis John – the England C international spending as much time in Gateshead’s box as his own, but he could only glance his header wide.
On 73 minutes, in a game where the officials seemed to be keen to blow/flag every single thing, they missed easily the most contentious moment of the match. An elbow to the face of Nicky Bailey, which was seen by everyone in the ground, apparently wasn’t seen by the referee. After a good period on the ground flailing around in pain, the usually exceptionally robust Bailey was taken from the field. Post match reports were that he had a black eye Ricky Hatton would be proud of, yet the officials deemed it unworthy of action.
Even without their influential skipper, Sutton continued to create chances. Eastmond was an absolute dynamo in the middle, driving forward in possession at every opportunity, whilst Aswad Thomas was getting forward well from left back. Anthony Jeffery and Josh Wright were introduced in the front three, and pulled the Gateshead backline all over the pitch, but to no avail. The home side created enough scoring opportunities to win five matches – Kwame Thomas, Wright and Eastmond all missing gilt edged chances through a combination of poor finishing and exceptional last ditch defending.
The Wash Up
The final whistle went, and Gateshead will be delighted to travel back north with a point from this match. Although it was fairly even for a good hour, the last thirty minutes felt like Sutton had to score. However, they didn’t and so although they have stopped the two game losing home run, they will want to get back to winning ways soon. I was impressed with Fraser Kerr and Neil Byrne for Gateshead. In a team of giants, they stood out as a pair of imperious centre backs, and they really were tested today. Dan Hanford also had a very good game in goal, making a series of good saves to keep the scores level. Most crucially, he was dominant in his box, and claimed or punched a lot of difficult crosses.
Kwame Thomas up front showed his undoubted Football League quality, whilst Kieran Cadogan and Craig Dundas did good work feeding off his knock downs. Man of the match, though, went to Simon Walton. He has years of experience in the game, and it was evident today. A calming presence in the side, he rarely lost possession. As I left the ground, the one talking point on the Sutton fans’ lips was the Bailey head injury. It really was nasty, and could have resulted in a serious injury – I hope he is alright, and the officials must face some kind of reprimand for allowing such dangerous behaviour to go unchallenged.
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