Tuesday 18th September 2018, 1945 Kick Off
Sutton United FC vs Boreham Wood FC
The Build Up
A blustery midweek called for a short trip, so imagine my delight at checking the Groundhopper App (if you don’t use it, get to @GroundhopperApp on the Twitter) and finding that the National League’s Caledonian adventurers were playing in their rearranged fixture on Tuesday night, a mere three miles from my house. As this was now my tenth visit to Gander Green Lane (or the Knights Community Stadium to give it the corporate name) I frankly couldn’t be bothered to do a full ground visit blog entry, as I’ve already done quite a few, so this is the sum total of my efforts. It’s also later than usual because, y’know, work and sleep.
It’s unusual to have rearranged fixtures at such an early stage of the season, where even in England you rarely see matches rained, snowed or Foot and Mouth diseased off by mid-September. However, this season has thrown up something of an anomaly, as both these teams have been involved in the Scottish Football League’s Irn-Bru Challenge Cup. Having decided that the lower divisions in Scotland are not enough of a draw for sponsors, television companies and fans of lower division Scottish teams, participants from different regions have been invited, like a shit Copa America. With guests from Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland, representation was also sought from England, and ended up with invitations being extended to the highest finishing, non-promoted Vanarama National League sides – Sutton United and Boreham Wood.
Both clubs went into their first overseas competitive fixtures on the 8th of September, with the Us vanquishing the mighty Airdrieonians, resulting in a merry flight/train/coach back to South London for the victorious Sutton fans. Boreham Wood fared less well, but only just, losing out to Dunfermline Athletic (who are substantially better than Airdrieonians in fairness) 6-5 on penalties. As a reward, Sutton drew Bohemians of the League of Ireland Premier Division (in a quite bizarre draw which was almost certainly devised by a creative team elbow-deep in LSD), meaning a trip to Dublin that will surely be the end of many Sutton livers and bank accounts.
Back to the more mundane matters of league football, and the last time these sides met was also at GGL, where Boreham Wood dispatched of their hosts in the Promotion Semi Final, 3-2, thanks Angelo Balanta’s 88th minute deciding goal. Balanta, the only man with more facial expressions than Phil Jones, is the one remaining member of the Wood’s dangerous attacking trio from last season, with both Morgan Ferrier and the quicksilver Bruno Andrade trying their hands in League football, with Walsall and Lincoln City respectively. 12th in the division coming into the fixture, Luke Garrard’s side were unbeaten in five league fixtures, a significant upturn after winning only one of their first five. Unsurprisingly perhaps given the high player turnover, it had taken some time for the squad to gel, but they arrived in Sutton in good form.
Their hosts on Tuesday had also experienced a mixed start to the season, albeit one that saw them five places higher in seventh. A good start was followed by four games without victory, before wins in the last two matches got Paul Doswell’s side back heading in the right direction. With four goals, Ross Lafayette led their goalscoring charts heading into the match, and goals scoring strikers is something Doswell will want to see more of, with last season’s top scorer Tommy Wright only managing 13.
What he certainly won’t have wanted to see, was how his side started the match. Just as I was writing down that Sutton had started with the ball at the right end, Boreham Wood lumped it down their right hand side. An easy flick on was chased down by Justin Shaibu, and he centred the ball on the deck. Waiting in the middle was probably the only midfielder born in Cali with a north London accent, Angelo Balanta, and he side-footed home. 1-0.
Four minutes later, his partner in the middle, Kieran Murtagh, doubled the lead. Sutton were at sixes and sevens at the back, and just couldn’t get out further than their 22 yard line (if football had a 22 yard line), and Ricky Shakes took advantage to swing in a cross from the right. Dale Bennett at left back must have been wishing he’d called in sick, as the cross resulted in a second goal from his side in the first six minutes. With Murtagh making a late run into the box, the 22 capped Antigua & Barbuda international sent a looping header over Jamie Butler’s dive and into the corner. 2-0 and 84 minutes left to play. If this kept up, we were looking at a 30 goal thrashing.
The Us looked shellshocked, and with good reason. They simply had no response to the bullish strength and pace of Boreham Wood’s young on-loan attacking duo. Reeco Hackett-Fairchild and Justin Shaibu, from Charlton Athletic and Brentford respectively were both pulling the defence apart, and even though Hackett-Fairchild went off early with an injury, his replacement Josh Umerah was even more of a handful.
In the 11th minute Charlie Clough had an opportunity to reduce the arrears when Sutton put together a couple of useful crosses. The second one reached the big centre back at the back post, but under good defensive pressure, he headed down and wide.
Five minutes later, Ross Lafayette really should have brought Sutton back into it but could only slice his effort wide with the goal gaping. A flowing move saw Dan Wishart cross, getting forward well from right back, and when that was blocked he had another go. This time his cross got all the way through the box, and bouncing deceptively in front of Ryan Huddart. With the committed former-Arsenal ‘keeper now out of the picture, Lafayette only had to keep his composure at the back stick – but that was too big an ask, and wide it went.
Realistically, it could easily have been 2-0 at this point, and therein is where the difference lay – especially in the first half. Boreham Wood weren’t that much better than their hosts, they just took their chances, whereas Sutton made a complete hash of theirs.
On 22 minutes, the visitors effectively ended the match as a contest when Justin Shaibu grabbed the first league goal of his career, and Wood’s third of the night. Like the first, it was a hopeful long ball over the top which caught the Sutton defence flat footed. This time though, Dean Beckwith and Charlie Clough had a good two metre headstart over the Danish striker, but the 20 year old stuck on the afterburners and left them both in his wake. Advancing into the box, he shot low across Butler, and we may as well all have gone home.
Sutton United had another chance on the half hour mark, but again were unable to make it count. Tommy Wright, who had been the hosts’ most effective attacker in the first half, chased a dead end on the right hand side, and then inventively back heeled into the path of Josh Taylor. The former Crystal Palace youngster struck across the ball though, and from a tight angle succeeded in his ambition of giving Boreham Wood a throw in a pressurised area. Clever play indeed.
As we moved towards half time, referee Daniel Middleton began to become the target of the Us fans ire, in a classic case of dislocation. On 41 minutes, he wrote his name next to this role in permanent ink, when he denied what the home supporters felt was a cast iron penalty. A silly backpass from Jamal Fyfield put Ryan Huddart in trouble, and as the giant No 1 came out to meet the pass, his swinging leg appeared to send Josh Taylor to the turf. Mr Middleton felt differently though, and awareded the free kick to Boreham Wood, penalising Taylor for a dive. It was difficult to tell from my position, but in the words of a Sutton fan who was much closer “he certainly left his leg a long way behind him looking for the ‘keeper”. So probably the correct call then.
On 42 minutes Boreham Wood were forced into their second change of the match, as Angelo Balanta went down with a hamstring injury. Speaking to him at half time, he said he felt it go, but hopefully he won’t be out for long, as the midfielder is so crucial to how the Wood play. His control in tight spaces and eye for a pass set him apart in the first half today, and it was a real shame to see him withdrawn.
As the half time whistle was blown, Boreham Wood went off in the knowledge they almost certainly had an unassailable lead, whilst Paul Doswell knew he had to change things up. At half time he brought on Jonah Ayunga for Harry Beautyman, and the added physicality up top looked as though it might make some difference. For the first ten minutes of the second half, Sutton looked long to Ayunga’s head whenever the opportunity presented itself, and it looked as though the tactic may bear fruit. Whoever Ayunga came up against, whether it was Stephens, Ricketts or Woodards, he was winning his aerial duels, and getting the flick on.
On 49 minutes, one such flick fell into the path of Lafayette in the box, but the ball seemed to suddenly become much lighter than it had previously been, and just wouldn’t drop. As the Watford-born striker waited for it to fall into a strikeable position, Jamal Fyfield reacted brilliantly, and snaked out a limb to hook it over his head and away from danger. As Josh Taylor gathered on the edge of the area, his follow up shot sailed harmlessly wide.
Sutton seemed to be making progress, however, on 53 minutes, that all changed, when a Boreham Wood free kick saw them score a fourth. From midway in the Sutton half Kieran Murtagh chipped into the box. As the ball ricocheted around, the only player who seemed able to get a firm contact was Ricky Shakes, and he played it in to Umerah. With his back to goal, the striker from Catford, who is highly rated at the Valley, turned, and whilst falling, squeezed a shot past Butler in the Sutton goal. It was the least his performance deserved, as – in his own manager’s words – he had delivered the complete striker’s performance since coming on.
Umerah was involved again five minutes later, when his pressing from the front forced Dean Beckwith into losing possession. Realising he was caught, Beckwith did what he could to foul Umerah, but the stiker was having none of it – that 2017 loan in the northern wastes of Kilmarnock has made a man of him – and he simply bounced off retaining his balance. Once clear of Beckwith, Umerah slid in his strike partner, but with only Butler to beat Shaibu shot wide.
On 62 minutes Tommy Wright picked up the ball in central midfield and drove past two, working a shooting position on the left hand side of the box. His shot was firm and on target, but easy for Huddart to hold. With 28 minutes still to play, this was probably the last presentable chance that the 1,677 fans in attendance got to witness, and for the rest of the match it was an attack (Sutton) lacking ideas, up against a resolute defence (Boreham Wood).
With Craig Eastmond and Kenny Davis in central midfield, Sutton are not short of tenacity and combative nature, and can retain the ball well, but neither player had the ability to unlock the solid Wood defence. As a result, the home side resorted to lofting long balls in towards the backline, which is fine when you’re aiming at Ayunga, but for some reason most of them were aimed towards Wright and substitute Aaron Drinan, both of whom were dwarfed by the Boreham Wood defenders.
Much like when I watched them at home to Gateshead last season, the likes of David Stephens, Danny Woodards and Tom Champion were rock solid under the high ball, and happy to clear to the flanks at will.
A brief glimpse of quality came in the 91st minute, when nice interplay featuring Taylor and Wright around the edge of the box got Craig Eastmond into a shooting position. His effort was deflected, and looped up over Huddart, striking the crossbar and bouncing clear of danger. Shortly afterwards, the full time whistle was blown, and the disappointed home fans slunk away into the south London night.
The Wash Up
Whilst Boreham Wood absolutely deserved the win, I do think that the 4-0 scoreline makes it seem most one-sided than it was. In the first half, Wood were on top, but both sides had probably 3-4 decent chances to score. Had Lafayette and Clough, for example, taken their golden opportunities, there’s every possibility the score could have been 2-2 at half time.
That it wasn’t is credit to the finishing exhibited by Luke Garrard’s strikers and advanced midfielders. When on form, Kieran Murtagh and Angelo Balanta are two of the most inventive players at Step One, and they were certainly on form on Tuesday evening.
I see this result as entirely demonstrating the strength of Garrard and his team’s recruitment during the summer. The list of players who have left includes Grant Smith, possibly the best goalkeeper in the National League last season – in have come two England youth ‘keepers in Ryan Huddart and Ellery Balcombe. He also lost Jamie Turley, Kane Smith to injury, and both Andrade and Ferrier. However, the players he has brought in are rising to the challenge now, and six games unbeaten is a sign that his team is starting to gel nicely. Add to that an already solid defensive unit which has been bolstered by experienced heads and you have a very strong squad. New arrivals Manny Parry, Femi Ilesanmi and Jamal Fyfield have undoubted quality, and all three showed their worth in this match.
As for Sutton, I’m not really sure how many lessons are to be learnt from this match. Don’t dwell on the ball in the face of a high press? Score your shots? Don’t play long balls to players 6 inches shorter than the man marking them? They know all this already, so I don’t think tonight’s result can be put down to anything other than being perhaps 10% off their performance levels, whilst Boreham Wood were on top of their game.
The best thing the Us can do is simply forget this match and move on. Wrexham at home on Saturday, and they’ll definitely need to be firing for that one.