Saturday 8th May 2021, Kick Off 1500
Sutton United FC vs Weymouth FC
The Build Up
It’s very much squeaky bum time in the National League now, and whilst the jeopardy at the bottom of the table may have been removed, at the top it’s very much all still to play for. Speaking of squeaky bums, regular readers will have noticed a slight hiatus on this website recently, and it’s down to the fact I’ve been up to my elbows in shitty baby nappies since the arrival of my son in April. Named after his dad, it’s only a matter of time until Grass Roots Tourist Junior starts attending non-league matches, indeed, he’s due to get to his first game this month.
Back in the National League, ever since Asa Hall’s winner against Sutton, the title race has felt like it is slipping in Torquay’s favour, as they inexorably grind out victories. Gary Johnson’s side are really firing at the moment, and you have to go all the way back to March 27th to find a loss on their results sheet. Sutton, on the other hand, have looked a little tired in recent weeks. Going into this match against Weymouth the Ambers’ fate was in the hands of others, for the first time in over two months. A last gasp penalty winner from Notts County’s Ruben Rodrigues on Tuesday had thrown things wide open – and after a bit of a recent blip (three wins in nine) the visit of Weymouth represented an important chance to wrest back control of their destiny.
Should the Us win promotion to the EFL it would represent an astonishing level of progression for the south London club. It’s ten years exactly since Sutton won promotion from the Isthmian League, and five since a National League South title saw them promoted to the top flight of nonleague. In that time, under Paul Doswell, they reached an FA Cup 5th Round tie against Arsenal, and reached a Play Off semi final, so when Dos departed for Havant & Waterlooville in April 2019, it could have felt like the end of an era. For 2019/20, many pundits predicted difficult times for Sutton, but new man Matt Gray had different ideas. Previously assistant manager at Aldershot Town and Crawley Town amongst others, this was a managerial first for Gray, and after a difficult opening to the season, he and Sutton United have never looked back. A comfortable 15th place in 2019/20 set the scene for an exceptional 2020/21 campaign, where Sutton are one of three or four teams smack bang in the running for the title with only five game to play. If they go up, it’ll represent their first ever foray into league football since their formation at the Robin Hood Hotel in March 1898.
Their visitors, Weymouth, arguably had little to play for at this point in the season. There’s no relegation, but even so, they came into the game 12 points clear of Barnet in the theoretical relegation zone, and would have been all but safe regardless. A famous name in nonleague, the side from Dorset were in their ninth season of Step Three football in 2019, when Mark Molesley led them to promotion from the incredibly competitive Southern League Premier South in his second full season in charge. Buoyed by Brandon Goodship’s 37 league goals, when he departed for Southend in the summer many (by which I mean I) tipped Weymouth to drop straight back down. And by god did they piss on my cornflakes. After starting well, they just kept on going, eventually finishing 3rd in their first season back at Step Two, before seeing off Dorking Wanderers and Dartford in the Play Offs to secure promotion at the first attempt. Molesley departed in the summer to take the Southend job (I think he was just missing Goodship if I’m honest), with former Wales international Brian Stock taking the reins. Now, back in the nonleague big time, they’ve settled straight back into the level, sitting 18th after 36 matches, and coming into this fixture with two wins and three losses in the last five. That it was a big match was evident on arrival – with BT Sport and three different radio outlets represented in the media section (including Mr Molesley himself, summarising on BBC Surrey).
Sutton’s pre-match plans took a knock shortly before kick off, when top scorer Isaac Olaofe was removed from the starting line up due to an injury sustained in the warm up. In came Kenny Davis at short notice, and his impact on the match was noticeable. It took only two minutes for the first chance of the match, and it fell to Harry Beautyman at the back post. Since joining from Stevenage in 2018 Beautyman has become one of Sutton’s most consistent and important performers, with his goals this season being the difference between a win and a draw on six occasions. This time though, when Ajiboye dug out a cross to the back post, ‘Arry from the East End could only divert it over at full stretch.
Almost straight away, Weymouth had a chance through Sean Shields. The Northern Irish midfielder broke down the left, finding Andrew Dallas in the middle. Dallas held it up well and returned the pass to Shields, but his side footed effort was well saved by Dean Bouzanis in the Sutton goal. That was about as close as Weymouth would come all match.
Throughout the first half the wind picked up, until it was a really impactful factor on the play. Blowing straight towards the Weymouth goal for the first half, I lost count of the times Ethan Ross’s goal kicks lost all momentum in the air, with a couple even heading back the direction from whence they came. This was undoubtedly a factor in how difficult the Terras found it to play their way up the pitch, but so was Sutton’s aggressive play out of possession. A key tenet of Gray’s playing style is an intense press and tempo, with Omar Bugiel, David Ajiboye and Donovan Wilson setting the pace from the front, harassing defenders and keeper alike. Behind them, the introduction of Kenny Davis gave Craig Eastmond a natural partner, leaving a much more solid base that the Us had enjoyed against Torquay. On 6 minutes, Bath City loanee Wilson had a shot well blocked by Ethan Ross who came out quickly to prevent Sutton opening the scoring, and then three minutes later he saved well again from a deflected Ajiboye attempt. Another loanee, the giant from Ashington (home of the Charlton brothers…) arrived from Lincoln City in January and has since made 15 appearances, establishing himself as Brian Stock’s number 1.
There was nothing he could do after quarter of an hour though, as Sutton’s captain opened the scoring with his sixth of the campaign. Another fine whipped delivery, this time from Jon Barden on the right wing was arcing perfectly to the penalty spot, when Craig Eastmond appeared out of nowhere. His sprint into the box and powerful header was symptomatic of the desire Sutton were playing with, and showed their drive to stay in contention for the automatic promotion spots.
On 20 minutes Lebanese front man Omar Bugiel used his pace and power to drive past Jacob Mensah on the left wing before cutting the ball back to Beautyman. He sliced his shot wide, and you got the feeling after this and his earlier effort that it wasn’t quite going to work for him in front of goal today.
Despite that, his dead ball delivery was immaculate, as ever, and when Craig Eastmond was brought down by an inch perfect last ditch tackle by Andy Robinson, Beautyman’s dangerous corner was well headed clear by Dallas. With half an hour down, the Us were very much in control, and really there were only two questions. How many could they score with the wind in their favour, and would Weymouth fare better with the elements on their side in the second half?
Beautyman, Eastmond and Ajiboye had a succession of shots blocked around the edge of the area, but the running and aerial battling of Bugiel and Wilson was key. Bugiel in particular may have only scored five this season, but his aerial presence, work rate and magnetic first touch today were exceptional and made it so, so easy for Sutton to hold onto territory up the pitch. At half time, Matt Gray will have been pleased with what he’d seen, but there was always the nagging feeling that one goal might not be enough.
The question about whether the wind would aim Weymouth as much as it hindered them in the first 45 was quickly answered. No. From the moment Dean Bouzanis managed to drill a goal kick miles upfield into the wind it was apparent that Sutton knew how to play the conditions, and the second half proceeded much as the first had. At the back, Ben Goodliffe and Louis John were judging the ball swirling in the air perfectly, and when Ben Thomson and Pierre Fonkeu were brought on to freshen up Weymouth’s front line, they had as much joy as Ben Worman and Andrew Dallas had before them.
On 46 minutes Bugiel did well to beat Camp down Sutton’s left side, but took too long to get his shot away, as Ross came out well to smother the effort. Then, four minutes later, Donovan again made a mockery of the wind when he rocketed a left footed strike towards goal, and past Ross into the net. Battling with Jacob Mensah, the former Wolves striker had no business winning the ball, but win it he did, then turned and rifled the ball into the net from 20 yards. A great strike, one I wasn’t expecting, and so I had to settle for celebration photos as Wilson was congratulated by Kenny Davis on his 6th of the season. Since arriving from Bath Wilson has made a difference in key moments, and it will be interesting to see if he returns to the National League South in the summer.
With 55 on the clock, Sutton had the ball in the net again, this time through Beautyman, but when the linesman raised his flag, you knew for certain that Beautyman wasn’t going to add to his 11 league goals today. It was a real shame as well, as the football leading to the goal was beautiful. Beautyman played a one two with Ben Wyatt, then skipped a Josh Leslie-Smith tackle. A second one two with Eastmond followed as Beautyman continued his run into the box, chipping the onrushing Ross with his first touch. He may have been offside, I didn’t see the line, but the goal definitely should have stood, purely on an aesthetic basis.
On the hour, Ajiboye set up Wilson after one of his trademark jinking runs. He cut inside two Weymouth defenders and pulled the ball back to Wilson, but his effort was straight at Ross and easily held. Three minutes later, Weymouth had their best chance of the half, when a back post effort from a corner was blocked by a Sutton defender.
Sutton wound down the gears for the last half hour, and with nothing really left to play for in the season, Weymouth were either unable or unwilling to press on to try and rescue something from the match. With ten left on the clock, substitute Tobi Sho-Silva had a snapshot well blocked, and then on 90 minutes a barnstorming run from right back by Barden petered out into nothing as Weymouth got bodies back. Finally, with four minutes of added time played, Sho Silva had a golden chance from a Beautyman corner, but headed his effort straight into the ground.
The Wash Up
So back on track after the disappointment in Nottingham, and when Matt Gray and his team turned on the car radios on the way home they’d have been greeted with even better news. A 4-2 home loss for Hartlepool to ten man Maidenhead makes it a long way back for the Monkey Hangers in the title race, but even more importantly, Torquay stumbled to a 0-0 draw with Bromley. So the weekend ended with Sutton in second, two points behind the league leading Gulls, but with a game in hand. Four matches to go and it’s very much still all to play for.
Brian Stock could take few positives from the match really, other than Weymouth producing some good backs to the wall defending at times. Ethan Ross performed well, and Brennan Camp at right back did a decent job, but aside from that it was one to forget for the Dorset side, who also had to play the last ten minutes a man down after Thomson sustained a knock. Had Shields’s early chance beaten Bouzanis maybe things could have been different – but it didn’t, and they weren’t.
Sutton had half a dozen key performers, but for me, there were two players who stood out to share the MOM award. All of the forward line shone at various times, with Wilson and Bugiel stretching the back line, Beautyman and Ajiboye providing the ammunition and with a little bit sharper finishing (particularly in the first half) this could have been a rout. The back five was relatively untroubled, but all did their jobs well, with Wyatt and Barden supporting the offensive effort too. The star players though were those in central midfield, as Craig Eastmond and Kenny Davis stamped their authority on the match. With Davis anchoring the midfield, it freed up Eastmond to play a more expansive role than he usually might, and the two of them dovetailed brilliantly throughout, both in and out of possession.