We Have Waited For Too Long, For This Moment To Arrive

As I listen to the song that I decided to use as a lyric for tonight’s piece, I am still undecided if it is “for too long” or “far too long”. But as the vocalist, a Mr Jerry Knight, would also say in the song that “it doesn’t matter”. That this song was out in 1984, when today’s hero was undoubtedly not born (he’d need to be 38) is by the by. Today, Sutton Athletic could proudly say on their Step 5 debut that there was no stopping them, and certainly, no-one could have done it better.

As I get the tortured song analogy out of the way, let me start by reflecting on the events of the past 28 hours or so. Last night, as you would be able to tell from the report, was one of my footballing highlights as a supporter of many many years. I have been to many memorable Millwall games, and some pretty good ones without them, but it’s that close, almost family feeling, that the win last night had on me that made it so special. I didn’t think last night’s piece conveyed the rawness of the emotions I felt, the sheer elation at being there. I watched a superb game, aided by the fact that all the supporters were closely packed on one side of the ground helped the buzz and the anticipation. It was just superb, and while I felt I could have done better with the report, I am immensely proud of it. I think I need to strive to improve more and more to tell the story even better.

The reaction to the post has been amazing. To those of new to me, I wrote, and still have editorial rights, to the cricket blog Being Outside Cricket. If you are a cricket fan, have a look at 2015’s Wisden under the Cricket Blogs section. Those were mad, mad days. We regularly had 2000+ hits per day. It was intense and I had to produce copy virtually every day. It was a recipe for burnout. As I said to one of my readership today, I am a better angry writer than anything else, but it is also immensely destroying. English cricket made me angry. So, with an outlet in writing about non-league football in the shape of this personal blog, I am looking to be positive, and it is not hard to be that. Non-league is amazing and I am really passionate about selling it, and writing about it. But doing it not to get myself noticed, although I love the hits and the views, it is about writing for myself and if others love it, well that’s great. As a result of last night’s post, I have had my record day on Seven and Seven Eighths II. Only cricket and occasional posts on a football blog having a go at Alan Pardew when he was Newcastle manager have got me more. Thank you to everyone who has read it and those who have been nice about it on social media.

So, as an encore, I felt duty bound to go to a game today. It would need to be in the SCEFL and three options looked to be on the table. Firstly, and nearest, was Stansfeld v Bearsted at Glebe. The next was Holmesdale v Hollands & Blair, and thirdly Sutton Athletic v Canterbury City. I put the options on Twitter and within seconds, Sutton has put their hand up and said it had to be them. As Stansfeld’s FA Cup tie is next Sunday I could always see them then, so they were eliminated before the start, so my visit to Holmesdale will have to wait (maybe against Phoenix, we’ll need to see). Sutton’s excellent social media game netted them a punter. It’s not much, but it’s £13.50 they would not have got for entrance, a programme, a burger and a cup of tea.

Of course, probably like a lot of people seeing Sutton Athletic’s name, you think of the place west of Croydon and for people of my age, the United team who beat Coventry City. But this Sutton is the one in Kent, and the team play on the outskirts of Hextable, not a million miles from the M25. The ground is on a lane out of the town, in what looks like farmland, but is actually a really quite nice looking venue, although, as the club will no doubt admit (and do in the programme) that it needs some work to get up to standard for Step 5. At the moment there is one small stand, a temporary structure and a nicely appointed club house. On a lovely summer’s day like today, it was excellent. I am not sure I’d be massively keen to be there on a dark January night with pouring rain, but that’s not today’s exam question. For today, it was nigh on perfect.

I found the ground after my useless satnav left me a half mile short of the venue, and pulled into the car park. As I pulled out of my original selection of space as it was too close to the pitch, the attendant came up to my car and I had another one of those encounters that makes this form of the game so special. He was a Gillingham fan, which always gets the comment that I liked them until they got better than Millwall at the turn of the century, and he filled me in on some of the history of the club, its background, how they ended up on the outskirts of Hextable, how that doesn’t have a pub, and all sorts on the players. When I asked who I should look out for today, he said without hesitation “Arlie”. Of course, I thought he meant Harley as I had done zero research on the game and the club. I did recall that they had given Sheppey a mighty tussle in the two-legged Kent semi-final last season, and he regaled me of tales of that encounter. I could have spoken to him for longer, but needed to get fed and watered!

One thing the parking man did say was that the programme was the best in the league. A proud boast, especially for a team making its debut at this level after a long history in the Kent County League, but it is quite good, with lots of information and pictures, although the chairman does state he has had to make economies as the costs, like everything else, are rising alarmingly. He was apologetic that the entrance is now £10 (including the programme) which to me is absolutely fine. The expected attendance was going to be around 50, so I was told, which I feel is a bit of a shame. The local community have a good club there, so they should try it. I know I am a recent convert, but people won’t regret it.

After I’ve had my burger and tea, I start to take the prep photos for the day, put the selfie online, and I see two semi-familiar figures walking in my direction. “Hello, are you Dmitri” the man asks, and I say yes and of course I know you. It’s Grads, assistant to Steve at Phoenix along with Ben, another assistant. Of course, as Phoenix have drawn today’s opponents, Canterbury City in the FA Vase, they have come along on a scouting mission. I had sort of thought of doing this myself, compiling a dossier on the strengths of this and that, but then checked myself as just a mere fan of the game and not a student of all that “technical nonsense”. But it was good to know that my team were having a look. There did not appear to be any team announcements, or team sheets, so I enquired and found them from the bloke in the blue t-shirt, who let me copy them. I then relayed them to Ben, and I felt like part of the coaching staff. I’m still a child at heart. The visitors first:

And on to the home side:

Sutton marginally winning for neatest handwriting. I’ll be interested (I know I know) on who does the writing for Phoenix. I am prepared to volunteer as I am told mine is obsessively neat and “girl-like” which in this instance I’ll take as a compliment. I’ll bet it is Leggy. And as I am thinking this, who should appear but Mark Sullivan! I can’t escape Phoenix. Talk revolved around last night. Then, as if by magic, the Evans clan appear. Alfie’s dad, in an Under Armour top I am well jell about, Claire, his mum, who likes my posts a lot, and Alfie himself. This is mad. I am here to do a job and we are talking about last night.

The two teams come out and I like both kits. Canterbury City have a burgundy colour top (I won’t call it claret) while Sutton are another team predominately in green. I see Arlie is a tall forward with the number 9 shirt on, and I warm to Canterbury’s number 8. The playing surface is rock hard with the lack of rain, but looks better than it plays (which isn’t badly at all) and it is Sutton who settle the better. There is some early probing down on the left side, kicking away from the rather poor position we have taken by the corner flag on the opposite side of the Sutton attacks. Arlie Desanges gets the all on the left side of the box, creates an opening and shoots wide of the right post in the second minute. Sutton are passing quite nicely and keeping more possession as Canterbury can’t get the ball. There aren’t many chances, and the next I have noted is on 17 minutes when City get their first attempt, when Owen Punselik shoots wide and high from long distance, with the only issue being fetching the ball. While the probing continues, chances aren’t manifesting themselves and Sutton could be forgven for becoming a little anxious. They are certainly much the better side, but need a goal to settle them down. Arlie gets another attempt from a header on 27, but it is comfortable for the keeper.

A minute later and there is a break into the right side of the area. Neil Spencer, who I thought had a terrific game for Sutton finds space on the right of the penalty area and advances uncallenged into it. Instead of having a pop himself, which he could well have done, he does the absolute right thing, squares it to an unmarked and onside Arlie Desanges, who makes no mistake with a sound, comfortable finish low into the net with the keeper nowhere. Sutton are 1 up on 28 minutes, and the nerves, if there were any, could be defused a little.

Sutton look to build upon the lead, but chances still seem elusive. On 39, Sutton’s busy number 10, Conor Evans, has a shot which is dealt with by the keeper. This then highlights why I need a spotter. As I am not sure of the number of the player for my notes who has had that shot, and I see it, I note it down and miss one of the Sutton players hitting the bar! I have no idea how it happened, who did it, but it is Grads who confirms the woodwork has been contacted. I am not lying to you all, so my mistakes are as relevant as my good stuff. No bluffing!

Just before the break and Canterbury have their best chance. A ball is slipped through and the pacey number 10 Joe Nwoko gets a march on his defender, he gets near the byeline, pulls the ball back, and it finds its way to Tyrell Mitford who sees his 20 yard shot well saved by Joe Hyde. It is the last action of the first half.

I then have a conversation with Alfie’s mum who tells me she reads my posts by speed reading looking for Alfie’s name, and then when she says what I says, reads the rest. I am tempted to just put random Alfies in each post now, just to wind her up. Instead the conversation turns to West End Musicals, which, I am afraid, is a bit of a bridge too far for me. I don’t like musicals. I think that is being polite. I remark that I have not taken many notes, to which Alfie says “well, make things up” and it is as if he has asked me to kick my precious dog. I have standards, young Evans. I have standards.

While constantly talking about moving to get some snaps for the blog, I stay where I am for the start of the second half and am well rewarded with a view for goal number 2. Again the creator is Spencer, who gets the ball in the right channel, gets close to the byline, and puts the ball across. It’s a little behind Desanges who does well to steer it goalwards, and the ball loops up over the line, before being cleared away. I see it clearly, it is about two feet over the line and so does the linesman on other side. Sutton are two-nil up and looking every bit a SCEFL Premier team. The second half is barely two minutes old.

With this I move behind the goal and rewarded with my memorable moment of the day. On 51 minutes Sutton win a free-kick on the right side of the area – Spencer again winning the foul and continuing to be a constant threat. A dangerous cross is whipped into the box, and to everyone’s surprise, and especially Charlie Plummer’s, the ball falls to him with an open goal. It isn’t easy, and I am not saying it is a really bad miss, but Charlie snatches at it and it goes wide. He gets berated by his team. Charlie is swearing under his breath (OK, I could hear him) before he shouts “all right, all right. I PANICKED”. Charlie is now one of my favourite players. Good on you mate. See below……

Sutton are totally on top, and Neil Spencer is tormenting the left side of the defence, while Sutton’s left back has the freedom of the other flank. The passing is neat, and Canterbury have rare forays (I will use this word in every piece as Richard Green at Cray Valley loves it). On the hour one of those attacks brings a save out of Hyde, I think from Punselik. But that spurs on Sutton and this time Arlie is the one with the ball running into the area, and it is he turning down a chance for the hat-trick and pulling it across, but Evans can’t make contact when he may well have killed the game. Three minutes later and Spencer is away again, and he chooses to square when he has the goal at his mercy, and City’s number 5, Alex Coyne, calmly puts the ball (just) wide to clear the danger. He gives off an air of nonchalance, which was fooling no-one. On 70 Evans has a good shot saved, but by the time the follow-up is stuck away, the offside flag is up. By now, I’ve returned to my original position and the parking attendant is there.

“What’s your unbiased view?” he says. “Really impressed, you are going to take points off some good sides” which sounds a bit patronising in hindsight. “Nah, we’ll come up against some organised sides who will stop us playing” was his view. I have to say I was disappointed with Canterbury and said I thought Sutton were very comfortable. Grads says today has been a waste as City haven’t had a corner and so can’t even give Boyley a view on how they work their set-pieces, and then says his goodbyes. At this time Nwoko has another long shot which isn’t worrying anyone. I say that Sutton look comfortable and know “that” feeling that the team you support is never comfortable 2 goals up!

On 79, Kola Salami, who has replaced Spencer on the right, is providing City’s left back with a nightmare upon nightmare, because he’s electric fast and wants to impress. In the 10-15 minutes he is on, he terrifies the defence. He gets put in, and instead of squaring, which might have been the better option, he has a go for goal and hits the side netting. If Arlie is cheesed off at the chance of missing a hat-trick, he doesn’t show it. A good team-mate. On 84, City have a chance, but Rowland’s effort is well saved. Canterbury start to build and a Punselik shot a couple of minutes later as he works it on to his right foot is well saved. A corner for City, after Grads has left, works its magic. It is floated into the near post and headed in. I couldn’t tell if it was number 9 or number 6 had scored, but according to SCEFL it is Seb Rowland, and suddenly car park man is nervous. “It should have been six by now” he and his friend say. A bit strong. 4 might be better. But I am not arguing.

It is all academic. Kola has an effort, which he curls wide a minute later, but then the pressure continues, and he puts in Conor Evans down the right side of the box – a common theme – and the number 10 looks up, squares it to an unmarked Arlie Desanges who strokes the ball home to complete a striker’s hat-trick (probably a combined 20 feet out for the three goals) and put Sutton’s fears at rest. 3-1 becomes 4-1 a couple of minutes later. Stop me if you have heard this before, but Kola has his defender on toast down the right side, he advances on goal, cuts inside and then slots into the bottom corner for a fine individual goal. I thought it could have been an own goal, but Kola is claiming it and I am not arguing. He’s been amazing. Wherever he has been before “didn’t have him in their plans” and the guys in the clubhouse are making that fact known.

I really wanted one with the tractor in (see above the goal)

The final whistle goes, I shake hands with the two great chaps I’ve spent the last twenty minutes with, and Claire comes around from their second half vantage point wanting to know if I’ve caught the dog who ran on the field as a picture. Does she think I am some kind of amateur? (Given there is a mum and child on the field, this was taken after the game, so the answer is yes).

Sutton have a debrief as I say my goodbyes and think of what I have watched. Sutton hav played well, could have won by more. There is delight that they are joint top of the league with Punjab United and Rusthall who have won their games 4-1, while we look at Deal’s won over Glebe as an interesting one, given the visitors went 1-0 up.

Three goals – a true striker at this level

A really good day, and in Arlie Desanges, there is no doubt that Sutton have a goalscorer, and a potent attack when allowed to play. I am going to leave it there, as I have written enough this weekend, and want more to reflect upon, but I had a great time at a friendly club. It is a shame the attendance was 52, and I hope the club, which is clearly going in the right direction, gets the backing it undoubtedly deserves. It’s another example of the greatness of the game, of the clubs and the people at this level, and I will cherish these memories. Hat-tricks do that. Add Arlie to Teddy Sheringham, Paul Stewart, Mark Hughes, Paul Jewell, Darren Byfield and a number of others that I have seen score a hat-trick (Teddy four in one season, I might add). They play like that they will be top half, I think. It’s neat, incisive and good to watch.

Thanks Sutton Athletic. I am glad I chose you. Score one for your social media game and your wonderful car park attendant, who called me “The Blogger” (of course I told him I write….)

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