England are playing today, apparently, although you wouldn’t necessarily know this from a trip to Gander Green Lane this afternoon. The intuitive thing to think would be that the pull of sitting (or, on an afternoon like this, more likely standing) in a pub watching England play out their match against Wales would might have had a calamitous effect on non-league attendances this afternoon, but this is certainly not the case at Sutton today. There are over 700 people here today – it’s one of their higher attendances of the season – and this, perhaps, says a little about the severed relationship between the national team and the die-hard supporters of the game in this country at present. There is nowhere, one feels, that anybody here this afternoon would rather be in the world than here, watching Sutton United play Canvey Island in the Premier Division of the Ryman League.
Sutton’s supporters can be forgiven a a glass half full attitude at the moment, of course. After several years of almost imperceptibly slow decline, from what is now the Blue Square Premier to the Ryman League over the last eleven years, they have raced to the top of the table this season and seem set to return to the Blue Square South at the end of the season. The England match has forced many non-league clubs to move their kick-off times this weekend, and their closest rivals in the Ryman League, Bury Town, kicked off at 1pm in their match at Billericay Town. Bury’s win shaved three points of Sutton’s lead at the top of the table, but at least players knew what they had to do at kick-off today.
Canvey Island are another club with Football Conference pedigree, and theirs is more recent than Sutton’s. It was in 2006 that Jeff King, who had bank-rolled their rise to that level from the bowels of the non-league game in Essex, decided that he was withdrawing and decamping to nearby Chelmsford City. It was a decision that forced the resignation of Canvey from the Football Conference and the started the following season in Division One North of the Ryman League. In 2008, they won promotion through the play-offs but perhaps, in the form of the Ryman League Premier Division, they have found their level for a club of their size. They have a clutch of noisy (and quite possibly boozy) supporters with them this afternoon, but their team is in mid-table and this trip has the feel of an end-of-term party about it. Too good to be in any danger of relegation but not quite strong enough to seriously challenge for promotion, they are in reasonably good form but perhaps throwing spanners into the works of the aspirations of the likes of Sutton United will be the highlight of the remainder of this season.
Perhaps Bury’s win gave the Sutton players pause for consideration in the changing rooms before kick-off. They certainly start slowly, with a hint of nervousness in their passing and an uncertainty that has been largely absent from their play this season so far. Canvey, meanwhile, are playing with a degree of carefree liberty, seemingly enjoying playing in front of such a large crowd. It takes twenty minutes or so for the home side to get going properly, and even then we only see flashes of what they are capable of producing – Simon Downer’s header is palmed away by the Canvey goalkeeper Russell and Richard Jolly nicking the ball from a defender’s tow before striking it well over with only the goalkeeper left to beat. Half-time arrives with a little grumbling, but the goalless score is a reasonably fair reflection of a match that is only awaking from its slumber.
The interval offers us the opportunity to take a wander around Gander Green Lane itself. It is, in some respects, a vaguely unsatisfying ground, bowl-shaped and, at least at the uncovered end, devoid of atmosphere. It is a position that the club has addressed to an extent, with a covered terrace now running straight behind the goal at the end nearest its entrance turnstiles. Indeed, it feels rather as if the flat atmosphere of the first half has been at least partly reflected by the fact that Sutton were attacking the open terrace. The second half, it feels, should be better entertainment than the first.
As the second half progresses, the game starts to open up as the players begin to tire a little, and this is very much to the benefit of the home side. Canvey spent the first half being effectively frustrating, but the second half seems this start to break down a little and the home side start to assert their dominance. It still, however, takes over twenty minutes to force themselves into the lead. To call Craig Dundas “big” would be doing him something of a disservice. He’s the size of a house and has muscles that of grown on top of his existing muscles. Finally, with the home support behind the goal starting to look a little worried themselves, he manages to force a waay through and shoot past Russell from an angle. It’s a nerve-settling goal, and Canvey don’t really have a great deal to throw back at Sutton. With four minutes to play, the points are wrapped up once and for all when Leroy Griffiths capitalises on a moment of confusion in the Canvey defence and drives the ball under Russell to guarantee the points for Sutton.
The feeling that comes with the full-time whistle is that this has been a mission accomplished for Sutton United. Their seven point advantage at the top of the Ryman League Premier Division has been with just six matches of the season left to play. It would take something quite remarkable for them to stumble and slip now, and with players of the quality of Dundas, Jolly and the non-league journeyman midfielder Tom Davis, this is a team that is quite clearly too good for this division and will, providing it stays together over the summer, will probably be comfortable in the Blue Square South next season. Canvey, meanwhile, showed flashes of quality and, having found themselves secure in the league this season, may yet improve still further next year, which may make them promotion candidates next season. For today, though, this will have to wait. This has been Sutton’s season in the Ryman League so far this season, and there was nothing on display to suggest that they will not win the league in a few weeks’ time. A step in the right direction towards something approaching their former glories seems amost certain.
There are some pictures from this weekend’s match between Sutton United and Canvey Island here.
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