Sutton United’s Day In The Sun

by | Feb 18, 2017

The intersection at which practical reality and morality meet isn’t always a comfortable place to be parked. Over the course of the last couple of weeks, one non-league football club has been scooping up levels of attention not usually seen by clubs of its size. Sutton United, of the National League, take on Arsenal at Gander Green Lane on Monday evening in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup. With Arsene Wenger now tottering after Arsenal’s threashing at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League, an extra, extra frisson has been added to a match that has been eagerly anticipated by many since the draw was made.

With such lavish attention, however, comes greater scrutiny. A week ago on Thursday, Liverpool FC confirmed that they were banning The Sun from both Anfield and the club’s Melwood training ground. No longer will its reporters be permitted to report from inside the stadium, and no further access will be granted to players or the manager, Juergen Klopp. This decision was reportedly made following discussions between the club’s owner and the families of those who died at Hillsborough in April 1989, and follows the theme of this particular newspaper continuing to be widely reviled across Merseyside over its coverage of the disaster, and the lack of a convincing apology for its role in a cover-up – whether witting or not – that took more than a quarter of a century to be righted.

It was, therefore, probably unfortunate timing for Sutton United to announce that they’d agreed a one-off shirt sponsorship deal with “Sun Bet”, a gambling company part-owned by News International and dressed in the livery of the newspaper, for this forthcoming match just four days after this. It might well be argued that it isn’t the first time that The Sun has stepped in to sponsor the shirts of non-league clubs who have had a run in the FA Cup. When Scarborough drew Chelsea in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup in 2004, their players’ shirts were emblazoned with it’s logo. A year earlier, Farnborough Town had agreed a similar deal for their Fourth Round match against Arsenal and, in proof that there is nothing that Graham Westley – who was then the manager and owner of the club – can’t make worse by being involved with, also switched the match from their own Cherrywood Road ground to Highbury. The same thing happened when Crawley Town made the Fifth Round of the competition and drew Manchester United away from home.

The era of social media, however, now exists in a way in which it didn’t as recently as six years ago, and the results of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s inquiry into what happened before, during and after the tragedy have only seen further scorn poured upon The Sun for its role in propagating the lies that have persisted concerning the behaviour of Liverpool supporters that day. In other words, attitudes seem only have hardened over The Sun over the last couple of years or so, and the medium exists through which opinions can be quickly repeated far and wide. On top of all of that, we all know that Twitter and Facebook aren’t exactly celebrated for the ways in which they allow for nuance in a news story.

Furthermore, the story made the national press when the Guardian reported that the club had denied seeking to get a thread on a supporters’ forum criticising the decision to team up with Sun Bet removed from the site. The extent to which this reporting completely sums up what has been going on within the club’s support over the last week or so is open to question, but there can be little question that this story is negative publicity for the club. But that was always an inevitability as soon as the the shirt sponsorship agreement was reached. That’s the cost of shaking hands with the devil, although the club clearly felt that any negative publicity was outweighed by its financial benefits.

The financial pressures that clubs can find themselves under at such a level of the game can be huge, so it is completely understandable that Sutton United will seek to milk this FA Cup run for every penny that they can get, especially when we consider that this is a club run by volunteers, in the mold of a traditional non-league club, rather than the increasingly professional organisations that we increasingly see at this level of the game. The “five figure sum” quoted as having changed hands for this shirt sponsorship deal may pay the wages of a couple of players for an entire season. The money raised from televising the game will have a similarly beneficial effect for the club. Coupled with an increase in ticket prices for this match – £30 to stand and £35 to sit – there is, perhaps, a case to be made for arguing that the club has overstepped the mark somewhat in its attempts to monetise the biggest day in its history.

Things didn’t much easier for the club when tickets for the match went on sale, either. Tickets were limited to two per season ticket holders and members of the club’s extensive youth team set up. However, an apparent miscalculation over demand – reportedly on account of having based likely demand on their experience of the match against Leeds United in the previous round – led to the club having to put out a request for season ticket holders who’d been unable to get tickets for the match to get in contact with them to attempt to rectify the situation. It’s unfamiliar territory for those running the club, putting on a match of this scale,and few amongst its support believe that the ticket sale arrangements weren’t made with the best of intentions, but it has still created a somewhat tense atmosphere in the build-up to this weekend’s match.

We all know the reasons behind why The Sun is persona non grata for so many football supporters and why Sun Bet is therefore a company tainted by association, and a quick scan of the club’s supporters’ forum indicates that perhaps the most damaging side-effect of this story has been the division that has been sewn between supporters of Sutton United over the issue. On Monday night, this will presumably be forgotten as the team takes to its 3G pitch to take on an Arsenal team that is undergoing one of its annual crises of confidence. Sutton United has probably secured its medium-term financial future with the money that it has earned from this year’s FA Cup run, regardless of what happens on the pitch, but there’s no such thing as a completely free lunch, and reputational damage was inevitable as soon as the deal was signed. But that’s the intractable nature of the intersection at which practical reality and morality meet. The glare of media attention, it turns out, can be a double-edged sword after all.

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