(Picture: Action Images via Reuters)
By Alex Narey
Football matches are about so much more than what happens in the 90 minutes of action.
For a fan, the pre-match drinks and meeting spots are just as important as the kicks and the tackles that follow. That brisk, almost skipping-like walk to the stadium as you race to meet kick-off with the PA system blaring out the line-ups, and the slow walk back, retracing your steps as you try to piece together the route to your car as well as the drama of the soap opera that has just unfolded.
It’s the outside emotions that tick the boxes for me. Whether at a Premier League clash or watching a Step 5 match in the teeming rain, I like to see players’ reactions. You can tell so much about an individual from the way they act in the pre-match warm-up, or how they handle defeat or victory at the final whistle. Some players embrace the opposition and show their respect; others display petulance and head straight for the tunnel.
The same applies to managers; the handshake might be an overplayed side story for many, but to me it’s an important sub plot to the main event.
On Tuesday night I witnessed one of these ‘moments’ in the build-up to Aldershot Town’s home clash with Sutton United. With kick-off approaching, I caught U’s boss Paul Doswell out of the corner of my eye walking across the pitch. He was heading straight to the visiting supporters before he stopped, and began applauding them. There were 205 Sutton fans at the EBB?Stadium and I swear he clapped every single one.
It tells you a lot about Doswell, as a manager but more importantly as a bloke. A lot of gaffers do this but there seemed something more genuine about the way he was connecting with his fans, and the way they were reacting to his actions. It was a lovely moment that set the tone for a superb performance where Sutton should really have taken all three points in a 2-2 draw, delivering an attacking masterclass at a venue that is more accustomed to seeing the home side play such football.
That collective spirit is written all over the U’s. Due to the vagaries of publishing, I am writing this before Saturday’s game against Ebbsfleet, but whatever has happened there, it won’t be changing my view: Sutton’s form this season is largely down to the example Doswell sets at the top of the tree.
He may be swimming against the tide with a smaller budget at a part-time club, but he and his players represent all that is good about Non-League football. There is an honesty about them; they are in it together.
Before Tuesday’s game, I was still waiting for the bubble to burst at Sutton. Doswell himself admitted the same when we chatted afterwards, expecting one of the league’s big guns to make their bed and grab the division by the neck. But now I’m not so sure. Sutton United, and Paul Doswell, are ensuring this is the toughest National League scrap in years.
Not only are they making life difficult for the sides who were expected to be challenging at the top, they are inspiring others who were expected to simply make up the numbers below.
Now, that’s well worth a round of applause…
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper, which is available every Sunday.