By Matt Badcock
As Paul Doswell entered his manager’s office that turns into Sutton United’s post-match interview room, he made a quip.
“Just two points to be safe from relegation now,” he said, tongue no doubt firmly in cheek.
Because the U’s boss isn’t going to play down what his Sutton side are achieving in the National League this season.
Doswell had just watched United beat Dagenham & Redbridge 2-1 with one of their best performances of the season to move joint-second with Aldershot Town.
They have 16 games to go. Are just three points off leaders Macclesfield Town. And they are bang in the promotion race.
“I’m not going to say we’re not, because we are,” Doswell says. “It would be disrespectful to the players if I said we’re not in it. We’ve got 16 games to go – probably eight of those between now and the start of March – and we need to be in and around it at the start of March.
“It’s a marathon the season. You look at the start of March as being 800 metres. Come April, you need to be on the bend. If we can be on the starting line in March, with eight or nine others, then that’s a fantastic position for us to be in.
“No one is going to walk away from it. No one is going to be top in March and walk away with it, not even Tranmere. I still think Tranmere will win it because of the depth of squad and quality they’ve got it.
“But, it’s a real credit to this league that there are eight or nine sides in this league who feel they’ve got enough about them to give it a go.”
You get the feeling there are a lot of eyes being rubbed in disbelief in Sutton at the moment. They’ve been riding the crest of a wave for several years now as Doswell took them to Ryman Premier promotion in 2011 before they won the Conference South title in 2016.
They won’t forget their first season back at Step 1 as one of Non-League’s most welcoming clubs had even more of the spotlight when they beat Leeds United to reach the FA Cup fifth round proper and a date with Arsenal.
Prize money and TV funds generated from the remarkable run have been invested wisely at a club that is also thriving away from the first team with their 3G pitch marking them out as a community hub.
The changing rooms have been improved, they have new floodlights and Doswell has been able to spend some of it on his squad.
Not that a push for the Football League was on the cards just yet.
“It’s great credit to the club, the chairman Bruce Elliott – you can see around the ground we’ve spent a lot of money, a big percentage of the FA Cup money, on improvements,” Doswell said. “That includes paying the pitch off, new floodlights, new dressing rooms.
“But what we did allow for was enough money this year to make sure we didn’t have a problem with second season syndrome. That money has allowed us to improve our budget.
“It’s still a mid-table budget for this league, it’s not top of the table, but it’s certainly not bottom either. So we’re punching above our weight in terms of our budget, but it’s good enough to compete.
“The chairman has allowed us to do that, taken the view that the lads earned the money through the FA Cup and it was right to give them as much help this year as he can give them.
“This year we’re benefitting from a squad of over 20, we’re up to 22 now. We’ve never had that at this club. I’ve normally worked off 17/18 and bringing loans in. We’ve always had five or six injured. If we get five injured now, I’ve still got a 16. That also adds competition as well.”
In January they’ve welcome the return of former U’s Harry Beautyman and Tom Bolarinwa, who have pledged the next two-and-a-half years to Doswell’s side.
Beautyman, 25, moved to Welling before getting his chance in the League at Peterborough, Northampton and Stevenage, while Bolarinwa, 28, has been at Grimsby Town.
“We brought him (Beautyman) specifically because we know the engine he’s got and what he gives to us as a team. He’s a great character.
“Harry and (Craig) Eastmond in there together are a real mobile two. What we picked up on in the last six weeks is that Kenny does really well in that sitting role just behind. He’s a very, very clever player, Kenny Davis. So while Kenny might go a bit unnoticed at times, the three of them together was the thought.
“So we were very pleased to get him and Tom Bolarinwa back – both on two-and-a-half year contracts as well. I think the club is now in a strong position, in terms of the size of the squad, and it gives us a chance to push on between now and the end of the season.
“It’s also a credit to the club that both of them wanted to come back. The fact Harry and Tom have been away and played League football and are happy to come back to us says a lot about the football club.”
Doswell’s vision of a strong midfield three was evident in the win against Dagenham, with former Arsenal youngster Eastmond also coming in for praise.
“Eastmond is an outstanding player,” Doswell said. “He’s been here three seasons now and he’s just signed a new two-and-a-half year deal and he loves it here.
“He’s had plenty of chances to go to a League Two club but he didn’t see the benefit. This football club has got a player that loves being here and is probably going to be here a long time. When you get people showing commitment for four, five, six years – which a lot of this team will have done – they grow together. There’s a bond they’ve got in there, they never know when they’re beaten.
“They’re up against it at times – i.e. not travelling overnight and not training four days a week – but their view is they’re good enough to keep winning matches.”
And stay clear of relegation…
Tagged Paul Doswell