REEKING of sweat, stinking kit being thrown around like it’s confetti by a gaggle of half-naked blokes screaming as their boom box screeches out unimaginable noise that was supposed to get them up for the game, and apparently not deafen them after it.
Usually, there’s very few places I would less like to be dragged into on a quiet weekend afternoon. Last Sunday? I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
The FA Cup can be tricky for us at The Non-League Paper. At the first sign of a good draw, friendly clubs who can’t do enough for you normally suddenly can’t even guarantee you a seat in the stand to write up your report.
‘Didn’t you hear?’ some will excitedly explain, expecting you to share in their joy. ‘Sky Sports, The Telegraph and the Daily Mail are all coming. You’ll be fine behind the goal’.
You leave electrified at the prospect of the national press returning when the club are in FA Trophy action the following week. They never do.
But not Sutton United. Instead of putting down the shutters, they pulled them up and gave us access-all-areas. You could hardly breathe as you took the familiar walk that you guessed players, staff and fans did a hundred years ago.
Gander Green Lane’s charming yet archaic main stand is more packed than it’s ever been. As Leeds United’s players squeezed through the crowds, they are led to somewhere even smaller. It’s the claustrophobia what killed ‘em.
In the Championship, many clubs offer their visitors a room to the side of their dressing room where they can do their stretches and kick a ball against a wall pre-match. At Sutton, there was some orange squash and plastic cups on arrival.
Not that the part-timers lack at all in hospitality. You know you’re in good company when you can poke your head around the door of the club’s main office an hour before kick-off just to say hello, and still be greeted with a warm handshake from a director or two. Pleased to see you, despite mass panic.
How they get a game on of this size when run purely by volunteers is frankly anyone’s guess. Quite how they’ll manage it when mighty Arsenal roll into town later this month? They’ll have no idea now, but boy they’ll have fun trying.
It’s 20 minutes until kick off. Manager Paul Doswell is itching to vape. He bravely saves his cigarette replacement until the second half, it’s all too much for him. You don’t escape Sutton without a bear hug from the boss.
As the teams warm up, he summons me on to the pitch, the big embrace as addictive as the fag packet he’s doing so well to leave at home. In a few minutes this will be the setting for one of the season’s great triumphs and a club’s historic moment.
Not on deadline, I decide to stand in with the supporters, you want a feel of what it’s really like. A couple tell me they’re adopting in two months’ time.
“This is our first time down at Sutton United,” Dawn says as the rain starts to come down at her local club. “We’re both big football fans and we hope the boys will be too.
“We’re looking to take them somewhere local and friendly. We’ve got season tickets at Charlton, but we like what Sutton are doing and it’s great value so we’ll get season tickets next year here.”
Early on it was clear this much-changed Leeds were there for the taking. All the talk before was about how they would cope with United’s 3G pitch. Quite simply, they didn’t.
Jamie Collins’ penalty kick brought the house down, the referee’s full-time whistle brought a thousand or more supporters flooding on.
“Careful, you’ll ruin the pitch!” some wag shouts as the security fail to hold back the invaders. What a moment.
The pitch that Paul built with his generous interest-free loan to his club was now being used for what the manager really, really wanted it to be. A celebration.
Three of his six children finally manage to drag Doswell away from the crowds. The family man’s brude had just got dramatically bigger.
Back inside, the party was just getting started. Usually, I spend half my life standing outside thick dressing room doors – the last thing I was expecting was an invitation inside to share in the club’s biggest moment since Coventry City were sent packing so famously in 1989.
A privilege only usually afforded to the club’s photographer and never journalists, ‘come and join us’ was the message. But that’s Sutton United. No airs, no graces – just football people. I can’t think of many who deserve it more.