Friday, 15 April 2011

Sutton United blog: Ian Rush, Becher's Brook and Craig Dundas

I arrived at a sun-drenched Gander Green Lane last Saturday something of a nervous wreck, and with good reason.
With the finishing line in sight, Bury Town represented as big a hurdle to Sutton United’s championship bid as Becher’s Brook did to Ballabriggs’ hopes of winning the Grand National.
Sutton were five points clear with five games to go and Bury were breathing down their necks.
I had some worrying flashbacks as kick-off approached. So many of the teams I have had connections to over the years have come unstuck when it’s really mattered, certainly in terms of league success. I just hoped Sutton wouldn’t baulk at the wonderful opportunity they had worked so hard to create.
I should have been going to this game on the crest of a wave, but there was always a nagging doubt in my mind that Bury might gatecrash the party. Those early memories of footballing rejection have a lot to answer for...
Like a lot of young, impressionable kids who grew up in London in the 1970s and 80s, I supported Liverpool.
I was happy in my sugar-coated world where ‘my team’ won everything; league titles, League Cups, FA Cups, Charity Shields and European Cups, even the odd Liverpool Senior Cup. It was great.
I felt I could take on the world, a bit like Superman, when I swapped my school uniform for my red Liverpool kit, complete with Hitachi sponsorship emblazoned across it. Some kids had the same kit, but without the sponsor’s name. I had the real deal. I just didn’t want to wear anything else outside of school.
My sister even stitched the numbered nine on the back of it so I could play out my dream of being Ian Rush in the back garden.  It was the first time I had ever worn a number on my back and it felt wonderful.

Hero: Ian Rush, in Liverpool's Hitachi kit, got
shunted aside once I discovered Micky Joyce. 
The garden was a happy hunting ground for me because, just like my hero, I was prolific.
Like some of my pals, I had high hopes of joining a team in West Sutton Little League, especially as I had re-enforced my view that I was a natural born goalscorer by netting a few important goals in some high profile clashes in the school playground.
However, while my pals put pen to paper to sign for such sides as West Sutton Mustangs, Viron Aces, Thatched House Hornets, Secombe Knights and National Nippers, I had to settle for a few months in the reserve pool where we used traffic cones as goals and wore bibs instead of shirts. Worst still, if the weather was blazing hot, then one team lined up in skins. Surely the police would have something to say about that these days.

Any rate, how could it be that Sutton’s version of Ian Rush, Eric Gates and Andy Gray - well, in light of recent events, perhaps not the latter, let’s say, Trevor Francis – all rolled into one, get overlooked by West Sutton Little League bosses? Surely such a lethal garden goalgetter would be high on most managers’ wish list.
Apparently not. To cut a long story short, my confidence evaporated and the goals dried up. I was never the same player again. This, my first real disappointment in football, paved the way for many more to follow.
Eventually, when I was picked up by a side, I was assigned the number four and spent my first season at left-back. We even ended the campaign with some silverware, the Sportsmanship Award for finishing bottom of the league.
Number four? Who played at number four for Liverpool for crying out loud, Phil Thompson? Or was he number five? I can’t honestly remember. But what I do know is this; none of the lads I ever knocked around with ever pretended to be Phil Thompson, either in the garden, the playground or the park.
I realised then, that even though I loved football, I was never really going to play it. All my best performances were in my head. The reality was very different.
However, there was a shaft of light at the end of the tunnel.
At the end of my second season, my Little League team made it to the semi-final of an invitational five-a-side tournament in Epsom. I even hit the post with one shot in the quarter-final. It made a change from hitting a cone in the reserve pool. At least the post stayed where it was.
We lost the big game on penalties. In hindsight I can now look back on this as a learning curve for all the disappointment that was to follow with the English national team. I am hardened to penalties now. If my team loses on spot-kicks then I simply sink a few beers and try to shrug it off. Back then, I just burst into tears and asked my dad for a can of Top Deck to help ease the pain. 
Not long after being taken to Gander Green Lane for the first time, Sutton got to Wembley for the FA Trophy Final of 1981. I couldn’t believe it. Liverpool seemed to play at the Twin Towers every other week, and now, Sutton had made it there too.
I felt like a lucky charm, the Reds won loads of things under my watchful eye and now Sutton were at it... except, they lost, 1-0, to a goal in extra-time scored by a guy who had started the season playing Sunday football on Hackney Marshes.
I was part of the 22,000 crowd that day. My first experience of Wembley ruined by a team called Bishop’s Stortford. Who the hell were they? Even at that early age it sounded like it was a place where monks lived.
I wasn’t overly worried, I have to say. With their lucky charm sufficiently interested to come back for the 1981/82 season I was certain the Us would grace the turf below the Twin Towers once again come May. I even ditched Liverpool.
Sutton didn’t make it back to Wembley, and they haven’t been back since. I soon realised that supporting Sutton was going to be very different than supporting the mighty Reds.
It was much better, and Micky Joyce quickly replaced Ian Rush in my footballing affection.
To be fair to Sutton, they haven’t let me down too badly in big game situations, 1993 and 2000 FA Trophy Semi-Finals aside. Last Saturday’s game was different though; the League title was at stake, something we have been striving towards for the past three seasons.
With my flashbacks thankfully out of the way Sutton looked like they meant business against Bury. I took the liberty of trimming my nails before leaving the house so that I wouldn’t gnaw at them while the game was on.
In the 36th minute Andy Forbes’s bullet header was stopped from leaving a sizeable dent in the back of the Securicor Stand by the net as the Us went ahead.
Bury, meanwhile, showed how dangerous they were by hitting the post.
Midway through the second half Craig Dundas had so much time to think about where to put the ball that he almost fluffed his one-on-one with Bury’s fresh-faced goalkeeper Nick Pope.
Despite his best efforts to miss this wonderful chance, Dundas managed to scuff the ball into the net via the post leaving Pope, who looked like he’d just graduated from West Bury St Edmunds Little League, to pick the ball out of the net.
With five minutes left I turned to my mate and said: “Eight points clear, with four games to go.”
Sensing I was getting a little bit carried away, Leroy Griffiths did his best to make an exciting game of it by bundling over a Bury boy to give the visitors a penalty, which was duly scored.
Having no nails to gnaw, I made do with biting my lip. After all, it was the best for the majority of the 967 people in the ground that I just kept quiet until the final whistle.
Thankully, both Sutton United and Ballabriggs safely negotiated those tricky hurdles last Saturday, but for us at least, there's still a job to be done, starting at home to Hastings United on Saturday.
Thank crikey this ramble is over. Despite what you think, I’ve got a life you know.
Come on you Amber and Chocolates!


Friday, 8 April 2011

Sutton United blog: Alice Beer, Cliff Hercules and Bury Town

Do you remember that television show from the 1970s and 80s called Winner Takes All? Hopefully somebody out there does or I’m on to a loser with this one.
Any rate, Saturday’s big game with Bury Town might loosely be described as a Winner Takes All clash; if Sutton win, then the Ryman Premier League title is almost assured; if Bury win, then the championship race is in the balance once more as they’ll only be two points behind with four games to go.
I’ve already decided I’m going to cope with this one like I’ve done with the majority of Sutton’s big games over the last twenty years; turn to Alice Beer (pictured). She's a faithful old drinking partner.
Beer was there when Sutton won 3-2 in front of 5,000 crowd at Martin O’Neil’s Wycombe Wanderers in the 1993 FA Trophy Semi-Final First Leg. I think the game took place on the same day as that farcical Grand National run where the horses were recalled after a couple of false starts.
The following week we got stuffed 4-0 at Gander Green Lane as our Wembley dream turned into a nightmare.
To be honest, I can’t remember too much about those Wycombe matches. I had four or five beers before the kick-off and quite a few afterwards, drinking to both success and failure. They were those kind of occasions.
Beer was also there when, in 1999, Sutton went to Aylesbury United for another Ryman Premier League title showdown.
The nerves were jangling before this one. After all, a place in the Nationwide Conference was at stake.  If we went up then we could test our silky skills against the non-league glamour boys of the day, Hereford United, Scarborough and Doncaster Rovers.
So, with such a big prize to play for, I coped in the best way I know how; I went on a pub crawl round Aylesbury before the game, sang my heart out during our 4-1 culling of the Ducks and then went on a pub crawl to the railway station before falling asleep on the train home.
You’ve got to love away days like that.

I always enjoyed going to Aylesbury. They used to be a decent side. Who could forget their prolific striker Cliff Hercules?

Sadly, like so many clubs, the Ducks hit the financial ropes, were forced to move out of their Buckingham Road ground and are now sixth in the Molten Spartan South Midland League, while their near neighbours, Aylesbury FC, are just outside the play-off places in the Zamaretto League Central Division.

To continue a similar strand from last week's blog post, perhaps Aylesbury FC and Aylesbury United should merge to form one big super-club called Aylesbury United FC. It's just a thought.

Their old ground was the scene of our memorable, but tense, 1-0 win in the FA Cup Second Round in 1988 when a Lennie Dennis goal seperated the sides.
I was just a bit too young to enjoy Alice Beer back then, but I’m sure I poked a straw into a celebratory carten of Um bongo that night after watching the Third Round draw on Match of the Day which paired us with Coventry City.
I also remember a game at Aylesbury in the early 1990s when we fought back from 4-1 down, I think it was, to draw 4-4 which was cause for more post-match merriment around the town.

We also won 6-0 at their place in 2004 as the Us, under John Rains, finished the season well to claim runners-up spot to Canvey Island. A season which, rather strangely, saw Kettering Town play a cameo role in the Isthmian set-up.

Any rate, you get my point, I miss Aylesbury. Ahem, sorry, Aylesbury United...

All this reminiscing about some big matches from yesteryear has made me forget, momentarily at least, about the matter in hand, Bury Town.

Isthmian League titles come around once in a blue moon for Sutton, 1967, 85, 86 and 99, I just hope by 5pm tomorrow we are a step closer to adding 2011 to that list.

I’d like to write more but I have an appointment with the Alice Beer garden.