Around a quarter of an hour after Sutton United’s victory over Leeds, Gander Green Lane’s front office started filling up with giddy people in club tracksuits and blazers. I was sat in the corner, trying to connect a temperamental laptop to the ground’s creaking but capable WiFi network, and could not help but overhear their excited talk. It was all about the potential opponents and profits that non-league teams dream of when they reach the fifth round of the FA Cup, until one tired and apprehensive voice cut through and said: “I hope we don’t have to do all this again.”
Well, they do. This time, their visitors are not mere Championship promotion-chasers either, but one of the few football clubs with a truly global reach. When Arsenal, their supporters and the world’s media arrive in Sutton on Monday night, this semi-professional outfit will be tested to their limit. “I have ended up putting the club under enormous pressure over the last month,” admitted Paul Doswell, the manager, during his pre-match press conference, sounding almost apologetic for being too successful.
His chairman, Bruce Elliott, also recognises the strain that this game, a “bigger than huge” tie, will have on the club. “We were all busy jumping up and down when the draw was made, with some justification I think,” he says. “But we perhaps didn’t quite understand the profile of the game and how many people – quite frighteningly – will be watching it all over the world.”
Elliott dismissed initial suggestions that the tie could be switched to the Emirates out of hand, despite the precedent set by Farnborough Town when they were drawn with Arsenal in 2003. The competition’s traditions will be respected and the fixture will be fulfilled, thanks in the main to this humble club’s bedrock: its volunteers.
“That’s what you need to write about,” said Doswell, who himself does not take a wage for his services. “The volunteers here have genuinely taken off holiday days for us to carry on, to do what is a normal situation for [other clubs].” Elliott estimates the club have called upon the generosity of between 100 to 150 people, who have carried out menial tasks here and there in order to get everything in order.
Some have pitched in for the first time given the extreme circumstances. Others are regulars, like Tony Dolbear, who has acted as the club’s press officer for almost 30 years. His full-time job at an international law firm has had to take a backseat at times in recent months as he attempts to accommodate the growing interest in his club.
“The biggest thing is dealing with people who don’t realise that we’re a part-time club who trains twice a week,” he explains, talking to me as he works through a four-hour backlog of emails. “The rest of the week we’ve all got different jobs, we’re all in different parts of London or the south of England.” Players cannot just turn up at a location of a media outlet’s choice to do interviews on any given afternoon, as Dolbear had to explain to one eager film crew this week. “If we were a top level club, we’d all be working, having a meeting at 9 o’clock every morning saying: ‘This is what’s coming today. This we’ll do, this we won’t do’.” At Sutton, that’s not possible.
So people help out when and where they can; manning the phones, re-stocking the club shop, or just making cups of tea. “So many have just said: ‘Can we give you a hand?’,” Elliott says. “Everywhere you go, if you ask somebody if they can do a job the first thing they say is: ‘How much?’ That never happens here.”
Progression through the competition has brought greater challenges each time. The third round meeting with neighbours Wimbledon was “nice, just comfortable,” says Dolbear. Leeds was “a bit more of a challenge” and Arsenal has been “complete mayhem, in an organised way”, he adds.
There were, of course, always going to be some problems. Supporters queued outside Gander Green Lane for Arsenal tickets in temperatures below freezing, with some waiting for almost five hours and others missing out entirely. Yet 30 or so volunteers were out there with them, attempting to meet the demand on their own time. Without them, the disappointment would have been greater.
Indeed, without those like him who are willing to pitch in, Dolbear wonders if Sutton would be competing at their current level. “They are integral for the whole club, and not just for this match, but for the whole season,” he says, when asked whether Arsenal’s visit could be done without them. “It’s probably more fundamental than saying if Monday’s game could go ahead. It’s probably [the case] that if the volunteers weren’t there, who knows what position we’d be in?”
Everywhere you go, if you ask somebody if they can do a job the first thing they say is: ‘How much?’ That never happens here.
Monday’s Cup tie is the sort of fixture which can put such uncertainty to bed. The exposure and financial rewards it has already brought, combined with Doswell and Elliott’s impressive work, could be enough to establish the club as a National League mainstay and ease the ever-present threat of relegation. Yet even if they earn a lucrative replay at the Emirates, the club’s community spirit will remain sacred.
“We hope it won’t change the way the club is run, the way we operate,” says Dolbear. He will still do his bit and ask nothing in return, as will the others his club relies upon. “Hopefully as people have seen over the last couple of months, we try to be as accommodating, helpful and as welcoming as we can,” he adds. “I think we’re that sort of club anyway.”