Sutton United 2 Hartlepool United 0
Saturday 17 September 2022
Uncharted territory best describes our final new ground from the Covid era. Sutton’s first Football League season passed us by, and in fact it was well over twenty years since either of us had actually seen them play. I did once persuade my friend to drive us down in his Morris Marina for a Telford game; flawed geography meant we ended up at Sutton Coldfield Town instead.
Sutton United first used Gander Green Lane during 1912-13, returning permanently seven years later. The then Adult School Sports Ground occupied land formerly comprising fields and allotments, while a large country house – Strawberry Lodge – stood next door. This site had been donated for community use by local philanthropist and sausage magnate Sir Thomas Wall. The former Adult School on Benhill Avenue is now named after him.
Brock’s factory was another near neighbour. Explosives expert Frank Brock – “Pyrotechnisis by Appointment to HM King George” – employed more than 400 people, producing 100,000 fireworks and sparklers every day at his extensive site off present-day Windsor Avenue. Brock’s Benefit displays at Crystal Palace had already been taking place since 1826; the company could trace its history back over two and a half centuries.
This area gradually became more and more built up as London’s south-western suburbs expanded. West Sutton station – whose platforms adjoin Gander Green Lane – opened in 1930 to serve its burgeoning commuter population. The present-day Sutton Loop Line branches between Streatham and Sutton, incorporating elements of several pre-war suburban routes. A steeply banked mainline junction south of West Sutton is known rather dramatically as the Wall of Death.
The Borough Sports Ground hosted athletics for many years, with its elliptical shape leaving pitch and stands some distance apart. Sweeping terraces followed the same profile; two small but ornate pavilions occupied the Collingwood Rec side, and beside them were three concrete steps. These became known as the Shoebox and provided elevated (if cramped) views for generations of supporters. A refreshments pavilion stood behind.
Occasional bright landmarks punctuated Sutton’s solid Athenian and Isthmian League history. There were 1960s Amateur Cup finals, lost to Wimbledon (1963) and North Shields (1969), while a 1981 FA Trophy defeat against Bishops Stortford brought more Wembley disappointment. And – in one surreal, yet treasured interlude – they overcame Juniorcasale, Cremonese and Pisa en route to winning the 1979 Anglo-Italian Cup at Chieti’s mountain-side stadium.
FA Cup success proved more elusive. Champions Leeds unsurprisingly won 6-0 here in 1970, Allan Clarke scoring four and Peter Lorimer two. The next major excitement didn’t come until 1987, when Aldershot and Peterborough were beaten to set up a home tie with Middlesbrough. Gary Pallister’s well-placed second half header put Sutton’s Second Division opponents ahead; Nigel Golley equalised, and they narrowly lost the Ayresome Park replay after extra time.
Golley would also feature twelve months later as Barrie Williams’ team sensationally beat 1987 Cup winners Coventry. Williams – an English teacher at Carshalton Boys’ School – was unfairly stereotyped when Match of the Day focused lazily on his pipe-smoking, Kipling-quoting eccentricity. They might equally well have mentioned qualities that led one former player to describe him as “A scholar of the game he loved and one of the best managers of his generation.”
This trip seemed made for the drive-renting approach that had worked so well at Wimbledon (Sutton’s near neighbours, who played their first ever game here. Both sets of fans have remained friendly ever since). It landed us – after a trouble-free trip down the M40, past Heathrow and through Banstead – just five minutes away. We simply had to stroll along Collingwood Road, turn right through some park gates and amble past Gander Green Lane’s treelined yet spectacularly graffiti-ed away entrance.
There’s something pleasant about football grounds in public gardens. Conkers lay around underfoot as stewards, looking distinctly underemployed, loitered awkwardly around shrubbery-framed turnstiles like self-conscious park-keepers. Things would prove equally relaxed post-match; several dozen Hartlepool supporters strolled amiably past us towards the station, we set off on our own long but trouble-free return journey.
Gander Green Lane is the archetypal loveable hotch-potch of amateur stereotype, updated awkwardly thanks to Sutton’s League adventure. Both semi-circular ends have been squared off. Two complete flank sections survive, as does a section of original track hidden behind the new visitors’ end. This combines prefabricated terracing and seats beneath one bland, prefabricated roof; another plain shelter opposite caters for home supporters.
There’s still plenty of history about. The substantial 1950s main stand – complete with classic bird’s-beak roof overhang – features red and blue seats acquired from Stamford Bridge, while a covered standing enclosure opposite was built forty years ago to replace those 1920s-era pavilions. It now flanks extemporised disabled accommodation (apparently made from scaffolding poles) that has criminally obliterated the much-loved Shoebox.
I could see obvious parallels here with Harrogate’s Wetherby Road. Both grounds underwent rapid, piecemeal refurbishment to facilitate League football; the outcome isn’t pretty, but delightful chaos compensates. Plenty of untouched corners remain, adverts randomly plaster every surface and stern stewarding gets cheerfully ignored by spectators who – having long inhabited a Heath Robinson world – care little for Sky-era jobsworthery.
Flesh and wine
Punters supped al fresco around the newly-built fanzone, but we had banked on Sutton – in traditional non-League style – having decent social facilities. So it proved; punters played bingo at zoned-off corporate tables, and the cosy picture-lined back room sold Fuller’s London Pride at distinctly un-London prices. Particularly pleasing was a refreshment hatch that offered (among other things) fish finger sandwiches.
Today’s main event waited outside, where the Gandermonium collective were drinking in bright sunshine and celebrating Chairman Totts’ sixtieth birthday. For sheer good-natured lunacy these lads take some beating; their prodigious output also features Comrade X’s music (“one geezer, one guitar, three chords and the truth”) while celebrating all that’s important about football. Despite what people say it’s sometimes good to meet your heroes.
I felt hungry again so visited one of several refreshment stands branded as “Rose’s”. The original Rose’s Tea Hut was named after Rose Ford, who had originally volunteered to help her mother with matchday refreshments during World War 2 and ended up staying for more than sixty years. Rose’s became a Gander Green Lane institution; she used to sell hot cross buns at Easter and mince pies every Christmas. Only overpriced hot dogs were available today.
Hartlepool were yet to win a game. Sutton looked almost as bad, with only nippy striker Donovan Wilson – who grazed the post and shot narrowly over – creating any real first half excitement. Rob Milsom’s pulled hamstring and consequent substitution necessitated some positional reshuffling; this enabled the visitors to dominate midfield, effectively strangling any creative play.
Everything changed with Will Randall-Hurren’s opening goal, a precise tap-in following good approach work by Wilson. The second wasn’t far behind. Craig Eastmond set it up with his long cross from the right, and Beautyman’s glanced diving header – although spectacular – looked miles offside. Hartlepool then got their act together, forcing several good saves from Jack Rose; too little, too late and Enzio Boldewijn should really have secured Sutton’s comfortable victory in the dying seconds.
Teams and goals
Sutton: Rose, Kizzi (Smith 93), Rowe, John, Milsom (Barden 18), Neufville (Boldewijn 80), Eastmond, Beautyman, Randall-Hurren, Bugiel (Kouassi 81), Wilson (Kendall 81). Unused subs: Ward, Thomas.
Hartlepool: Killip, Menayese, Murray, Lacey (Hastie 68), Tumilty (Sterry 57), Crawford, Niang (Shelton 68), Paterson (Ferguson 57), Cooke, McDonald (Ndjoli 58), Umerah. Unused subs: Letheren, Oduor.
Goals: Randell-Hurren 53, Beautyman 66.