“There’s so much outside interest, and there has been for quite a few months now, but I’m quite a level guy and I really try to make sure that the staff and the squad are like that as well. The hype’s getting bigger and bigger, of course it is, but with two games to go, we need four points, so nothing changes.”
That four-point requirement for Matt Gray and his Sutton United team to become National League champions was down to two by the time they kicked off against Hartlepool United last Sunday, by virtue of Barnet’s comeback draw at Torquay United. With U’s supporters back at Gander Green Lane at long last, they brought it on home, and in style in the end.
With not just a league title on offer, but a place in the EFL for the first time in their 123-year history, Robert Milsom’s free-kick squeezed in via a combination of Pools goalkeeper Brad James and post, ten minutes before the break. Defender Louis John’s effort cannoned in after a corner on 73 minutes, before top scorer and on-loan Millwall prospect Isaac Olaofe put the shine on it with a driving run and angled finish for 3-0.
A draw would, in all likelihood, have done it, due to what was a goal difference of six in Sutton’s favour, but they would have had to wait until this coming Saturday at Barnet to rubber-stamp it. Such a scenario would have been a very distant second choice to sealing it in front of their own fans, though for their manager at least, it would have still been a home game of sorts.
“I was born and bred in Barnet, I live in Barnet,” he explained, speaking in the run-up to that Hartlepool clincher. “I still travel down (to Sutton) but we’re three-quarter-time this season; we’ve not been full-time since I’ve been here, we train three mornings a week, so I have been commuting.”
“But whatever happens with us next season, we are going full-time, so I’m in the process of moving down to the Sutton area, and I’m looking forward to continuing to build this club, on and off the pitch.”
Faith in him to do just that was in evidence with early-April’s contract extension for him and assistant Jason Goodliffe. Now the hypotheticals can be cast aside in any case – it is League football next season, for a club that only won the National League South as recently as 2016 (and the Isthmian Premier in 2011).
— Sutton United FC (@suttonunited) May 23, 2021
The south Londoners now found themselves in a League Two containing one-time Premier League names Bradford City, Swindon Town and Oldham Athletic, four years on from that FA Cup run when it took Arsenal in the fifth round to halt their progress. With the likes of Leeds United, AFC Wimbledon and Cheltenham Town seen off, the club was very firmly thrust into the spotlight, and in a wider sense at least, it was the most spectacularly enduring aspect of Paul Doswell’s 11-year tenure.
In what transpired to be the current Havant and Waterlooville boss’ last season, Matt joined the staff as head coach in December 2018. When Doswell took an extended break in March of that campaign, assistant Ian Baird stepped in to hold the fort, with Matt appointed manager at the start of May following Doswell’s subsequent decision to step down altogether.
While already vastly experienced as a coach, it was Matt’s first role as the number one. Did that, allied with succeeding a Sutton great, mean that it took some time to fully feel like ‘the gaffer’?
“Yeah, there was a couple of things really. I’d been assistant manager for 12 years at different clubs, but I knew I was ready to become a manager, I knew the time was right.
“I was scouting for Millwall at the time, in between jobs, and Paul Doswell, who I’ve known years, and Ian Baird, who’s one of my close friends, brought me in for the second half of the previous season just to help with a bit of coaching, see what happened. Then before you know it, he’s decided to move on and I’ve stepped into the number-one shoes.
“It was a tough start for me, a harsh learning curve, with the run that we had, and there were certainly some highs and lows of that first season that are really going to help me in years to come. It is tough, having some big shoes to fill.
“Paul Doswell, a club legend, been there for 11 years, brought unbelievable success, and it was an extremely hard person to follow, but he’s certainly set the foundations for where we are today.”
Matt has been setting his own foundations in the game for years now, though. A former Tottenham Hotspur youngster who went on to Cardiff City, he was a resolute centre-half who captained Hayes, playing in the Conference for the first part of his time there after joining from Barnet.
While with Hayes, ex-Premier League frontman Dean Holdsworth faced him for Havant and Waterlooville, crediting Matt as the toughest opponent he played against that season, and recommending that Havant sign him, which they did. The former Wimbledon forward was also one of the Aldershot Town managers he served under in later years as a coach.
A season in which he was able to consistently get out on the pitch and show what he could do, though, was unfortunately a novelty, resulting in his eventual retirement at 25.
“It was certainly hard to deal with, because I didn’t want to retire at such a young age. Between the age of 19 to 25, I’d had six operations, three knee and three back, so I could never really get fit during that period, but even from a young age, in my early-teens, I always had an eye for coaching, and the tactical and the other side of the game, if you like.
“That’s something I always knew I was going to go into as soon as I finished playing, but you still don’t expect it to be at such a young age. I managed to get the opportunity through Ian Baird, he gave me the chance to be assistant manager at Eastleigh in the National South at the age of 25, so I’m forever thankful to him for giving me that opportunity.
“I seemed to take to it very quickly, and 12 years at three clubs being assistant manager, I certainly learned from some highs and lows, and some invaluable experiences through that time.”
— Sutton United FC (@suttonunited) April 7, 2021
The current season has also come complete with something from each of those categories. The U’s have had their bumps in the road in this most historic of campaigns, but their resilience has been such that a defeat here and there was never enough to knock them off course.
Matt picks out a pivotal period of three games away in one week, beginning at the end of January with a goalless draw at Torquay. A few hundred miles north, came a 1-0 loss to Hartlepool, before a 2-0 win at Stockport County.
It was an especially testing period, against three sides who remain right in the promotion shake-up, and for a Sutton team as well who have been travelling to each away game on the day. Their manager took pride in how they stood up to the challenge, and it set them on their way to a 14-match unbeaten run.
Having finished 15th on a points-per-game basis after their 2019/20 efforts were cut short 38 matches in, did Matt see any visible signs leading into this season that such a surge was in the offing?
“No, not really, to be honest. I’ve only been in the job two seasons, virtually two years to the day since I took over, and the first five games we won two, drew three, and then went on a horrendous run of one win in 14.
“I was inheriting a squad that I wanted to try and change and tweak, and put my stamp on things, and it takes time. I was fortunate enough to be given time by the chairman and the board, who I get on great with.
“The second half of last season, we played 38 league games, but the last 19, we were on an unbelievable run, we were very hard to beat and we were getting some really good results, so it sort of went under the radar, I’d say, for the second half of last season. We kept the majority of the squad, which was great, they’d done so well, and signed a couple of new additions.
“Managed to have a good pre-season and hit the ground running, and really haven’t looked back. I’m not surprised that we’re in the top third of the league, even though not many people would expect us to be there.
“Great team spirit, a young, fit, hungry group of lads, and we’ve just managed to get going, but in all fairness, I think we’ve exceeded anyone’s expectations to be sitting where we are.”
Good night!!!! pic.twitter.com/On1pMVf9aN
— Matt Gray (@MattGray25) May 24, 2021
When his new deal was announced last month, chairman Bruce Elliott commented how the club ‘could not be more thrilled with the job he’s done’ – maybe last Sunday’s achievement, though, just nudged that delight ever so slightly higher. Aforementioned assistant Jason Goodliffe, whose son Ben is a centre-back for The U’s, has been another crucial element.
The former Sutton, Hayes, Stevenage and AFC Wimbledon defender was described by Matt as ‘the only person I wanted to bring in with me for my first managerial job’ two years ago. Another example of the unity and understanding that has been the bedrock of what they have achieved.
That was certainly on display when even goalkeeper Dean Bouzanis joined the goal celebrations after Louis John made it 2-0 on Sunday. The former Oldham stopper featured on this site last August, and his partner, Arsenal Women’s Steph Catley, seemed to have brought every one of her English-based Australia teammates to the Hartlepool game when the BT Sport cameras picked them out in the crowd!
There is the feeling for those at the club of something that everyone can revel in, now more than ever. For Matt as manager, how does he approach having a connection to his players but also a degree of perhaps important distance?
“As an assistant, I was always that middle man, and being a young assistant as well, I was more often than not similar ages to the players at my previous clubs. So, I’ve always played that link man between the manager and the players very well.
“I’m still probably classed as a young manager, hopefully, at 39. Yes, I have made a little bit of a step away from the players, but I want them to feel relaxed around me, they can talk to me about anything at any time, and I can have a laugh and a joke with them, and I do, but they also know when I’m being serious and it’s time to work.
“I’m massive on people and characters. I want a good team spirit and hard-working group of players that are honest, and once they cross that line, they’re going to give me and the club everything.
“I’ve certainly managed to build that, then once you start getting into the football and the tactical side, that all comes, but the foundations are people and characters first, that’s a big thing for me. I love being in that first-team environment.”
It is his group, his Class of ’21, who are down in history now – immortalised in amber. Those proud FA Cup giant-killings down the years will now have to politely make way for mentions of the here and now, first and foremost. Sutton United: a League club, one of the 92.
There is one more game to play to round off their season, but after that, surely it is time for the gaffer to get out into the action himself. Well, in a roundabout way at least.
“Yeah, I love my golf! I try and play when I can, but I’ve not played at all, with all that’s been going on.
“Golf is very relaxing for me and I love to get on the golf course when I can. Right now, when we’re at the business-end of the season, the golf clubs are firmly locked away.
“Hopefully, when the season finishes, I’ll be able to get one or two rounds in.”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
It’d probably be the day before a match day, when we’re really going into the detail. Myself and Jason Goodliffe, my assistant, watch so many videos of the opposition and we really analyse who we’re playing, both with and without the ball. So that day before the game, preparation, is what I enjoy the most.
Will you ever take part in training, in terms of actually being in the session as an active part, like an extra player?
One, I wouldn’t, but two, I’d like the option to! Unfortunately, my knee and my back would not let me even get close to that white line, so those days are long gone.
Favourite ground that you’ve visited or would like to visit
Grounds that I’ve been involved in, I think Fratton Park’s an unbelievable place to play football. The noise and the passionate supporters that are packed into that old-school ground is just unique. I’ve never actually been to Newcastle, that’s one ground I’ve never been to but would love to go to. I’ve been to most football grounds in the country but not St. James’ Park, and they’re passionate supporters up there.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
Being from Barnet, north London, you’re either a Tottenham or Arsenal fan. My family gave me no choice, being Spurs fans, so growing up in the late-80s/early-90s, at that young age when you first remember football, Paul Gascoigne. That sort of era when I was 9/10/11 and Gazza was playing for Tottenham, he was certainly my idol, my hero at the time.
And how would you have sold the club to him, if you were trying to sign him for Sutton (in his prime)?!
I’d probably try and get hold of Terry Venables first! I’d ask him how he tried to manage him, because he seemed to get the best out of him, whether that’s for England or Tottenham.
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
I love my golf, so that’s always a good one for footballers and a bit of team spirit, to have a recovery on the golf course. Maybe a little bit of the nightlife and building that side of things, certainly, but the football’s the most important thing, so probably trying to tick all those three boxes, somewhere I go quite a lot in the off-season myself, Portugal and the Algarve. I know they’ve got unbelievable football training facilities down there, and I’m sure we could have the odd team night out as well.
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
There’s good things about the job and there’s certainly some difficult things, but either dropping players or letting players go is certainly the hardest thing. I always feel as long as you’re being honest with them, you’re giving them straight answers, unfortunately that’s part of the game.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
Wow (thinking…). I was gonna say there’s so many but there’s not one coming to mind! I’d probably just say when I left Spurs and I signed for Cardiff, Sam Hammam was the chairman, with Bobby Gould as manager. They were certainly trying to create a little bit of the Welsh ‘Crazy Gang’ (from Wimbledon), so there’s some lively stories that I probably wouldn’t be able to repeat! But my time at Cardiff as a 19-year-old was certainly an experience.
Your routine on a match day
I’m a very routine person, especially on a match day, and I do like my own time. In the mornings before games, I always like to go for a walk, I go for at least an hour, just on my own, clear my head, put some music on. I always pick Jason Goodliffe up, he’s on the way round, and we always like to get to the ground very early, get a coffee on the way in. We like to get to the office hours before kick-off and just chill out and go through our bits and pieces and everything we need to do to make sure we’re fully organised for the game ahead.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist
I don’t know, I feel I’m slightly getting too old for this now! The music they listen to in the dressing room now, there’s a few ones I don’t know! Louis John’s our dressing-room DJ, so I think I’ll leave Louis to that one. I think if I put one on, the lads would wonder ‘what’s come on here?’
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
Be honest, hard-working, and the rest will take care of itself.
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
It would be a close one out of Terry Venables or Alex Ferguson. So if I could have both of them, having a glass of wine with both of those sitting round a table, what an evening that would be.
Any misconceptions about you as a player/manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
Not unless you’re gonna tell me one! I don’t think there’s been any. I like to think on the outside they look at my teams and know that we’re extremely organised, extremely hard-working, and when we’ve got the ball, there’s many ways that we can play to go and get a result. So, nothing I’m overly concerned about.
And finally, what’s the best thing about having this life around football? When you wake up and football’s your focus for the day, do you still get that same buzz as you always did?
Without a doubt, and it’s even stronger now as a manager. Football’s all I’ve ever known and all I’ve ever done. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, and I’m fortunate enough to be in it in a full-time capacity. As I said, I’ve always known I wanted to be a manager, so now to wake up and go and work with the players and staff, and the chairman and board that I’ve got, I’m extremely lucky. That gives me a huge buzz every time I wake up in the morning, and I just want to succeed for all those people and the supporters.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes