The game: Sutton United v. Bromley.
The ground: The Borough Sports Ground.
The conditions: frostbitten. I am typing this with my last remaining finger.
It was a cold, cold Tuesday evening in Sutton, and I was bumping, jolting and rattling my way down Gander Green Lane on the chilly 413 bus. Coming to my journey’s end outside The Borough Sports Ground (or simply ‘Gander Green Lane’) and stepping out into the night, I realised that this, this very spot, was the furthest south I’d ever been in London – or possibly in my life.
For a moment, it was sort of like that bit of Lord of the Rings when the little men with the hairy feet worry about how far they’ve gone from home. Poignant, basically. However, rather than going on a mystical quest to save the earth, I was planning to watch the ‘Us’ of Sutton United take on the ‘Ravens’ of Bromley. Less poignant but, despite the rapidly falling temperature, also considerably less perilous.
With the visitors top of the table before kick off, they had their own sort of peril to contend with; Bromley couldn’t afford to drop points with Borehamwood so close behind them in the table, while mid-table Sutton would be keen to upset their local rivals’ title chances. The pressure at the top certainly seemed to get to the Ravens, who were on the back foot from the first whistle. With only four minutes on the clock, Us striker Dan Fitchett darted onto a long ball before rocketing a shot at Alan Julian; diving to his left, the away keeper just managed to push this out.
Establishing prolonged possession, Sutton built on their fast start. Both full backs began to maraud up and down the flanks, left back Dale Binns especially; several early half chances were created from accurate crosses in, with Bedsente Gomis and Fitchett the targets. Then, in the twelfth minute, Fitchett won the ball high up the pitch before teeing Gomis up on the edge of the box; his hard drive was palmed away by Julian, but Bromley’s stopper seemed anything but comfortable.
With the away fans roaring the wavering Ravens on from behind the home goal, they did manage to fashion a chance of their own five minutes later. After a foul on young forward Bradley Goldberg, a quick free kick caught the Sutton defence napping; Louis Dennis nipped in behind before unleashing a stinging shot on target, yet he was denied by home stopper Aaron Howe. Still, the Sutton pressure soon resumed; Fitchett had two decent efforts at goal almost immediately, one a rising strike on the turn and the other a looping shot over the bar.
The league leaders were certainly trying to take control of the game, but nothing was quite working for them; oddly bitty going forward, they struggled to counterattack even on the occasions that Sutton ceded them the ball. This was most obvious when, in the twenty-ninth minute, a Ravens counter broke down in the final third and led to an instant breakaway by the Us. Attacking midfielder Ricky Wellard dashed up the right flank and into the area before shooting low at Julian; his shot was blocked by a covering defender, but the ball then came to Gomis to power into the net from five yards. One-nil Sutton.
It was a merited lead for the home side, and it could have swiftly increased. After a great run and cross from Binns, Fitchett was only denied a headed goal by a last-second intervention from Bromley’s Jack Holland. From the consequent corner, the Us’ Michael Spillane floated his own header inches wide. A couple more half chances came and went for Gomis before, in the forty-first minute, Binns went for goal himself; tearing up the left wing for the umpteenth time, he cut inside, slipped between two defenders and flicked a dipping shot toward the far post – Julian did really well to get down low and make the save.
That brought the half to a close, and I shuddered my way to Rose’s Tea Hut for the most necessary cup of cha I’ve ever bought in my life. Using its meagre heat to partially defrost my hands, I reflected on an excellent first-half display from Sutton; from what I’d seen so far, the league upset seemed well and truly on.
Play soon recommenced, and the away side looked to make an instant impression. In the forty-seventh minute, Ravens defender Joe Anderson broke away on the left before firing a speculative, swerving shot toward the near post; this almost wrong footed Howe, but the Us keeper managed to recover and keep it out. Three minutes later, Goldberg won a free kick on the right which Anderson thumped straight down the middle of goal; again Howe kept him out, yet Bromley’s intent was far more apparent.
That said, Sutton still looked good. In the fifty-second, Gomis found himself free in the middle of the park; dragging two Bromley defenders out wide, he then made acres of space for midfielder Kieron Forbes with an audacious backheeled pass. Forbes knocked the ball well ahead of him and, sprinting on, hit a pinpoint, first-time shot toward the far corner of the net. With the save of the match, Julian leapt to his right and brushed this round the post with his fingertips.
Both sides made chances over the next fifteen minutes, but there was nothing on target; more than anything, the game became about which set of fans could wind up the opposition keeper most effectively. The Bromley fans were the clear winners in this endeavour; though both keepers’ kicking became increasingly erratic, Aaron Howe seemed to have been wholly put off by the whistling, hooting and chanting behind him – in an otherwise level period he made a number of uneasy mistakes.
In the seventy-first minute, out of very little, one of these mistakes told. Coming out to collect a long Anderson cross from the left, Howe misjudged the flight of the ball and fumbled; towering Ravens striker Jamie Slabber prodded in to equalise before running to high five a surging wall of elated away support.
After this, the game was turned on its head completely. Bar some good play from Binns and Fitchett to set up Forbes in the Ravens’ area – he shot an inch too high – it was suddenly all Bromley. In the eighty-first minute, after a mix up in the Us’ back line, Goldberg stole in behind to go one on one with Howe; chipping the keeper, his finessed effort bounced back off the crossbar before being smashed away. Ravens wide man Moses Ademola was everywhere at once, seeing several on-target shots only just blocked, while Danny Waldren had a thunderous effort of his own deflected out for a corner; delivered in by Ademola, this too was prodded in by the unmarked Slabber. Two-one to the visitors.
An understandably staggered Sutton side had no answer to this; Bromley could have made it three-one in the eighty-ninth, but Howe made a reflex save to keep out Goldberg from five yards. Playing it shrewdly to the corner flag, Bromley then saw out the game; the referee blew, and the turnaround was complete.
It was, in the end, the league leaders who upset the footballing odds; up until the first goal, Sutton had certainly played the better stuff. Nevertheless, a win in difficult circumstances is the sort of thing title tilts are made of; however harsh it might be on the Us, the Ravens swooped when it mattered.
Result: Sutton United 1 Bromley 2.
My MoM: Dale Binns (Sutton). A storming, buccaneering first half from the left back; his second half was a little more muted, but still a top performance.
Best fans: Bromley. In the battle of goalkeeping distraction, they won.