Groundhopping: Gander Green Lane – home of Sutton United FC

Groundhopping: Gander Green Lane – home of Sutton United FC

Gander Green Lane will become the focus of the footballing world for a couple of hours on Monday evening as non-league side Sutton United aim to pull off a major giantkilling feat against Arsenal in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup. And it feels like the perfect weekend for it! (Huge congratulations to Lincoln City by the way on their stunning win at Burnley)

Sutton’s ground will be packed to the rafters for the game, but it’s all a far cry from the cup tie we took in at Gander Green Lane last month, as Sutton United hosted Isthmian/Ryman Premier League side Worthing in a FA Trophy Second Round replay on a chilly Tuesday night on January 24th in front of just 496 fans.

But if the Arsenal game can produce as pulsating a match as that one, then we’ll be in for a treat.

The match was played five days before Sutton were set to face Leeds United in their massive FA Cup Fourth Round tie, and it produced five goals, a contentious disallowed goal, a storming two-goal comeback and a late stoppage time equaliser for the Rebels to take the tie to extra time, and a late winner for the U’s to settle things.

120 minutes of football five days before their biggest game for years was not what Sutton were looking for as an ideal preparation, but it didn’t seem to hurt them, although they did rest a number of key players for the Trophy tie. As you’ll all know, they followed up their 3-2 extra time win over Worthing with a stunning 1-0 win over the Championship side a few days later.

That win set up Monday’s tie against Arsenal and 5,013 supporters will pack into Gander Green Lane to take in the action.

The stadium will be buzzing, the TV cameras will be there, and it’s a cracking little ground to see it all play out in.

As fans of AFC Wimbledon, and long time members of the Dons Trust, it was tough to see Sutton knock the Wombles out of the FA Cup in the Third Round after a replay. Even tougher as I’d headed over to the UK hoping I’d be seeing Wimbledon in action in Fourth Round action.

It wasn’t to be, but despite that heartbreaking loss, there’s always been a very friendly rivalry between the two sides. Sutton United were the first game the newly-formed AFC Wimbledon played all those years ago in 2002 in a preseason friendly. Their stadiums are only around five miles apart and fans of both teams hold each other in high regard. Gander Green Lane is also the home to Wimbledon’s Ladies team, along with Combined Counties League Premier Division side Sutton Common Rovers.

Gander Green Lane is a stadium I’ve wanted to visit for a while. Circumstances, namely other games and the non-cooperating fixture list when I’ve been in London, prevented that until a few weeks ago, when it seemed fated that I should finally get to pay a visit to the ground.

Heading to Wales from Scotland to cover the ‘Caps preseason games, a quick detour to London was in order. The plan was to see Wimbledon play at Gillingham on the Tuesday night, but frost took its toll of that fixture and my chance to watch the Dons play League One football for the first time and enjoy the Gills special ‘Pie and Mash’ night.

My back up plan was to finally get to see Dulwich Hamlet play (and if you don’t know about the 124 year old club, their excellent set-up, and their strongly activist left-wing supporters, check them out HERE and we also encourage you to join us as members of their Supporters Trust to help the club thrive). That had actually been my original first choice plan on the trip to London before the Wimbledon game was rescheduled for that night, but again the weather hit hard and the Dulwich Hamlet game was called off in the early afternoon. So that left only one option – heading to Sutton.

A lot more time and travel to get there, but worth it, and the game was guaranteed to be on thanks to Sutton’s 3G pitch. Never thought I’d be singing the benefits of a UK club not having grass, but the instalment of their new surface was completed in July 2015 and the club has thrived since. Competitive advantage? Certainly. Financial advantage? Absolutely.

Built as a site for allotments and open fields in 1898, Gander Green Lane was first developed as a football ground in 1912. Considering Sutton’s proud FA Cup history over the years, it’s perhaps fitting that The U’s first match at their new ground was a FA Cup tie, a 1-1 draw against Guards Depot FC.

Changes to the Borough of Sutton have seen a few forced redevelopments to the stadium over the years, one of the biggest coming with the building of a railway line that runs at the back of the ground (West Sutton station is just a minute’s walk from the stadium), and although there’s been some building and rebuilding, the ground has kept it’s shape and character over the years.

Gander Green Lane (the Borough Sports Ground is technically its official name, but no-one calls it that) has one seated grandstand just back from one touchline, and three covered standing enclosures around the pitch. There’s also a couple of open terracing areas. It’s not the most tightly enclosed non-league stadium you’ll find, and there’s reasons for that which we’ll come to later, but you can be right on the pitch and the players if you choose to be, and why wouldn’t you?!

Access to the ground, apart from on big match days with segregation, is through the main entrance just off the actual street Gander Green Lane, and one set of historic Ellison turnstiles.

Normal admission is £15 for adults (which was also the admission for the FA Trophy tie against Worthing), with a further £2 transfer if you want to sit in the stand. Understandably, for the Arsenal game, adult admission is £35 for the stand and £30 for terracing tickets.

The normal matchday programme costs £2.50 for 24 pages, and can be found from sellers once you’re through the turnstiles. There’s also a programme hut, which we always love and really should put together a compilation of our favourites ones from various grounds. It wasn’t used on the night we were visiting sadly, as seems to always be the case these days. Another dying icon of the past.

Once through the turnstiles, you have the club shop to your left, stocking a full range of Sutton souvenirs and old programmes from around the UK. Then you’re just faced with where you want to take in the game.

Open terracing and the grandstand is ahead of you. Covered terracing and access to the rest of the stadium to your left. But with an open ground and no segregation, why just limit yourself to the one spot?!

Talking of things of a forgotten age of football, any time you’re at a ground where you can freely change ends at half time always warms the cockles of our cold AFTN hearts. Mingling with the away support (which incidentally respect to the large amount of Worthing fans who made the trip and were vocal throughout), banter, always being behind the goal your team is shooting into. Does it get better than that? Certainly not in the mass of non-descript lookalike lego stadiums around the world these days. Man, how I miss changing ends.

The official capacity of the ground currently stands at just 5,013, a major decrease on Gander Green Lane’s record attendance of 14,000 against Leeds United in the 1969/70 FA Cup. There was no Cup upset that day, with Leeds running away 6-0 winners.

In recent years, the largest attendance came in January 1989 when around 8,000 packed into Gander Green Lane to see the FA Cup shock of the Third Round as Sutton United knocked out top flight Coventry City 2-1.

Much fewer will see Monday’s game against Arsenal, but they’ll be hoping for the same result.

Although no original structures remain at Gander Green Lane, it’s still a ground of considerable character.

The current grandstand seats 765 supporters, and was first built in 1951. It’s undergone a few facelifts over the years, with the most recent being the installation of new blue and red seats. Those are the club’s colours, which are amber and chocolate, but they were donated by Chelsea, so you take what you can get when you operate on a shoestring budget.

Of all the major changes to Gander Green Lane over the years, the most significant one of recent times came in 2014, when the athletics track that went around the pitch was finally removed.

This resulted in the dugouts being placed in front of the main stand, and a players tunnel built to come out from under it.

But the biggest change to the look of the ground came with the building of two new covered standing terraces behind each goal (the Securicor Terrace and the Collingwood Road End), to bring fans closer to the adjusted pitch now that the athletics track was no longer in the way.

The third covered standing terrace sits opposite the grandstand and dates back to 1986. The Rec Terrace was build when two old wooden sleeper stands were removed. A television gantry was built on the top of this terrace, and will be where you’re watching the broadcast called from on Monday.

But in a nice nod to the history of the ground, part of one of those stands was kept. Christened ‘the shoebox’ by the Sutton supporters, there’s only three steps, and it doesn’t hold many fans, but it’s a wonderful memory of Gander Green Lane’s past. I watched a little bit of the Worthing game from there. It’s unique.

Foodwise, there are three places where fans can enjoy a pie and bovril, or a burger and chips if you really must. There’s Jenny’s Kitchen beside the grandstand and two “Rose’s” food huts, either side of the Rec Terrace.

Rose was the lady that served up fare to the fans at Gander Green Lane for over 40 years, so it’s another nice historical nod by the club.

Obviously I went for the pie and bovril option from Jenny’s. Steak and kidney. Delicious.

A lot of work at the ground has been undertaken by volunteers over the years. There’s still a lot of work that Sutton United are wanting to do, and this Cup run will certainly help them achieve some of that at the very least.

Sutton currently play in the National League, the highest level of non-league football in England and the 5th tier on the pyramid system. It’s the highest level Sutton have played at and their seventh season in total that they have been one step away from League football. Sutton returned to this level of competition this season after a 16 year absence, after being crowned 2015/16 National League South champions.

Sutton’s Cup run has hit their league form a little. They’re currently sitting 17th of the 24 teams in the National League, only three points above the relegation places, but they do at least have three games in hand from those around them.

In a lovely quirk, their most recent league game to be called off was this weekend, when they were meant to be hosting fellow FA Cup giantkillers Lincoln City.

Good luck to Sutton on Monday against Arsenal. Gander Green Lane will certainly be bouncing.

You can find all of our photos from our Groundhopping trip to Sutton United HERE and in the slideshow below. If nothing else, this will have given you a great taste for the ground you’ll be watching on TV on Monday, but we hope it’s given you a lot more and a desire to visit Gander Green Lane next time you’re in the South London area.

And if you want to watch highlights from that FA Trophy game between Sutton and Worthing, here they are!

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Authored by: Michael McColl

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