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Official Review by Sander Kolsloot, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
As is known to many followers of this website and to groundhoppers in general, England has many levels of professional, semi-professional and amateur football. As League Two is the lowest of all professional levels, the National League is the highest semi-professional option. Within these divisions, you can find beautiful old grounds, such as Dagenham & Redbridge’s classic Victoria Road, Lincoln’s Sincil Bank (although it was renovated in the 90s), the Racecourse Ground in Wrexham - one of the UK’s oldest grounds - Dover’s Crabble Athletic Ground and Macclesfield Town’s Moss Rose.
If you are in London, you’ve got plenty to choose from when it comes to semi-pro footy. Dagenham & Redbridge is located on the north side of the city (reachable by tube) and on the south side, you’ve got several options.
Gander Green Lane
Not a lot of people will have taken the trip down to this beauty, which has been the home of Sutton United since 1919. Sutton United Football Club was founded in 1898, so it has already passed its own centenary. The club didn’t gain much sporting attention until 1910 when it gained a status in the Southern Suburban league.
Originally playing at multiple spots further down the road, SUFC moved into The Borough Sports Ground (Gander Green Lane) in the 1912/1913 season (It was called the Adult School Sports Ground at the time), although were only there for a year before moving to a field on Grove Road called The Find.
Sutton's opening match at Gander Green Lane was against Guards Depot in the FA Cup. The first league game (and first home win) of Sutton came against Redhill, when a crowd of over 800 watched Sutton win 1-0. After a brief stint at ‘The Find,’ Sutton moved back into Gander Green Lane after World War I. The club spent this period in the Athenian League, winning the league in 1928. During these years the club enjoyed good results in the amateur leagues and most notably in the Amateur cup, reaching the semi-finals in both 1929 and 1937.
After World War II, in which the stadium remarkably had been untouched despite London being heavily bombed, the club continued to play in the Athenian League but made more waves off the field, establishing themselves as one of the more progressive and forward-thinking clubs in the country. Sutton United turned into a Limited Company, Sutton United FC Ltd.
In the 1950/1951 season plans had been drawn up for building a new grandstand, costing the club around 3,000, a small fortune at the time. The Grounds Improvements Committee had been busy during the year and had gained the use of the land neighbouring the railway, on which a car park had been constructed. Using railway sleepers, construction of a new terrace was also well advanced.
The Borough Council put up £1,200 as part of the Coronation celebrations on condition that construction of the stand was finished on schedule. A considerable saving was achieved through volunteer labour, notably digging three dozen holes, each 6 ft deep and 4 ft square, all filled with concrete. Architects' plans for the completion of the new grandstand by constructing full accommodation below were examined, at a cost of £10,000 for the work. The local Council agreed to provide a loan to enable the costs to be met.
In January of the 1962/1963 season the club was invited to join the Isthmian League and £5,000 was spent on new floodlights. In the same season, the club reached the final of the Amateur Cup, heading to Wembley and losing to Wimbledon (4-2). The club won the Isthmian league the next season and in 1969 they were heading to Wembley again, suffering a defeat at the hands of North Shields.
The summer after the championship winning season of 1985/1986 a group of volunteer supporters cleared away the wooden sleepers behind the goal at the Collingwood Road end of the ground, to allow a new concrete terrace to be constructed. Next, the perimeter fence and main stand were painted before the changing rooms were redecorated. In late February of the 1996/1997 season construction work started on the Securicor terrace and was completed in late March. Supporters were asked to help meet the costs of the work through a scheme called "Buy A Brick," and the list of contributors is preserved in a plaque attached to the back of the structure. "Buy A Brick" raised in excess of £7,000.
In the summer of 2000/2001 new floodlights were installed at the ground. There have also been other small changes to the ground over the past few years, such as the new tea hut for Rose that was put in at the same time as the floodlights. There was also a new drainage system put in during the same time as the new floodlights and other little things here and there to keep the ground in shape. The club shop moved spots as well, now into a port-a-cabin when you enter the ground. The record attendance for Gander Green Lane is 14,000 and was set when Sutton United played Leeds United in the FA Cup in the 1969/1970 season.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
If you are entering the ground, you'll probably be disappointed at first sight. There's no visible food or beverage outlet. But if you look a little further, you'll see Jenny's kitchen, tucked away under the main stand of the stadium. Jenny's serves burgers and fries, hot rolls and some sodas. Prices are very reasonable for London standards - £2 for a burger, the same for a soda. Also, there's Rose's, which is on the other side of the field, with the same type of food and snacks on offer.
If you think this stadium is in a 'dry-area,' you should just look a little further and head into the stadium clubhouse. This open supporters home has a nice array of beers on tap (usually at least four different ones, priced £3.50 a pint. There's one nice addition to this. Every home game, the club offers the opportunity for a pre-match lunch, priced at £12,50 a person, for a 2-course lunch. Lunch is served in the President's Room.
We have to keep in mind that Sutton is a National League (English 5th tier) football team, so the crowds aren't as big as you'd expect in other cities or stadiums. That said, if you are in for a great summery Saturday, walk in the park experience, Sutton is one of the better options. You can grab a pint in the social club (which has great offers on beers - check out the food and beverage section), grab a burger at Jenny's and just enjoy some competition that's within the touch of your hand. It's not very raucous, people won't yell at you, and just occasionally at the referee, but if the heat is on, it's on. Don't expect a 90 minute all out singalong.
It's a south London, working class neighbourhood that surrounds this picturesque setting that is Gander Green Lane's Borough Sports Ground. There's a local pub, The Plough, which is a 2 minute walk from the stadium, and serves old-school British fare, with some good ales on tap.
A little further away (turn left from the stadium's entrance) is The Gander Inn. If you arrive at Sutton station and you have some time to spare, take a quick look outside and head into the Old Bank pub, where you can find good drinks, TV screens with live football and other sports and a good menu. Around the area, there are enough places where you can grab a good pint or a plate of decent food.
When you have 13 other options within arms reach such as Crystal Palace, Leyton Orient, Millwall, West Ham, Arsenal, Fulham, Wimbledon and so on, and you still have the guts to go to lower league football year in, year out sticking with Sutton, you deserve praise. People around the pitch are really friendly, especially if they hear you are just visiting. Expect a good football conversation and genuine interest in you as a ground hopper.
Getting to the ground is fairly easy. From any spot in London, you can get a local train to Sutton train station. From there, a regular bus service (no. 413) takes you to where you need to go. You can also catch a Thameslink from Sutton to West Sutton, which is the closest train station (serviced by Thameslink and Southern lines). From there, it's just a quick 3 min walk to the entrance, but this station is not served as frequently as Sutton.
If you take the bus, remember that the stops can be at request, so if you don't shout or push the button at the right time, you'll pass the entrance. Stops aren't very well indicated, so be aware!
If you go to the game by car, you'll never have a problem finding a parking spot; there's plenty around the stadium and in the neighbourhood. If you happen to be less abled, the stadium has virtually no stairs, so you can find a great spot anywhere. Getting up the main stand though, will prove to be a bigger problem.
While this might not be the stadium traveller's dream, Sutton is one of those places that will keep your feet on the ground, in case you've gotten all taken away by the oohs and aahs while visiting Wembley, West Ham, Arsenal or Chelsea. Although it hasn't got the rich history of Fulham for example, it provides you with a nice game day experience, which is highlighted by the laid back atmosphere and the easy going people around the field. The selection of beers and ales provides just that extra spark. Tickets to games are £15, however, which is on the expensive side of things, considering it is non-league football.
In short, there's a fan shop, but it isn't really anything to shout about. There are no statues or stadium tours whatsoever. Take it as it is.
If you are after a social experience in the outskirts of England's capital, Sutton United's Borough Sports Ground is the ideal venue for you. Its stature as a club means there is little in the way of blockbuster entertainment on or off the pitch, but with a proud history of famous managers, FA Cup giantkilling feats - most notably against Coventry City in 1989 - and a strong community feel, you won't forget your visit to this corner of London.
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