The job starts on and off the pitch to be ready for life at Step Five, says newly-promoted Sutton Athletic coach Tristan Cropley

Sunday 01st May 2022

SUTTON ATHLETIC coach Tristan Cropley says it was a hugely remarkable achievement securing promotion to the Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division for the first time in the clubs 124-year history.

The Hextable-based club finished their First Division campaign in second-place in the table, picking up 79 points from their 38 games, finishing nine points behind champions Stansfeld.

Both Stansfeld and Sutton Athletic have earnt promotion without the luxury of having a playing budget and will be playing in the ninth-tier of English football for the first time next season.

Daniel Kelly’s side beat Tooting Bec 3-0 at home in the Semi-Finals and needed extra-time to beat much-fancied Larkfield & New Hythe 2-1 in front of Lower Road’s record crowd of 506 yesterday.

Larkfield & New Hythe finished their first campaign at this level in third-place with 76 points and beat fourth-placed finishers Snodland Town 1-0 in the midweek semi-finals.

“It was scrappy in the first 20 minutes but after half-time it started to open up and started being more of a contest,” said Cropley, who has clinched promotion at the end of his first season at the club.

“The nerves got into the players a little early, especially defensively and as the game wore on we got better and better and managed to open them up.”

Sutton Athletic talisman striker Arlie Desanges opened the scoring with his 48th goal of the season.

“Arlie’s had a fantastic season, won the Golden Boot and scored a really crucial goal yesterday just before half-time in a half that Larkfield will feel that they dominated,” added Cropley.

“We got a corner five minutes before the end of the half and Charlie Plummer wins the flick-on with the header and Arlie coolly chests it down and then taps it past the keeper to give us a 1-0 lead.

“We think we’re going into the half-time 1-0 up but they were given a penalty just before the half.  It hit the post and came back out so they missed that penalty and we did go in 1-0 at half-time.

“In the second half we managed to play a bit more football. They got a second penalty, although he didn’t score it with the initial shot, Joe Hyde saved it and they were quicker to the rebound (Hicham Akhazzan) than we were so it was one-all.

“As the game went on it ebbed-and-flowed a bit and then as we were getting towards full-time, it was a hot day yesterday and they’re quite an older side Larkfield and they’re used to playing on a smaller pitch and used to a 4-4-2 compact shape.

“The way we were switching the play you could just see they were exhausted. It we can take them into extra-time, rather than going gung-ho, we could do them in extra-time and that’s what happened and for the half-hour we were the completely dominant side.”

Billy Muckle waited for the perfect time to score his only goal of the season, sealing the victory with a wonderful left-footed volley into the bottom right-hand corner from 20-yards in the 97th minute.

Cropley, who also films games from the technical area, said: “Fantastic strike.  He said to me ‘have I got it?’ I said everyone’s got it and there’s a website in Portugal that’s been retweeting it about English amateur goals, so that was quite nice for him. 

“That’s his only goal of the season as well and what an important one as well. If any goal was to win a promotion play-off final, what a goal to do it.

“What’s funny, as he hits it he spins round because he knows it’s going in and it was the most calm celebration ever.”

When asked how it felt winning promotion via the league’s maiden play-off lottery, Cropley said: “It means the world.  I know it’s a cliché but it does.  The chairman has always said ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride,’

“We’ve played at this level for a good number of years and credit to Dan Kelly. He plays what I would say is proper football. We play through the thirds, we don’t play it long.  He sticks to that philosophy. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, he will never change his believes and he brings in players to match that.

“People always say ‘you can’t play your way out of Step Six and you have to play more direct and be more physical’ and Dan’s shown you can actually play really good football and play your way out of this division.”

When asked about Stansfeld and Sutton Athletic’s achievements of winning promotion without being financially backed like Kris Browning at Larkfield & New Hythe for example, Cropley said: “Hugely remarkable. I mean you look at not only the budgets at Larkfield – they were very open about it yesterday – Croydon and some of the big towns like Rochester etc, you’d expect these one town or two town teams should be able to beat these village sides.

“The squad has come together. We play other teams and you can almost pick their 11 but you can’t with us because we can’t pick our 11.  We’ve got through five left-backs and we had players out of position.  The most important person at the club in the past month is the physio.  We went to Lewisham with one centre-back and three wingers at the back so at times we’ve had to put a side together.

“It was only Tooting Bec (in the play-off semi-final) and the start of the game yesterday we could only play what we would call our strongest starting 11.

“The boys will always work for each other and play for the manager and that’s worth more than the £20-£30 in expenses to trek across Kent to tell your friends that you’re getting paid.”

Cropley revealed that Sutton Athletic will be playing in the Premier Division without a playing budget next season and are ready to spring a few more surprises.

“We’re looking forward to it. I mean we were the last Division One side standing in the Challenge Cup. We got to the semi-finals, three other Premier sides were the semi-finalists and we knocked out four Premier sides,” added Cropley.

“In the Kent Senior Trophy we’ve beaten Bearsted, Holmesdale and Tower Hamlets and we gave Sheppey a scare both at their place when it was 2-1 and at our place when we were 1-0.

“I don’t think we’re going to go up and struggle, particularly if we can keep this group of players together.”

Rusthall went up last year and survived by the skin of their teeth, finishing in their highest ever position of third-from-bottom on 24 points from 38 games.

Lordswood finished below the relegation line, also on 24 points but will be reprieved from relegation on points-per-game, while Tower Hamlets (11 points) will face the drop.

“You’ve seen sides who went up last year and momentum is a key thing, so you’ve got that feel-good factor and that momentum that will help us next year because we play a different style of football that will help us,” said Cropley.

“I’m not going to say we’ll be able to compete with the top sides but I also don’t think we’ll be anywhere near the bottom three.

“I saw a very emotional chairman (John Ball) and secretary (Guy Eldridge) yesterday, they do everything at the club. They do the bar, they clean the changing rooms, they’re on the gate, doing all the admin.

“We just have some amazing people at the club who do everything to keep a village club going competing against bigger clubs with bigger budgets and bigger populations and for them it was just overwhelming of joy that their club has reached this far based on what they’ve got and the job starts on and off the pitch to be ready for life at Step Five.

“I thank Dan Kelly, regarding his style of play, he won’t detract from that. I think pound-by-pound he’s the best manager in this division and the football we play, we’ve had people all season say we’re the best footballing side.”

“I’ve really enjoyed my first season at the club and looking forward to many more.  The players’ have been fantastic, whether they’ve played one game or 40 games, a thank you to them and we’re really looking forward now to playing at Step Five.”