Ben Gilby spoke to Sutton United Women founder Duncan Muller, who is also the club’s Head of Women’s and Girls Football and First Team manager about the London & South-East League Division One North side’s hugely successful history and their high hopes for the future.
Sutton United Women were formed in 2016 with links to the Epsom Eagles and Surrey Eagles teams as Duncan Muller explains: “My first involvement with women’s or girl’s football was in 2012 when a friend asked me to get involved with Epsom Eagles who were pretty much a park team. From here I got involved with the Sutton Little League and we then became Surrey Eagles – initially with one boys’ and one girls’ team and then two sides each. Playing on council pitches was tough; they were often in poor condition and was very expensive. It was also difficult competing with AFC Wimbledon for players.”
The breakthrough came when Muller approached some of the people involved with Sutton United FC’s men’s side, who play in the National League (tier five) and are famed for some glorious FA Cup wins over professional clubs such as Coventry City and Leeds United.
“Sutton United didn’t have a women’s team at that stage. AFC Wimbledon Women played their home games there but they then moved out and we were able to start a Sutton side. We advertised for trials and had between sixty and seventy girls turn up. Sutton United did have an U11 girls’ team. Tony Henderson Smith is, for me the godfather of girl’s and women’s football at Sutton United. The assistance and enthusiasm he has is fantastic. There’s eleven girls’ and women’s sides at Sutton now from U9s to U16s and our two senior teams.”
Duncan explained how a professional looking set-up is at the heart of Sutton’s success, and the fully integrated relationship with Sutton United’s men is key. “We don’t have parents as managers or coaches in order to help our players develop at the right pace for them.”
“We have some funding from Sutton United and, as a result of that from the National League Trust (the fifth tier of the men’s game that Sutton play in). This allows our women’s first team to get the same stuff from the club that the men do. The only difference is wages.”
In addition the men’s club have, for the first time this season started selling replica shirts for the women’s team via their online store featuring their different sponsors and without the men’s team’s league branding (see: https://www.suttonunited.net/product-category/replica-kit/)
Sutton United Women may only have been in existence since 2016, but it’s been a story of success ever since. The U’s have won their league every season from their first until the last campaign when the coronavirus pandemic caused a premature end to their London & South-East League Division One schedule.
“We’re now playing in the sixth tier of the women’s game,” Muller explains, “but our ultimate aim is the F.A. Women’s Super League. We have the facilities in terms of a 5,000 capacity stadium, we have a 3G surface which is allowed in women’s football. It is doable from an on-pitch perspective. Financially, it’s another matter with clubs having to pay £50,000 to buy in to that division. Local company Nordens (bathrooms, tiles, heating and plumbing, based in Epsom – https://www.nordenheating.co.uk/) back us financially, and we get funding from the men’s National League to fund the women’s team. Additionally, our disability team are one of the best in the country. Finances are the only thing that could stop us making the top level. The FA Women’s National League is a very realistic prospect for us in the near future – that’s our immediate aim. We have fantastic young talent due to our pathway from U9s to the first team which means we are approaching the stage when we don’t need trials for first team players.”
Like every other team in the country, Sutton United were caught unawares by the coronavirus outbreak. However, the club’s head of women’s and girl’s football believes it has not been without its positives: “Everything came to an end the day after we beat Crystal Palace in the Capital Cup Semi-Finals. We maintained contact with everyone through video calls. We raised money for the local hospital. Altogether we raised over £1,000 for local charities.”
He went on to describe how the club came together so strongly once a return to some form of activity was involved: “Our captain and vice-captain did so much to help boost morale. We carried out trials for younger players via video. When we were allowed to come back to training, it was especially hard for us because Gander Green Lane is a men’s National League stadium so we had to adhere to the restrictions that are on the stadium rather than for other teams at our level. It was the hardest time in my twenty-five years involved in the game. We could only have four players on the pitch training at any one time to start with. The players were brilliant in all that time and I have no doubt that we became tighter as a group because of it. We had over forty-five volunteers involved in this period. It was incredible.”
I asked Duncan, Covid apart, what the biggest challenge that the club face at the moment is: “Finances really. Sutton United launched a ‘United We Stand 2020’ campaign with all funds raised going directly and solely towards the club’s playing and operating costs. Our players have all made donations. We talk to the board a lot. Things could be better, but we’re coping. Loss of revenue from the bar and function rooms have been a massive hit. We’ve also had to pay out for additional safety features around the ground during the period – such as an additional dugout in order to comply with social distancing for players etc.”
The relationship that the women’s team have with Sutton United men has also seen huge benefits via SUTV (Sutton United TV) which consists of media team volunteers, most of whom are students. “They have live streamed our matches and operate our electronic video scoreboard. Initially I was in two minds as to whether or not we should stream our matches, because it gives our opponents a chance to see how we are playing and what we are doing in a way that we won’t get a chance to do with them. However, promoting the team and spreading the word is more important,” Duncan explains.
It is this body of volunteers that are at the heart of Sutton United’s successes: “All our social media graphics are done by our captain Cindy Colliver who is a graphic designer. Our goalkeeper, Zoe McNulty is the club secretary. Fellow players Gabby Howell, along with Cindy are involved with our social media. Our U21 coach, Courtney Bartlett, who is also the Head of Women’s Development is very talented and is bringing some great players through. She never complains when I take them away into the first team. Even when they’re about to play an important cup tie for her! I am privileged to have a very good coaching team with the first team too – James Bradley, Dave Solly and Matt Weller. Matt beat off fifty applicants to become First Team Head Coach! Seb Brown and others also give up their own time to work with the team.”
Duncan alluded earlier to the player pathway from U9s to the first team. That is now bearing fruit in a really exciting way. Evie Nebbitt became the youngest player to captain Sutton United Women a few months ago.
“She first came to Sutton United at the age of eight or nine. She’s a local girl, living in Wallington and her sister was with us too,” Muller explains. “She then went off to Charlton Athletic to play and was offered a place in their U21 team. However, after a period of time travelling from Wallington to Charlton the journey time began to have a real impact. So, she came back to us and had a trial. It was like a light shining when I first saw her in that trial. She’s still raw and naïve, but you couldn’t meet a more hard working and polite person. She always thanks me at the end of every training session for what I do. Evie is one of the most determined youngsters that I’ve ever come up against. Long term, I dearly hope she stays with us. Sophie Barnes came to us from Tottenham Hotspur and she has so much promise. Darcy Wells is the jewel in our crown at the age of 21 and Olivia Watson has come through our U21 team to the first team squad this season. When these players are 22-23 years-old they will be incredible.”
With the new season in its early stages, I asked Duncan who he thought would be the teams to look out for in the London & South-East League Division One North this time round. “I think we have a great chance. We are renowned for being slow starters in the league though! I think New London Lionesses are also very strong. They have good players.” The two teams met in the final league game before lockdown last Sunday at the Lionesses’ home, with the outcome a 0-0 draw.
Sutton United may be relative new kids on the block still, but if organisation and professional approach is anything to do with it, they look well set to maintain their superb success.