‘We’ve got a taste for it’: Sutton ready to write new chapter after Wembley heartache and play-offs near miss

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Craig Eastmond celebrates scoring in the EFL Trophy Final before Sutton eventually lost to Rotherham (Getty Images)
Craig Eastmond celebrates scoring in the EFL Trophy Final before Sutton eventually lost to Rotherham (Getty Images)

If there was a theme to Sutton United’s debut season in the Football League then it was one of marked overachievement followed by bittersweet disappointment.

First, there was a magnificent run in the EFL Trophy which ended only after eventual League One runners-up Rotherham scored a 96th-minute equaliser in the Wembley final and then stole the cup in extra-time.

Then, at the end of a superb maiden League Two campaign, another near-miss as the Us fell a point short of the play-offs, unable to overhaul any of the three rivals still within punching range on the final day, despite winning away at Harrogate.

“We thought we’d done our job,” captain Craig Eastmond tells Standard Sport. “We got into the changing room and everyone checked their phones and saw the other results.

“We were a bit like: ‘What?! How?!’ It had been eight or nine seasons where you’d needed a certain number of points to get into the play-offs and we’d reached that target but it was out of our hands.”

Eastmond has not wasted time combing back through the campaign, searching for the place where that extra point might have been hiding, but were he to, then a year ago exactly might be the place to start.

This time last year, Sutton were preparing frantically for their first term at big school, forced to tear up the 3G pitch at their Gander Green Lane home and replace it with a grass surface. Delays meant they played all their pre-season friendlies away from home, as well as their opening three League games, from which they took only two points.

Things are more serene now and for all it was unexpected, Eastmond believes topping last year’s eighth-placed finish must be the aim as they prepare to begin the campaign at home (thankfully) to Newport County.

“We know what it’s like now, we’ve got a taste for it,” the 31-year-old says. “All the other teams will look at us differently now after what we did last season.

Sutton missed out on League Two play-offs by just one point last season (Getty Images)
Sutton missed out on League Two play-offs by just one point last season (Getty Images)

“I think everyone thought we were just lucky getting promoted but even halfway through the season, once we’d played teams once, they started to realise what we were about.

"We know it’s going to be hard. The second season is always the hardest because you might’ve lost that momentum from getting promoted but we know what we can do.”

Playing in a Wembley final was a dream Eastmond feared may have gone when he left Arsenal in 2013, having been at the club since the age of 11. He marked the occasion with what looked set to be the winning goal until Jordi Osei-Tutu’s late strike broke Sutton hearts.

“Everyone wants to play at the highest level, at the best stadiums where the best players played,” he says. “Everyone who has ever played football wants to play at Wembley.

“I’d only been when I was young to watch Arsenal, never been in the dressing rooms or anything like that. So to be able to say you’ve been there and played, to tick that off, is unbelievable.”

Eastmond and Jack Wilshere won the FA Youth Cup together at Arsenal in 2009 (Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
Eastmond and Jack Wilshere won the FA Youth Cup together at Arsenal in 2009 (Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Ironically, Osei-Tutu is himself an Arsenal academy graduate, on loan at Rotherham at the time, though he has since joined VfL Bochum. For all the forward’s unwelcome intervention, Eastmond says he is pleased to see Hale End continuing to churn out talent, headlined, of course, by Gunners duo Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe.

“That’s what Arsenal is,” he says. “They bring those youngsters through and they’re probably doing it even more now.

“When I was there it was the Carling Cup, the youngsters always played in those games, didn’t matter who it was against, Arsene Wenger would put us out and give us opportunities.”

The responsibility for nurturing such talent now lies, in part, with new Under-18s head coach Jack Wilshere, alongside whom Eastmond once lifted the FA Youth Cup.

“He was great to play with,” Eastmond adds. “He was playing first-team football so young, breaking through so early, you could see he was the real deal. He played that game against Barca and ran the show.

"It’s a shame his career’s ended so early but he’s obviously got his reasons why he’s stopped and I wish him all the best in that next chapter.”

With their newcomer tag shed, Sutton are ready to write theirs.

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