Sutton and Harrogate are playing their last remaining EFL game in London amid the Omicron crisis

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One hour before kick-off at the VBS Community Stadium, the first Harrogate supporters tired of traveling and already hiding in a temporary away stand, the DJ from Sutton United loaded the in-house CD player.

From his stand in the back of the main stand, he lit the loudspeakers that were scattered around this charming area. His first favorite song? Crazy world.

Could there be a more fitting soundtrack for this English football weekend? How else could you describe a Saturday when the two newest members of the EFL stand alone in the capital and its surroundings?

Sutton and Harrogate played the only EFL game in Greater London this weekend

With Omicron ripping across the country and the games falling, this second division game was the last game in the Greater London area. Normality prevails on Gander Green Lane for the time being. Almost.

Usually fans went downstairs to this grandstand, past the toilet, which is connected to a latrine in Malawi, and into the players’ bar. There they would mingle on Matt Gray’s side. It is these connections that bind this place together.

“It’s such a great community club,” says Gray. “I really encourage my players to go in in normal times and mingle with the fans who have paid to watch us, all as a club.”

Not today, though. And not for the foreseeable future as Sutton eye protection against the specter of another shutdown.

“It’s a great shame,” said chairman Bruce Elliott. “But if it means we can keep playing football, it’s a small price to pay.”

The two Football League newbies were able to block the horns despite the ongoing Omicron crisis

The two Football League newbies were able to block the horns despite the ongoing Omicron crisis

Donovan Wilson's goal gave Sutton a valuable 1-0 win that put them in third place in the second division

Donovan Wilson’s goal gave Sutton a valuable 1-0 win that put them in third place in the second division

The stakes are so high. That 1-0 win, sealed thanks to the Donovan Wilson goal, put Sutton in third place – a staggering height for a team that had spent their last 123 years in non-league football.

Off the pitch, however, the health of the English football pyramid is once again at risk. Red zones have been restored; Fans are asked to test for Covid before arriving.

Starting next week, courtesy of the EFL, players will have at least one daily screening. So far, a nationwide lack of testing has led clubs like Sutton to scramble to manage potential breakouts. In September, her trip to Colchester was canceled after several cases in Gray’s squad.

Even the army of volunteers who support this place is not immune. Kit man Clive Baxter, now in his seventies, joined Sutton as a tea boy in 1961. He was one of the few who unfortunately contracted Covid. Prior to that season, Baxter had only missed five games in six decades.

But the health of the pyramid of English football is threatened as there is talk of a festive firebreak

But the health of the pyramid of English football is threatened as there is talk of a festive firebreak

But no one can afford many free weekends here and in the lower leagues.

Although top-tier clubs, where broadcast money is king, may want a festive firebreak, that would be disastrous further down the leagues, where matchday income is a pillar of survival.

“This is absolutely important to us,” says Elliot. “Maybe you can get away with a week or a couple of weeks. But if it takes a month, six weeks, two months, every club in the country is sure to have problems. ‘

That’s just one reason why starting this game was so important. Sutton was already in mourning after four children died in a house fire just meters above the ground.

Saturday's game was critical after the recent house fire yards from Sutton's floor

Saturday’s game was critical after the recent house fire yards from Sutton’s floor

Providing fresh air and easy relief to the locals was part of United doing their part. The community responded with 2,720 packed on the terraces, a little more than normal. This included 90 veterans of the 230 mile journey from Harrogate.

Every little thing helps, especially for these clubs. Their plight is particularly cruel.

This is Sutton’s very first season in the Football League. For Harrogate, it’s campaign # 2. Unfortunately, new land had unintended consequences.

Both sides had to tear up artificial turf; Sutton also had to upgrade its floodlights and turnstiles while an upgraded away stand is still under construction. The result? Almost all of the £ 1 million they earned for reaching the second division has already been settled.

“The list of other jobs that had to be done here to meet EFL requirements is pretty much endless. And we’re not done yet, ”says Elliott. “Off the pitch it was very difficult financially, no question about it.”

People like Sutton and Harrogate rely on game day revenue to survive

People like Sutton and Harrogate rely on game day income to survive

It could get tougher soon. They had one of the smallest budgets in the National League prior to promotion. Their 3G pitch raised about £ 200,000 a year.

Sutton survived the initial lockdown thanks to loans, grants, and over £ 50,000 in fundraising for supporters. There’s no emergency pot for a second. Should the football close, it wouldn’t be long before paying players would need outside help.

All of this only underscores the brilliance of Gray’s side on the pitch.

Fans have already missed most of their best league campaign ever.

Maybe it’s worth keeping a social distance from the bar.


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