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Matt Gray interview: Sutton United's manager helping the south London club punch above their weight in League Two

Sky Sports exclusive: Sutton United manager Matt Gray on his route into management, how forging key relationships make up the basis for success and why the south London club are not resting on their laurels.

Over the last three seasons, Sutton United have been riding the crest of a wave.

In 2020/21, they navigated their way out of the notoriously difficult National League. The next season, they reached the Papa Johns Trophy final and finished eighth in their first-ever League Two campaign. This term, while the play-offs are now out of the question they look in good shape to finish in the top half once again.

So who is the man behind it all? Step forward Matt Gray.

By his own admission, he is not a household name - likely owing to the fact that injuries brought a premature end to his own playing career - but the 41-year-old's stock is growing. He is the seventh longest-serving manager in the EFL and one of only 19 to have been in his job for over two years.

Sky Sports' Dan Long exclusively spoke to Gray earlier this month to find out more about his route into management, his belief that forging key relationships is the basis for success and why resting on their laurels is not an option for the south London team.

'When I couldn't fulfil my playing dreams, coaching was the next best thing'

"Football had always been my life and I wanted to be a footballer first, but I knew from a young age that I would one day want to coach and manage. For as long as I can remember, I was involved in dressing rooms, watching my dad and grandad do team talks.

"I came through at Spurs, left at 19 and then signed for Cardiff, but I just couldn't get fit. I had six operations in six years - three on my knee, three on my back - and eventually retired through my back injury.

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Highlights of the Sky Bet League Two clash between Colchester and Sutton

"It was very quickly that I got the opportunity to go into coaching. Of course, I'm gutted - and I always will be - that I didn't fulfil my dreams as a player, but this was the next best thing; being in that dressing room, being on the training ground, being among the lads and being involved in that 3pm feeling.

"Initially I was coaching at Havant & Waterlooville for a month or two, before [Ian] Baird left and took me with him to Eastleigh, where I was assistant at 25. I had four years there and learned a huge amount.

Gray worked under Dean Holdsworth during his time at Aldershot
Image: Gray worked under Dean Holdsworth during his time at Aldershot

"Then I went to Aldershot for four years - where I worked under Dean Holdsworth and Andy Scott - I had a year scouting at Millwall, I was assistant manager to Dermot Drummy at Crawley, then I had another year scouting for Millwall in between jobs before I got the opportunity to come in at Sutton.

"After 12 years, mainly as an assistant, I knew I had done my apprenticeship, if you like, and I was ready to be a manager, but the job needed to be right."

The Sutton rollercoaster is set in motion

"Ian Baird was assistant here under Paul Doswell and I knew Dos quite well. They said, instead of scouting, why didn't I come and do some coaching and help out the backroom staff and, if another job came up, I could leave and go.

"I came here around Christmas in 2018 and coached for the second half of the season, which was invaluable because I got to know the board, the chairman, the players and staff. I certainly didn't think I was going to become the manager, but then Dos left after a decade.

Image: The 41-year-old initially joined Sutton as a coach in December 2018

"My job was to keep Sutton in the National League - they were punching above their weight there at the time. With all my experience at previous clubs, I felt that the foundations to build success on was a good relationship with the board and the chairman. If that isn't right or doesn't work, it has a knock-on effect and filters into every aspect of the club.

"We certainly weren't one of the big spenders in the National League and were still three-quarter-time, but I knew I was going to be given a chance with real, honest, hard-working people who were above me in the boardroom and that's all I could ask for. That was probably the reason I took the job.

"In my first five games, I won two, drew three and I thought that wasn't a bad start - then I went on a run of one win in 14 and it was extremely tough. I thought my managerial career could be over before it had even started.

"We turned things around and never looked back, taking that into my second season. It was unbelievable; the club had a 123-year history and we were promoted in my second season. What a tough division it is with the size of the clubs, budgets, fanbases, how many ex-EFL clubs are in there.

"To go and win that league when there's only one automatic spot available is probably one of my best achievements ever. It's the first thing I ever won as a manager. To take such a special club into the EFL for the first time ever is just a fantastic feeling."

'League Two is extremely difficult, but we're still looking to drive on'

"The most important thing last season would have been to consolidate - guaranteeing safety was the be-all and end-all. You don't want to put all the hard work in for it to go to waste. To have the season we did was beyond everyone's expectations.

"Leading Rotherham in the 96th minute of the Papa Johns Trophy final at Wembley is an unbelievable achievement and a huge success story, but you want to be going up those steps as a winner. And earning 76 points and missing out on the play-offs was extremely hard to take on the last day of the season. I think it was the first time in League Two in about 15 years that a team on that many points had not made it. We were gutted.

Sutton reached the Papa Johns Trophy final last year - and led until the 96th minute at Wembley
Image: Sutton reached the Papa Johns Trophy final last year - and led until the 96th minute at Wembley

"There's a real togetherness within the club. The board are superb, the staff are superb and the players that got us from the National League to the EFL have been superb, too. We've just added and built onto that since being promoted. The way we play and how we can get results is certainly working for us.

"But this division is hard, I'm not going to lie. There are so many changes that have had to happen behind the scenes and for the first 18 months after getting promoted, it felt like I was building the club as well as managing the club.

"It has only been in the last few months where things have settled down to some sort of normality where I can go back to just being a manager, rather than worrying about travel arrangements or getting a chef in, which is all vitally important. All these other clubs have that in place already and they are all so used to it, but we've really had to catch up off the pitch.

"I like to think we're getting there now, but it is extremely hard financially for us every day just to make sure we can keep our heads above water and keep moving forward as a club.

"Our stadium's improving all the time, the pitch is excellent, we train at QPR's old training ground at Harlington, we're a London-based club so there are many pulls to attract players to come here and be part of a club going in the right direction. We're not looking to stand still here and make the numbers up by treading water. We're ambitious as a football club.

"OK, we might not have the money and the fanbase of some of the others, but with our spirit, unity and determination, we're still looking to drive on and keep moving forward. I'm ambitious manager and I want success again. I want to get another promotion on my CV and I want to take Sutton as high as I possibly can."

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