There seems to be a code that still needs cracking at Gander Green Lane, as Sutton United remain rooted to the bottom of League Two.
Yet despite only three league wins from 20 games, the side are just one game away from the FA Cup Third Round while also reaching the same stage of the League Cup.
And while an unbeaten run of five league games may have steadied the ship, the Us slow start to the campaign is still overshadowing the recent improvements.
“I wasn’t happy with how things were playing out, the players needed to understand what I wanted from them on and off the ball,” Matt Gray exclusively told London Football Scene.
“I needed time for the players to get it, it’s no coincidence that the season has calmed down and with a full week’s training, we’ve seen really good performances.”
Since being appointed Sutton boss in 2019, Gray has kept faithfully to a 4-4-2 formation – a set-up that helped clinch Football League promotion, an almost victorious day at Wembley and narrowly missing out on a Play-Off spot in his second full season as a manager.
Yet multiple injuries, suspensions and unconventional mistakes have cost his side this term and prevented Sutton from walking away from games without the points they deserve.
Gray insists he never once thought about moving away from his tried and trusted formation though, saying: “It was more about uncharacteristic things like the type of goals we were conceding, key players being missing, players’ picking up red cards.
“We were never far off in games, we just needed a bit of luck, but I admit, things were certainly not right.
“I’ve been really proud of the performances (of late). August to September – I’m not so sure.”
Since Sutton’s first defeat of the campaign at Barrow, Gray has insisted his players needed more time, linking the poor performances to the heavy schedule.
Upon reflection, the Us played eight mid-week games out of a possible 12 since their season opener against Notts County, struggling to build momentum during that period.
Furthermore, Sutton’s first mid-week game since late October saw them lose 3-0 to a strong Charlton side in the EFL Trophy to exit the competition at the group stage for the first time.
“What has changed is the number of coaching sessions – it is not one session a week that we lose, it is two or three,” Gray explains.
“Monday and Wednesday turn into recovery and preparation days.”
Another problem Gray has faced this season is the loss of a number of key personnel in the summer, meaning an influx of new faces at the club for the first time since EFL promotion.
“Look at how many other players I signed late on (in the summer transfer window) – Ryan Jackson, Scott Kashket, Omari Patrick, Dion Pereira, D’Mani Mellor and Aiden O’Brien.
“None of these players had a full pre-season under my management, let alone a good amount of training and I was expecting them to go straight into league matches.
“I signed very good players, and you are beginning to see that but new players cannot just come straight into a team that has undergone a 50% turnover, they all need time.”
With Sutton limiting their opposition to just a goal a game in their last five league outings, a stark contrast to the 26 goals they conceded in their first 11 league meetings, it’s hard to deny some truth in Gray’s words.
Furthermore, the 1-1 draw with promotion chasing Crewe was played out against the backdrop of nine players being sidelined, extending to 10 when goalscorer Louis John was forced off just after the break.
“My start as Sutton manager was slow, but this season it is the exact same thing – I just need time to get the information into my squad.
“It is my responsibility, my work springs from personal pride, drive and determination.”
Gray’s current situation has been helped by a patient and sympathetic board with his relationship with chairman Bruce Elliott a healthy one that appears to be showing no signs of waning.
“I realise football is a fickle sport and things can change quickly, for good and bad and erratic owners will make erratic decisions.
“What I can say is I am blessed with an excellent and honest board, the most important relationship for a manager is the one with the board.
“If I am open and honest with the board, then we will come through on the other side.”
Gray does not deny it has been a tough start, but as the temperature drops and winter continues to roll in, he has successfully guided his side through an unbeaten November in the league to lay the foundations for a positive second half of the season.
Images provided with thanks to Paul Loughlin/Sutton United FC.