Sutton United’s chastening 8-0 defeat at Stockport County felt like an end of an era – 72 hours later it was as manager Matt Gray was relieved of his duties.
The game may have been a top vs bottom encounter but the gap in quality and the form of both sides going into the encounter certainly wasn’t reflective of the eventual scoreline.
Ahead of it, Sutton were on a five-match league unbeaten run (W1, D4) with their most recent defeat being a 2-1 loss away to Wrexham back in October.
In contrast, Stockport were on their worst run of the season, having failed to win in their last three league games and, when including cup games, a total of six matches.
Yet perhaps the result was the final realisation the board needed the club had gone as far as it could under Gray’s stewardship as this season’s issues were coldly laid to bare with little chance to turn away or ignore.
Gray’s trusted 4-4-2 formation was once again on show at Edgeley Park and once again, in an evolving world of inverted full-backs, midfield rotation and support strikers, it was torn to shreds.
Sure, the system plays to the strength of wide players and allows for strikers to work as a partnership but ultimately it is a limited formation where a side can hit a brick wall if the wide players are pressed deep or the strikers are tightly marked.
It was no surprise Stockport were 4-0 up after only a quarter of the game gone with captain Harry Beautyman’s early booking also a clear sign of the growing frustration in the Sutton camp.
Although a bizarre claim to make considering the scoreline, and like so many other previous defeats, Sutton didn’t necessarily play badly or lacked any form of effort.
There were few individual errors and other than the occasional poor effort on goal, the heavy defeat was more a combination of playing away against a team of better players adopting a better tactical system.
And so it begs the question – was Gray struggling to get the best out of the players at his disposal or are the struggling players currently out of their depth?
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle but the fact remains the Us are rooted to the foot of the League Two table by six points with the unforgiving Stockport result effectively making a difficult decision for the Sutton United board a much simpler one.
In those hedonistic days, there was also a plucky underdog spirit and surprise element to proceedings, something that has slowly been replaced by comfortably being part of the League Two furniture over the past two seasons.
Having finished just a single point away from the Play-Offs in their debut League Two campaign, they finished a more than credible 14th last term after once again flirting with the prospect of a Play-Off charge earlier in the season.
However, a poor end to the season was the warning sign that Sutton had plateaued and arguably Gray had taken the side as far as he could.
Since then, Sutton have been scrambling for positive results with Gray’s weekly excuses slowly attracting the ire of fans who increasingly believe the squad is better than the league position suggests.
It’s hard to ignore that a number of key departures over the past year has coincided with the side’s slump though, with Gray struggling to find the necessary like-for-like replacements.
It was a point Gray alluded to in a recent exclusive interview with London Football Scene, suggesting time on the training pitch away from the hectic Tuesday-Saturday-Tuesday routine would help mould his new look side into a well-organised outfit.
With a fortnight to prepare ahead of the Stockport debacle, Gray’s final reasoning for his misfiring side spectacularly backfired – he was out of excuses and the time was right for him to go.
Leaving at this point not only keeps his legendary status intact, but provides a successor with plenty of time to assess the squad with plenty of games still left to play and the January transfer window beckoning.
It’s a sorry state of affairs to leave in the manner in which he has done, but whatever happens for the remainder of the season, what Matt Gray has done for the club will be a tough act to follow.
Images provided with thanks to Paul Loughlin/Sutton United FC.