THE SOMERSET Senior League became the County League 15 years ago and has been a fertile breeding ground for clubs aiming for Western League football, with some moving on again to the dizzy heights of the Southern League.
One club which moved into Western League football and rose, albeit briefly, to the top to claim the Premier Division title was Bishop Sutton FC, nestled quietly in the village on the road from Chelwood Bridge to Weston-super-Mare, a few miles south of Bristol.
Many travel round or past, as it is within a wind-assisted goal kick of Chew Valley Lake, but those who miss it should think again as the club has a well-deserved reputation as being one of the friendliest in non-League circles.
As with many clubs at their level, the foundations are laid off the pitch by dedicated volunteers and in Sutton’s case, two prominent members have been there since the start and are still as passionate as ever about their club and ground.
Life president and club secretary Malcolm Hunt and chairman George Williams were to the fore back in 1977 when the village was once again home to a football club after many years in the wilderness.
Hunt related the story from the 1950s saying: “There was a Bishop Sutton FC back in the mid-’50s but apparently the discipline was so poor that they were banned sine die and football died in the village for more than 20 years.”
Eventually the FA withdrew the ban and with Williams and Hunt having sons Ian and Jason at school together, they had the idea of forming an under-12 side and they joined the Woodspring and District League.
The team progressed to under-16 football, before joining the Bristol & Avon League where, in 1981, they won the Somerset Junior Cup.
Back in 1977 the area where Lakeside stands now was grazing land owned by Wansdyke District Council and club officials had to move cattle to lay the pitch before they eventually took full tenancy.
George Williams managed the side right through until they reached the Western League in 1991 and is still at the club as chairman and rarely misses a game home or away.
“Naturally the highlight of my 40 years at the club is winning the Western League championship but there have been many superb players and good men who have worn the blue shirt,” said Williams. “Steve Tovey, Wayne Compton, Ian Gilbert, Jock MeKerren, Nick Harding, Wayne Jacobs, Darren Milton, Paul Orchard, Gary Kington, Scott Graham and Martin Payne are just some who spring to mind.”
Malcolm Hunt moved to the village back in 1963 and recalls what had to be done to make the ground fit for football.
“The field is just behind what was the Butchers Arms and is now the Sutton Spice Indian restaurant, and the pub had a group of old pig sties out the back which we converted into changing rooms,” he said. “Later we bought an old schoolroom and made that into changing rooms on the ground and that is still here and has been added to as we developed our clubhouse.”
Sutton’s clubhouse is adorned with pictures of former sides and framed shirts from Bristol Rovers and Bristol City and the unmistakable aroma of cider and pasties entices in the punters to what is a comfortable space, many miles away from the basic years when the after-match festivities were in the back bar of the Butchers Arms.
Sutton erected a small wooden covered stand some years later while in the Senior League, where there were classic battles with the likes of Robinson DRG, Hengrove Athletic, Brislington, Longwell Green Abbotonians and Peasedown Athletic, with the likes of Paddy Sullivan and brothers Jeff and Dave Trout. Jeff and Dave were both carpenters and as well as playing significant roles on the pitch they did much to help create the new clubroom.
Sutton eventually rose out of the Senior League and were elected to the Western League Division One in 1991, while the reserves were promoted to the Senior League at the same time to continue the connection.
Five years later the floodlights were installed and the club were in the position to push on.
In the intervening quarter of a century Bishop Sutton FC has carried on providing football in the village and in 1998 they took the Division One title in style and with it a place in the Premier Division.
By then they were well established on and off the field and alongside George and Malcolm was gateman Ray Winsley, who has guarded the entrance diligently for more than 25 years, and Malcolm’s son Jason, who is now club treasurer as well doing a stint behind the bar alongside George.
It is just one of any number of jobs chairman George undertakes when not cleaning the playing kit, maintaining the ground and clubhouse and looking after the officials and visitors and he was rightly rewarded with the Western League ‘Long Service Award’ a season or so ago.
George takes little persuading in looking back over the years and said: “Our rise up the divisions to take our place in the Western League were good times and when we took the Division One title under Chris Mountford there were plenty of goals from the likes of Tony Smedley and Richard Griffiths and Rob Smart was another player who stood out.
“Of course our Premier Division title win in 2013 was the highlight of my time at the club, although when the management and players all walked away at the end of the season it was definitely my biggest disappointment in football.”
It led the way to a barren spell at the club which could easily have ended in a return to county league football but Malcolm and George agree that despite the heartache, for a short while the club had the services of who they agree was the best manager to date in Lee Smith.
“Lee was professional and disciplined and came to the club when we were in dire straits but somehow kept us in the Premier Division using his contacts from his previous clubs in Bath City and Team Bath,” said George, “and at the start of the following season, ironically we played Bristol Manor Farm, managed by Lee Lashenko, who had guided us to our title win before moving himself and virtually the whole squad across to the Creek.
“We beat them 1-0 but very soon Southampton FC came calling for Lee Smith’s services and he is now a big part in Saints’ famous youth academy. “Lee did a great job and I can’t speak highly enough of him.”
After 17 consecutive seasons in the top flight Sutton went down that season and a year later hit rock bottom as they scored just 29 goals in 40 league games and lost all but four ending the season 22 points adrift of Westbury United.
Fortunately they were not relegated and since then there has been a steady reclaiming of dignity on the pitch, first under Scott Armstrong and now 32-year-old former Yate Town man Dave Stone and assistant Paul Keen, whose current squad are enjoying life in the top half of Division One.
The club is also fortunate to have the backing of principal sponsors Matt and Paul Cornish, who have glazing and gardening businesses, while Arthur David and Co. are local fruiterers and grocers who also contribute to the club’s well being.
Youngsters such as Oaklan Buck, Mason Daggar and Jack and Josh Keen are now involved with the club while the Lakeside ground has rarely looked better with the revamped grandstand set off by the backdrop of the Chew Valley Lake behind one goal and the village cricket ground on the other side of the small brook.
With no sign of a drop in passion and commitment for Bishop Sutton Football Club from those who devote so much time to it, the future looks promising for the villagers as they move into their fifth decade of football in the field behind the Butchers Arms.
By KERRY MILLER
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