As part of Black History Month in October, we are looking back at the contribution to Sutton United's successes made by black and mixed-race players over the last 50 years. Last week we concentrated on players whose careers were mainly in the 20th century, now we bring the story up to date.
Jon Nurse - 38 games/24 goals
Jon was brought to the U’s by reserve team boss Phil Dunne, and he quickly caught the eye. His pace, direct style and eye for goal marked him out as too good for Suburban League football but he had to wait for his chance in the first team. When it came Jon quickly became undroppable. Goals had been hard to come by for the U’s but Jon scored his first goal in a 1-0 win at Kettering at the end of November 2003 and went on to score 24 goals in just 38 games, helping to guide the U’s to runners-up spot behind runaway champions Canvey Island. Jon was joined in the side by his brother Chris, a midfielder. At the end of that season the restructuring of non-league football saw Sutton moved into the new Conference South but Jon’s goalscoring exploits had not gone unnoticed and he joined Conference outfit Stevenage Borough, just missing out on promotion into the EFL, although a move to Dagenham & Redbridge did give Jon his first taste of the Football League, and this also saw him win 6 full caps for Barbados. Jon later joined Barnet and was involved as player-coach in their promotion into the Football League.
Craig Eastmond - 376 games/27 goals
Craig made his first team debut for Arsenal in the League Cup against Liverpool shortly after his 19th birthday, after featuring in their FA Youth Cup winning side of 2009, and he soon appeared in the Premier League and Champions League. Whilst on loan at Millwall Craig then broke his ankle, a bad injury that effectively ended his top flight career. Spells followed at Wycombe, Colchester and Yeovil before he joined the U’s in September 2015, on the recommendation of freelance fitness coach Jamie Lawrence. Craig was one of the missing pieces in the jigsaw, and played a vital part in the team winning National League South that season.
The next season would be a special one for Craig, as he featured in every round of the club’s run to the 5th Round of the FA Cup when, of course, the U’s were drawn to host his old club, Arsenal. It must have been a moment Craig could never have dreamt of. The following season the U’s finished 3rd in the National League, the highest placing in the club’s history to that time, and Craig was named in the National League team of the year. Two years later, Craig was captain when the U’s beat Hartlepool to gain promotion into the Football League. That first season was an amazing success for the U’s, missing out on the play-offs by just one point but also reaching the final of the Papa Johns Trophy. With the score at 1-1 it was Craig who gave the U’s the lead early in the second half at Wembley (above), and amid the later disappointment that afternoon it is often forgotten that he won the Player of the Match award.
Currently Craig is sidelined with a hamstring injury but will be eager to get back and add to his total of 27 goals in 376 appearances. His eight years at the club have coincided with the most successful period of the club’s history and he has been at the heart of everything the team has achieved.
Leroy Griffiths - 89 appearances/22 goals
Leroy actually started his career in the youth team at Sutton, but with no first team opportunities coming his way he had brief spells with several local clubs before joining Hampton & Richmond, from where he was snapped up by Queens Park Rangers. A powerfully built striker, he played 36 times for QPR and grabbed three goals before carving out a career with a number of clubs in the top echelons of the Conference and Conference South. A brief spell back in the Football League was experienced with Gillingham in 2007/8 before a two-year stint with Staines Town. With the U’s chasing the Isthmian League title it was something of a surprise when Paul Doswell signed Leroy, by then 35 years old, for the run-in in 2011 but the manager knew he wanted an experienced, calm head in the team and with seven goals Leroy helped the team to get over the line. He remained with the U’s for the following season in Conference South and grabbed another fifteen goals, including four in a 5-1 FA Cup win over Dulwich Hamlet. After leaving Sutton, with 22 goals in 89 games, the veteran striker still managed to fit in another eleven clubs. It is fair to assume that Leroy, who played the game with a smile on his face, enjoyed playing football.
Tom Bolarinwa - 152 appearances/23 goals
Tom had a varied career with a number of non-League sides before playing in Thailand for three years. On his return he joined Cray Wanderers before Paul Doswell identified him as a missing piece of the jigsaw for the 2015/16 season. A rapid and powerfully built winger Tom was one of the players that crowds love to watch, he score some spectacular goals and made many more as the U’s powered to the National league South title. He was named in the league’s Team of the Year and earned himself a transfer to League Two Grimsby Town, where he made over thirty appearances. In November 2017 Tom rejoined the U’s on loan and made the deal permanent a few weeks later. He added another eight goals but injury seemed to have robbed him of a yard of pace and his electric acceleration and in 2020 he moved to Lewes before a switch to Ashford Town. He scored a total of 23 goals in 152 games for the U’s but his contribution to the club’s success goes much deeper than those bare statistics.
Louis John - 274 appearances/14 goals
Louis started in Sutton’s youth team but was picked up by Crawley Town and spent two years there, including a loan spell at Bognor Regis, before coming to Sutton on loan, and then signing a permanent contract. Louis was in and out of the U’s team, often featuring at right back, and had several loan spells with local clubs before becoming a regular with Sutton, leading to two England ‘C’ caps and a transfer to EFL outfit Cambridge United. New manager Matt Gray was finding life tough in the National League, but one of the changes that turned around the club’s fortunes in the 2019/20 season was the return of Louis from Cambridge, initially on loan. The U’s ended in comfortable safety when Covid cut short the season and the following year Louis was a regular at the heart of defence alongside Ben Goodliffe as Sutton won the National League title. Louis scored the vital second goal in the decisive win over Hartlepool but a week or two earlier had managed a much better and altogether different goal with a calm and perfectly placed effort from inside his own half away at Maidenhead. The next year Louis played in the Papa Johns final at Wembley against Rotherham. Injury has affected Louis’s availability in recent months but at the time of writing he has made 274 appearances and scored 14 goals.
Simon Downer - 256 appearances/8 goals.
Even into his thirties it was easy to see why the teenage Simon Downer was once regarded by some as a potential England player. He did go on trial at Newcastle, then managed by Sir Bobby Robson, but a nagging injury possibly cost him that move. Instead he played almost 80 times for Leyton Orient before his injuries saw him switch between semi-retirement and brief spells with a number of non-League sides. In November 2008 Simon joined Sutton and scored in a 1-1 draw away to Wingate & Finchley in the FA Trophy. He only made seven appearances before spending the 2009/10 season in the Conference with Rushden & Diamonds, playing in almost 50 games.
By the start of the 2010/11 season Simon was back with the U’s and scored in the dramatic 4-3 comeback win at home to Wealdstone as the U’s went on to win the Isthmian League title, and the following year he was named as Players’ Player of the Year. After four years he joined Maidenhead United, closer to his west country home, but the lure of The Lane proved too strong and he returned for a third spell at the start of the 2015/16 season. It proved to be another astute move as he collected another championship winner’s medal as the U’s took the National League South title. By then Simon was having to carefully manage his injured knee and any games that Paul Doswell could coax out of him were a bonus. Simon showed why he was so important to the team with a standout performance in the FA Cup defeat of Cheltenham Town, he then played at centre-half in the win over Leeds and at right back in the famous game v Arsenal. A week later he took over in goal after Ross Worner had been injured at Torquay. It was Simon’s versatility and ability to churn out consistent performances with rarely a bad game that made him so valuable to the team and so popular with fans. Simon managed eight goals in 256 games for the U’s and one last season followed at Hampton & Richmond before he retired at the end of the 2018/19 season.
David Ajiboye - 168 appearances/23 goals
David was new manager Matt Gray’s first signing, in the summer of 2019, after scoring sixteen goals for Worthing the previous season. His blistering pace was immediately evident and his ability to almost always beat the first defender made him one to watch. In that first, covid-affected season David only managed four goals; his talent was there for all to see but sometimes he seemed to lack in confidence. The next season though David was instrumental in the club’s title success, he scored five times but made so many more and was a constant threat, being named in the National League team of the season. He continued to terrorise defences after promotion into the Football League and scored several wonderful goals after mazy, high speed dribbles. In summer 2022 David was sold to Peterborough United, but he rejoined the U’s on loan for the second half of the season. This season he seems to be establishing himself in the Peterborough team and has scored three times in eleven games. He netted a total of 23 goals in 168 appearances for the U’s.
Isaac Olaofe - 80 appearances/26 goals
“Tanto”, as he is universally known, is the only player featured this month who was never actually a Sutton United player. All of his appearances were as a loanee from Millwall, but the impact he had and the part he played in statistically the club’s two most successful seasons ever mean he cannot be overlooked.
Tanto joined shortly before lockdown in the Covid season, playing five games and scoring in the last game of the curtailed season against Hartlepool. He began the 2020/21 season on loan from Millwall to St. Johnstone but only made two appearances. Manager Matt Gray had maintained a watching brief and he was back in Sutton colours by late October, announcing his return with a hat-trick in a 5-1 win over Kings Lynn. Tanto’s express pace was integral to the way the U’s played that year and the most significant of his fourteen goals that season came in the final home game, the 3-0 win over Hartlepool that clinched promotion into the Football League. He was named as the club’s Young Player of the Year. Having renewed his contract with Millwall Isaac then returned to Sutton on loan at the end of August. An injury-hit season saw his appearances restricted and he scored just eight goals but did make a substitute appearance in the Papa Johns Trophy final. At the end of December 2022 Tanto left Millwall for Stockport County for an undisclosed fee, and his goals have been a feature of their fine start to this season. Isaac totalled 26 goals in 80 games for the U’s.
Craig Dundas - 584 appearances/109 goals
The club legend that is “Dundo” is without doubt the most successful legacy of Ernie Howe’s brief and unproductive stay as Sutton manager. Quickly making a name for himself at Carshalton, after six years with Croydon, Craig was already 26 years old when he joined the U’s in November 2007 and scored in an encouraging 3-3 draw away to Hayes & Yeading. It was a false dawn for Sutton as relegation beckoned at the end of a dismal season but Craig was one of the few players retained by new manager Paul Doswell after grabbing twelve goals in a half a season. Craig featured regularly in the Isthmian League the next season, his great strength and determination making him a firm favourite with the fans, but the U’s lost out in the play-offs and Craig left for a year with Hampton & Richmond. This U’s knocked the Beavers out of the FA Cup and by the time the 2010/11 season started Craig was back at The Lane. He played a vital part in the U’s winning the Isthmian League title and Conference South crowds soon became used to the cry of “Dundo’s gonna get yer”. In an eight-year spell bringing almost 300 appearances Craig scored over 60 goals but it was his workrate as much as his finishing that endeared him to Sutton fans and he was a vital part of the success that the team enjoyed in the mid 2010s: winning the National League in 2016 and reaching the last 16 of the FA Cup in 2017. Already 36, Craig then alternated briefly between Hampton and Sutton but new U’s boss Matt Gray retained Craig as a fitness coach and as a player and he enjoyed the National League title success of 2021. On 11th September 2021, aged 40, Craig become the oldest player to make their EFL debut since the 2nd World War, in a game against Stevenage. Remarkably, at age 42 Craig is still an active member of the first team squad and, at the time of writing, has amassed 584 appearances (fifth in the all-time list) with 109 goals.