By Dean Bouzanis

A year and a half ago I agreed to join Sutton United in the fifth tier of English football. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect when I signed the contract. I’d played in League One and League Two before, but I never thought I’d play non-league football.

All I knew was that Sutton was an ambitious club and the gaffer was signing players to try and make the playoffs. Also, the club is based in London, which was important because my partner Steph Catley was heading there to join Arsenal.

Steph and I met in 2016 at Melbourne City. We kept it quiet at first, because it’s unusual for two people at the same club to start dating. About six months into it, we became official and Steph moved into my club apartment near City’s old training ground in Bundoora. 

Things were great for us at City. I made many good friends at the club and was part of the team that won the FFA Cup in 2016. Steph was captain of the W-League side and scored the winner in the 2020 Grand Final. 

But at the end of July that year, I was off contract and there was a lot of uncertainty in the A-League. The season was suspended due to COVID-19 and we were in lockdown in Melbourne.

The decision to move to London was a massive point in my life. Steph was doing unbelievably well in her career and she had an opportunity to go to a huge club. She was very supportive of me staying in the A-League but I took a pay cut to sign for Sutton. Moving here was never about the money, it was about being together and being happy.

Since then, Steph has kicked on for Arsenal and the Matildas and I’ve barely missed a game for Sutton. In my first season, we got promoted to the English Football League for the first time in the club’s 123-year history. 

The 2020-21 season was mostly played behind closed doors, which was surreal at first because there were no fans and no atmosphere. But we started well and around this time last year we played three big games in eight days away from home against Torquay, Hartlepool and Stockport. 

Torquay is in the southwest, Hartlepool is in the northeast and Stockport is just outside of Manchester, so the road trip was around 500 miles. Stockport is a big club but we won 2-0. That was the moment we truly believed that we could do something. 

From there, we won 15 games and lost three to get promoted to League Two.

The second-last game against Hartlepool was extra special because it was one of the only games where fans were allowed into our home ground at Gander Green Lane. There were about 1000 people there to see us lift the Premiership trophy, including Steph and her Matildas teammates Sam Kerr, Lydia Williams, Caitlin Foord, Mackenzie Arnold and Emily van Egmond.

The fans in England are diehard and they love their team no matter which league it plays in. What I love about Sutton United is that it’s a humble, family club, full of good people and with a manager who has great respect for his players. 

Aussies don’t really see this side of English football. They see the EPL and the Championship, and they try to compare it to the A-League. The style of play here is faster and more physical but I believe the top non-league clubs could compete with some A-League clubs.

The biggest difference between Australia and England is the number of games. The A-League season is 26 rounds plus finals. Last season, I played 42 games over here as well as a few Cup fixtures. This season, I’ve already played nearly 30 games in the league and three different Cup competitions.

The other big difference is pressure. Ten years ago at Oldham I experienced what it was like to be in a relegation battle and now I know what it feels like to achieve promotion. Either way, it’s an unbelievable feeling because every game means something. 

Promotion and relegation is something Australian football truly needs. Over here, you’re constantly fighting for points and for bonuses. For example, getting promoted to the Football League meant that every player here at Sutton at least doubled their wages.

Football is a funny game and you never know where you’re going to end up. I believe if you’re happy off the pitch, things on the pitch will work out. I love playing for this club and Steph and I enjoy living in St Albans, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. January 14 is our five-year anniversary. 

One day I’d like to come back to the A-League to finish my career, so I can’t say I’ll stay at Sutton forever. But if there’s an opportunity for me to stay here in the foreseeable future, I’ll do so.

At the moment, our goal is the same as it was last year: to get promoted. We’re currently fourth on the ladder in League Two, with a little less than half the season to go. Whatever happens, I know for sure that coming here was the right thing to do.