Sutton salvage a point in basement battle with Tranmere - but it feels like a struggle ahead
Sutton United (0) 1 John 88
Tranmere Rovers (1) 1 Goodliffe og17
It needed a late blast through a thicket of players from central defender Louis John to save the day in a match that Sutton felt they couldn't afford to lose - even though we are still only in mid-November.
It is way too early to talk in terms of six-pointers but this was a game the U's dared not lose for fear of drifting away at the foot of the table. It was not quite dog-eat-dog but it felt as thought the stakes were high.
There was enough grim fascination to draw an above-average crowd of 3,548 to this corner of south London - an attendance boosted by a decent away contingent and a deal allowing season ticket holders from other clubs to take advantage of reduced ticket prices. On an international break, this was the only league game in the capital.
Ahead of kick-off, the U's were just two points adrift of Tranmere. They in 24th and last place, with the visitors 22nd. Only Forest Green between them were keeping them company.
Fear of relegation back to the relative obscurity of the Conference League was guaranteed to concentrate minds, even at this early stage of the campaign and at times it seemed as if the tension was too much. But the U's deserved the draw they got in the end.
Rovers - now overseen by that famous former physio Nigel Adkins - were looking to improve on a record of eight defeats out of eight on the road. They'd only scored four goals on their travels before today. For them, this was a marked improvement.
Matt Gray's men were hoping to build on some green shoots of recovery after a disastrous start to the campaign, which featured 11 defeats in 12 games.
A win at home to Bradford and a draw at Colchester sandwiched a cup win over non-league Fylde. Enough to restore a modicum of confidence. They badly needed that momentum to continue.
Sutton really shouldn't have been trailing at the interval. True, Kristian Dennis sent a low shot against the base of a post for Rovers and forced a save from Dean Bouzanis early on - while an enterprising run from Rob Apter brought reward when his low shot deflected off Ben Goodliffe past Bouzanis to give the visitors an early lead.
But the U's had most of the play and might have scored when Aidan O'Brien's good work set up Harry Smith for a cross that Harry Beautyman headed goalwards - only to be denied by keeper Luke McGee.
And there was a looping header from the towering Smith that drifted inches over the bar, while O'Brien should have scored when a charge out of goal by McGee to clear was thwarted by the ball getting stuck in the mud. O'Brien had an empty goal to aim at from 35 yards but his shot hit a post.
Tranmere looked increasingly comfortable as Sutton's desperation grew, but when they failed to clear a late corner, John was on hand to bury a golden chance to square the game.
Relief then. The fight to remain in the league is still very much in its infancy.
Old habits dies hard though. There is still a Southern League mentality which focuses on financial survival above all - the division can take care of itself.
An elderly steward ahead of kick-off lamented that a rail strike could deprive them of a bumper crowd when Barnsley of League One come to Gander Green Lane in a couple of weeks for an FA Cup second round tie.
Cash and league positions. This is football in its most primeval state and pretty compelling for it.
U's: (4-4-2) Bouzanis - Kizzi, John, Goodliffe, Jackson - Coley (Angol 89), Gape (Patrick 66), N'Guessan, Beautyman - Smith, O'Brien (Fadahunsi 87)
Rovers: (4-4-2) McGee - O'Connor (Pike 90), Davies, Turnbull, Wood (Leake 72) - Apter (Taylor 79), Walker, Hendry, Morris - Jennings, Dennis (Saunders 72)