Monday 24 April 2017

Arsenal old boy eager to embarrass former mentor

Sutton United’s Craig Eastmond is relishing the chance to run out against Arsenal in the FA Cup Photo: PA
Sutton United’s Craig Eastmond is relishing the chance to run out against Arsenal in the FA Cup Photo: PA

Jim White

The moment the ball came out to reveal Sutton United's next FA Cup opponents, Craig Eastmond was submerged under a wave of unhinged celebration. The Sutton midfielder was in the bar at the club's Gander Green Lane ground watching the fifth-round draw on television and was momentarily overwhelmed by what he had just seen.

"In this run we've beaten teams from the Conference, League Two, League One and the Championship. So we wanted to complete the sequence and get a Premier League side," he says. "But Arsenal? I couldn't believe it. I was just amazed."

At Sutton, everyone was thrilled to draw Arsenal, from the chairman contemplating the income through the coach preparing to pitch his wits against the longest-serving manager in English league football, to the fans astonished to see household names playing in south London suburbia.

But for Eastmond it means something even more. For him, this is personal. "If you'd said to me, 'What are your greatest ambitions in football?' I think playing Arsenal in the FA Cup would be right up there."

Eastmond is not just a lifelong Arsenal fan, he was at the club for 11 years. This is a player who for a long time believed that if ever Arsenal came to be taking on a non-League side in the Cup, he would be wearing a red shirt.

A Battersea boy, he joined the club when he was 12, after being plucked from the academy at Millwall. As he progressed, Arsenal's junior coaches reckoned he had something of the Paul Davis about him. Tall and languid, elegant in possession of the ball, he was nonetheless robust in retrieving it back.

It was no surprise he was eventually recommended to Arsène Wenger as someone who could make the transition to the first team. And over four seasons he made 10 first-team appearances, playing in a full house of competitions, the League and FA Cups, Premier League and Champions League.

In 2013, realising his chances of permanent promotion were slight, he moved on to Colchester. He went with Wenger's best wishes.

"The Boss was always good to me," he recalls. "When I left, he said: 'Keep going and you will get back up there, you need to play week in, week out.' "

At Colchester he seemed to blossom as a first-team regular. But after a change of management, in 2015 he was not offered a new contract. And after one undistinguished outing with Yeovil Town, he found himself without a club.

"He and everyone else thought he would get floods of offers," says Sutton manager Paul Doswell. "But he was on holiday and people couldn't get hold of him. When he came back in August, he still didn't have a club."

At 24, Eastmond was facing the most premature of retirements. "I don't mind admitting it was hard," he says of the sense of rejection. "But I didn't think that's it, it's over. I just thought: 'Right, okay, what do I have to do to get back?' "

To keep himself in trim he joined a fitness group run by former Bradford City and Leicester City player Jamie Lawrence. It was Lawrence, he says, who persuaded him talk to Sutton. He recalls being impressed from the moment he met Doswell.

"The manager gave me the belief that sometimes you might have to take a step back to take a step forward," he says. "But just taking a look round the dressing room you could see they were going places. "

Although joining a part-time operation, Eastmond did not seek other employment, preferring to spend time keeping himself fit under Lawrence's tutelage. As an approach it worked. He was instrumental in guiding the club to promotion to the National League in his first season. That is the level at which the Sutton board wishes to remain, largely because Football League rules would oblige the club to rip up their money-spinning artificial surface were they to gain further elevation.

But Doswell appreciates that some of his players have further ambition. And in the dressing room, Eastmond has found a shared belief that the FA Cup offers a unique opportunity to remind League managers of their presence. This is a shop window like no other.

"It's definitely my goal to get back in the League," he says. "And I'm doing well. This Cup run has shown that I'm not a one-hit wonder. I can play, whoever the opposition is." Already the offers have come in. Soon after the victory over Wimbledon, he turned down a chance to go to Barnet in League Two. In part that was because the Cup run was continuing. But it was also because his ambitions are more elevated.

Eastmond was instrumental in the victories over Wimbledon and Leeds. He does not look like a player overawed by the opposition, whoever they may be.

And now the Arsenal teamsheet awaits. He cannot wait to see the names. "I was there with Francis Coquelin, we played together in the team that won the FA Youth Cup and the under-18 league. It would be great to play against him, but part of me is hoping they don't bring the big guns down."

Whoever is playing, the match will offer him the chance to reacquaint himself with the Arsenal hierarchy.

"I've not seen Arsène Wenger in the flesh since I left the club," he says. [It would] be great to catch up, he's a great manager. And a great man."

Though Eastmond admits he will have mixed feeling when he shakes his hand. Because he knows nothing would serve his purposes better than embarrassing his former mentor.

Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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