Wednesday 13 December 2017

Walcott hits 100 mark to snuff out Sutton's Cup dreams

Sutton 0-2 Arsenal

Sutton United's substitute goalkeeper and goalkeeping coach Wayne Shaw eats a pie during last night's FA Cup last 16 tie against Arsenal Photo: Reuters / Andrew Couldridge
Sutton United's substitute goalkeeper and goalkeeping coach Wayne Shaw eats a pie during last night's FA Cup last 16 tie against Arsenal Photo: Reuters / Andrew Couldridge

Paul Hayward

Six days ago Arsenal took on the nobility in Munich. This time they motored south to face the peasantry, if Sutton United will forgive that phrase. As their former Gunner, Craig Eastmond, said, "this is the real world, the real stuff" - a world only a Premier League snob could fail to like.

The U's, The Yellows, The Amber and Chocolates: so good they nicknamed them thrice. But would Sutton be good enough to effectively end Arsène Wenger's 20-plus year Arsenal career? The trick for the Lilliputians on these occasions is to take it seriously without taking it too seriously, and Sutton managed that beautifully, filling the stage with energy and passion without departing from their family spirit.

Arsenal's Theo Walcott steps over the ball to allow Lucas Perez's cross find its way into the Sutton net during last night's FA Cup clash. Walcott later doubled their advantage with his 100th goal for the Gunners Photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
Arsenal's Theo Walcott steps over the ball to allow Lucas Perez's cross find its way into the Sutton net during last night's FA Cup clash. Walcott later doubled their advantage with his 100th goal for the Gunners Photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Sandwiched in the fifth-tier Vanarama National League between Solihull Moors and Torquay United, Sutton are not guaranteed of staying in their division just below the 92-club League pyramid. The relegation zone is only six points below them.

This was a night to help those who attend and enjoy non-League games understand all over again why they are often preferable to the pushy, punkish professional variety.

Sutton, though cast into this "surreal" moment, as the match programme called it, have the feel of a club owned by everyone who comes through the gates for games that are usually of little interest to the rest of the nation - unlike this one, which doubled up as David v Goliath and Wenger on the hook.

Could his reign really reach a humbling end at Gander Green Lane, a misleadingly bucolic street name?

Sutton manager manager Paul Doswell after the match Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Sutton manager manager Paul Doswell after the match Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

The hubbub around the ground was not one of star-struck folk far from the Premier League cosmos. Sutton straightened their blazer and readied their ground to burst at the seams.

Cavalry

Dave Fairbrother, the ground safety officer, found his usual duties radically expanded. For the Leeds game, four police horses showed up, but this one brought the cavalry.

Fairbrother brought in "an emergency generator, an electrician on standby and a floodlighting specialist," telling the match-day programme readers: "Oh and this time I've come prepared (for police horse dung). I have a bucket and shovel and some roses eagerly anticipating their feast."

This bonhomie, this sense of wonder, prevailed throughout the club, despite the obvious strain of hosting household names for a live TV spectacle likely to be witnessed by millions. Yet the logistical stress of lurching from Vanarama National League to prime-time Monday night lights was not going to distort the character of this club.

In the club shop, a particularly cosy Portakabin, an older world or anorakish devotion to community football exerted its quiet magnetism. Inside was an archived array of old programmes; Sutton pencils, Sutton rulers, and more club histories than many professional clubs could lay before a visiting audience.

On the pitch, excited tots ran around in Sutton shirts, kicking balls while sprinklers greased the 3G pitch. This tactic, foreseen by Wenger, seemed of questionable value to a non-League team facing aristocrats known for their slick passing. But, hey, why change the routine for a team hammered 5-1 last week, even if it was at Bayern Munich?

No detail was overlooked. Sutton manager Paul Doswell revealed in his programme notes that he "managed to get a bottle of red wine from my brother's wine cellar," for Wenger. His brother, he explained, "knows a lot more" than him about vino.

Doswell got his lap of honour in early, sweeping round the ground before kick-off, whipping up home fans who were not unfamiliar with kicking the famous where it hurts. The 1989 Cup victory over Coventry (then a top flight side) was already locked into the club's identity.

Leeds, Cheltenham and AFC Wimbledon have all failed to win on this shiny, slippery surface, but Arsenal were unlikely to be permanently discombobulated either by the pitch or the occasion.

Their breakthrough arrived when Lucas Pérez dashed down Sutton's left and fired a low shot that flipped Ross Worner off his feet on its way to the net, with Theo Walcott's attempted flick deceiving the keeper.

An Arsenal side with only four of the starting team marmalised 5-1 in Munich were handed a job more important than keeping FA Cup romance alive.

They were a rescue squad, charged with keeping Arsenal's last realistic chance of a trophy afloat. And around that swirled the fate of the man in the long grey training coat who glimpsed the professional abyss in Munich and then had to step back from it on Gander Green Lane.

A second goal, by Walcott, his 100th for the club, had Arsenal's fans bouncing in a stand so low they were in danger of banging their heads. But they, too, were in tune with the spirit of the night. "Lincoln City," they sang - "we're coming for you."

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