Premier League high-flyers Arsenal take on National League strugglers Sutton United on Monday evening, who are hoping to pull off one of the biggest shocks in FA Cup history. But with both Arsene Wenger and the world’s oldest association cup competition fighting for modern day credibility, something has got to give on the minnows’ third generation playing surface.
Not taking anything away from Lincoln City’s heroics in this year’s FA Cup, Sutton United are a non-league club in the absolute sense – never having featured in England’s top four divisions.
Lincoln’s ‘Imps’ became the first non-league club to reach the quarter finals of the FA cup in over 100 years on Saturday after beating Premier League Burnley. In truth, City have spent much of their history in the football league. They were a League Two side as recently as 2011 when Sutton were competing in the seventh-tier Isthmian League.
Fans of a certain age will remember United’s FA Cup pedigree, with the ‘Us’ having famously conquered 1987 winners Coventry in the 1989 competition on an uneven, partially grass-covered pitch at Gander Green Lane. No such issues for Arsenal this weekend on Sutton’s controversial 3G pitch and no excuses from Leeds United who were humbled on the surface in the last round.
Outside of their FA Cup exploits, Sutton’s biggest claims to fame are last year’s National League South title and being 15-time Surrey Senior Cup winners. Although not strictly part of the county since 1965, you can bet your life Surrey are claiming them as their own this week more than any other.
Sutton also claimed the Anglo-Italian Cup in 1979 when the competition was contested between English and Italian semi-professional clubs. United’s continued part-time setup to this day makes their achievements in this year’s FA Cup that bit more remarkable.
A cup run that started back on 15 October in the 4th qualifying round, has seen United overcome fellow non-leaguers Forest Green Rovers and Dartford, before victory against League Two Cheltenham Town and a bragging-rights win over local ‘rivals’ AFC Wimbledon of League One. Championship ‘giants’ Leeds United were next to fall in front of a packed 5,000 Borough Sports Ground crowd and national television audience bringing us to Monday’s dream tie with Arsenal.
Sutton may just be a short 16-mile journey across London for the Gunners, but in football terms, the two clubs are worlds apart – and that’s what makes this fixture so special. The first meeting between the two sides, possibly the only meeting they’ll ever have. A fixture only the FA Cup can serve up.
Never outside England’s top-flight, Arsenal have a long history of success at the highest level that includes 13 top division league titles, a UEFA Cup win and a record-equalling 12 FA Cups – including three league and cup doubles.
But Arsenal will need to match Sutton’s whole-hearted commitment to this competition for the gulf in class to show – and a fixture with a non-league ground, with cramped (chocolate) changing rooms and an artificial pitch is likely to do little to inspire them out of their recent mini-slump.
A difficult couple of weeks for the Gunners could be about to get a whole lot worse if they come away from Sutton with anything less than a convincing win. Pressure is mounting on Arsene Wenger with their Premier League and Champions League challenges falling by the wayside. With a 5-1 drubbing by Bayern Munich on Wednesday fresh in their minds, Arsenal are on a hiding to nothing with this ‘no win’ draw.
More than a dozen years since their last Premier league title, lifting the FA Cup twice in the last three seasons has probably prolonged the Arsenal manager’s stay at the Emirates, but fan goodwill towards the Frenchman may be at a point of no return. Wenger has shown the competition plenty of respect in recent years and with no fixture for a couple of weeks, he’ll likely field a strong side with the FA Cup Arsenal’s only realistic chance of silverware again this season.
We all love a good underdog story but come kick-off we could even see some of the Arsenal faithful routing for the non-league minnows in the hope of expediting another great run – that of their long-serving manager.
Whatever the motivation, be it personal agenda, fairytales, Arsenal-bashing, FA Cup tradition or, in my case, local pride – we’re likely to be united as Sutton supporters for the night. So sorry Arsenal, if it seems like the whole world’s against you at the moment – that’s because they probably are.
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