Up for the cup: Sutton United bask in overdue return to spotlight

Ross McLean
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Sutton United v Cheltenham Town - The Emirates FA Cup Second Round
Sutton United host near neighbours AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup this weekend (Source: Getty)

Non-league Sutton United may be cast as extras in the FA Cup script but nearly 30 years after their last show-stopping third round performance the part-timers are busy rehearsing their lines for a long overdue encore.

It was January 1989 when Sutton, playing as they are today in English football’s fifth tier, knocked out top-flight Coventry City, a side crowned FA Cup winners just 18 months earlier.

Opportunity knocks again on Saturday when the U’s host near neighbours AFC Wimbledon, who share a similar approach to fan ownership, on their artificial pitch with a place in round four and a further £67,500 in prize money on offer.

Aside from a pair of Surrey Senior Cup clashes, the clubs failed to meet as contemporaries during the Dons’ brisk march through the divisions to League One, which started in the Combined Counties League following their formation in 2002.

But a capacity crowd of 5,013 is set to cram into Gander Green Lane this weekend for what is being dubbed the “friendly derby”.

Victory for Sutton would prove a more than timely anniversary gift for chairman Bruce Elliott, who is celebrating his 20th year in the role.

Sutton United Media Access
Sutton United chairman Bruce Elliott (Source: Getty)

“I have already had the present of getting to the third round and having such an attractive tie against our local rivals,” Elliott, whose side have navigated three rounds to get to this stage, told City A.M.

“Whatever happens on the day it’s all been a huge bonus for Sutton United because in our heart of hearts we probably didn’t think we’d get into the first round proper.

“Category one would always be a tie against Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal or Tottenham, home or away, but after missing those this is the best possible draw for us.

“We’re delighted to be at home as that allows us to raise extra income with catering and the bar takings. We’re really looking forward to it.

“We have got an excellent relationship with AFC Wimbledon. We’re very proud to have staged their first ever game – a pre-season friendly. It was such a special evening.

“A lot of fans support both clubs and there have been various deals over the years for AFC Wimbledon season ticket holders. There are so many connections between us.

“The FA Cup is a great story for both clubs and it’s fair to say that AFC Wimbledon are an inspiration. We have watched their progress through the leagues with a lot of admiration.”

Shunned by TV

Such cordiality has its limits. Elliott, who has been a Sutton board member for more than 30 years, is dismayed that this and all ties featuring non-league sides have been overlooked for live television broadcast.

Sutton, Eastleigh, Barrow, Lincoln and seventh-tier Stourbridge have lost out to the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham as the BBC and BT Sport opted, in the main, for the Premier League elite.

“The word was that we were in the frame for a live game,” said Elliott. “Cleary we are disappointed that the romance of the FA Cup seems to have been thrown out of the window.

“If a non-league club gets to the third round then it’s a huge story and I would have thought it would make prime time television, although we do understand it is all about viewing figures.

“We know that Manchester United will attract more people than Sutton United, but I think it is disappointing that not one of the remaining non-league clubs will be featured in any of the six live games.

“But we’ve got a full house and it’s a long time since we have had that. We’ve moved on. We weren’t chosen for whatever reason so we’re just looking forward to getting on with it.”

Heroes of ‘89

Sutton’s victory over Coventry in 1989, secured courtesy of bricklayer Matthew Hanlan’s strike, is as synonymous with the competition’s third round as the club itself. Only once since – Luton’s 1-0 victory over Norwich at Carrow Road in 2013 – has a non-league outfit slayed a top-flight club in the tournament.

“Anyone at Gander Green Lane that day will never forget it,” added Elliott.

“I remember Coventry, who had a lot of famous names in their side at the time, coming to get a feel for the ground the day before the match.

“A number of us made the effort to be there and receive them and we made quite a fuss of them. We had lots of programmes for them to sign and some footballs.

“On reflection, maybe they thought ‘here we are at little Sutton United, they’re making the most of it’. I’m sure they’d deny it but maybe, just maybe, they thought they just had to be there the next day to get a result.

Sutton v Coventry
Sutton United's Tony Rains and Matthew Hanlan netted against top-flight Coventry City in 1989 (Source: Getty)

“Our goalscorers, Tony Rains and Matthew Hanlan, appeared on the [Terry] Wogan show on the Monday after the match. And even now, all these years later, every time the FA Cup third round comes around you’ll see at least one, if not both, of the Sutton goals against Coventry being replayed.”

Only time will tell whether Sutton’s modern vintage can make a similarly lasting impression on the FA Cup as their predecessors Rains and Hanlan.