Relieved Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger admits his team flirted with one of the biggest shocks in FA Cup history before they ended fifth-tier Sutton’s fairytale run last night.
Goals in each half from Lucas Perez and Theo Walcott – his 100th for the Gunners – saw them through a nervy contest and into a quarter final against Sutton’s National League rivals Lincoln.
Arsenal looked far from a team 105 places above Sutton in the English football hierarchy – nor one whose £192m wage bill is almost 500 times that of their opponents – as they endured an error-strewn evening on Sutton’s artificial pitch.
“If we were not mentally prepared we would not have gone through today. I didn’t really enjoy tonight because we had to do the job and it is tricky,” said Wenger. “We did the job. It is very different, I must say, on this kind of pitch. It was not an easy game at all. We have to give them credit because every error we made they took advantage of on this pitch.”
Victory provided respite of sorts for the under-fire Wenger, who remains on track for a record seventh FA Cup, while Sutton manager Paul Doswell reflected fondly on a historic and, at times, surreal run that has earned the club around £800,000.
“We have done non-league proud. They’re 105 places above us in the pyramid,” said Doswell, a property developer by day. “Arsenal walked in with bodyguards. It’s a different world. I’ve got to go to work tomorrow. I don’t blame them but it’s way out of what I understand or would even want to understand.
“It’s been the best three weeks of my life. But I’ll be glad to get away from this and back to normality.”
Doswell billed Sutton’s first ever fifth-round tie “David and Goliath times 10” in his programme notes and, while there was no upset of biblical proportions, this was no one-sided fight either.
Arsenal were never comfortable on a skiddy surface at a claustrophobic 5,000-capacity stadium and against committed opponents. Lincoln will take note – and some heart.
Traffic delayed the Gunners’ arrival until an hour before kick-off and they looked unsettled when the game started, rattled by heavy tackles and mis-timed passes.
Their nerves were not eased when Mohamed Elneny troubled neighbouring gardens with their first shot and Granit Xhaka earned an early booking for a cynical shirt pull.
Xhaka made a more judicious intervention on 26 minutes when he fed Lucas, who cut in from the right and whipped a low cross-shot that evaded both Walcott and Sutton goalkeeper Ross Worner, a picture framer by trade. It was Lucas’s seventh goal since his summer move from Deportivo La Coruna.
Sutton had a chance to level just before half time when David Ospina’s careless clearance found Adam May, but after advancing into the box he shot wide.
Walcott, Arsenal’s captain for the night, calmed the visitors a little when he tapped in following a neat move involving Nacho Monreal and Alex Iwobi early in the second half.
Yet the hosts were far from finished and skipper Jamie Collins, a builder, headed over from a corner before Roarie Deacon, the former Arsenal trainee and Sutton’s brightest spark, flashed a 20-yard shot against the bar.
Wenger sent on star man Alexis Sanchez for the closing stages but he failed to provide a killer third before the final whistle, which sparked a pitch invasion.