Evening falls over Sutton, and with it comes the final match of the Second Round of this year’s FA Cup. Gander Green Lane has been here before, of course, in 1989 when the team in amber and chocolate knocked Coventry City out of the competition – the last time that a non-league club knocked one from the top division out of the FA Cup – and also in 1970, when a scarcely-credible 14,000 people packed in here to see Sutton United lose 6-0 against Leeds United in the Third Round of the competition.
Gander Green Lane hasn’t changed that much over the last twenty-two years since Sutton United’s most famous moment. One end of this bowl-shaped ground has been levelled off and a small cover installed, but the ground is still ostensibly the as the one that saw Tony Rains and Matthew Hanlan knock out a Coventry City side that had won the FA Cup at Wembley less than two years earlier. On the pitch, meanwhile, Sutton United are moving in an upward trajectory again after several years in the relative doldrums. The club had joined the Football Conference in 1985, but were relegated in 1991 and have spent just one season in this division – the 1999/2000 season since.
The last couple of years, however, have seen the club’s stock begin to raise again. Manager Paul Doswell was appointed as manager in 2008 with the club by this time having been relegated to the Ryman League Premier Division. After two unsuccessful attempts at getting up through the play-offs, the club eventually cantered up as champions at the end of last season and have started their first season back in the Blue Square South with a reasonable amount of confidence. As kick-off approaches this evening, they are in fourth place in the table, with games in hand on the teams that are above them in the table.
Normality, meanwhile, has returned to Notts County after that few months of madness that came with the Munto Finance take-over of the club. The world’s oldest professional club will celebrate its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary with its future looking relatively secure. After a close shave with relegation last season, Notts rallied to finish two places above the drop zone but, with League One acclimatisation having been realised, have started this season encouragingly and go into this match in sixth place in the League One table.
Not that we might have been able to tell which club was sixty-odd places above the other on the basis of the opening twenty minutes of this match. Sutton United start the match positively, and within five minutes Harry Beautyman has shot wildly wide and, after the Notts County goalkeeper Stuart Nelson misjudges a cross, Leroy Griffiths forces Nelson back to block a shot. Notts County push forward, but their direct approach doesn’t yield a great deal of pressure bar a cross from Alan Judge which has to be palmed over the crossbar by the Sutton goalkeeper Kevin Scriven whilst, at the other end, Beautyman forces another save from Nelson.
The match hinges on the events of the last ten minutes or so of the first half. At one end of the pitch, Notts County take the lead when Jeff Hughes turns Karl Hawley’s cross past Scriven. It’s a moment of simple professionalism from the away team and it looks briefly as if it may completely knock the wind from Sutton’s sails, but in stoppage time at the end of the half they are given a life-line when Sam Sodje fouls Craig Watson inside the penalty area to give Sutton a penalty. Leroy Griffiths steps up, but his low shot is disappointing and Nelson saves comfortably.
The second half sees the Sutton well of ideas begin to run dry. The two sides continue to take pot shots at each other, but as the second forty-five minutes wears on and Sutton start to tire, Notts start to look more comfortably in control and it begins to feel as if their chance – their big chance – to work a way back into the game came and went with the penalty kick at the end of the first half. It still doensn’t always feel as if there is an enormous amount between the two teams, but the edge is with Notts County now, their passing a little crisper, their tackling more disciplined, and Sutton are starting to look a little frustrated.
As time starts to run out, things go from bad to worse for Sutton. First up, defender Karl Murray is dismissed, having collected two yellow cards in a little over two and a half minutes. Then, as the clock ticks over ninety minutes and into stoppage time, comes the final, kock-out punch – a shot from Hawley is blocked by Scriven and Hughes, from close range, bundles the ball over the line to send Notts County through to a Third Round trip to Doncaster Rovers next month. Sutton United, on the other hand, are left to reflect upon one glorious missed chance and to focus upon maintaining their challenge for the Blue Square South championship.
By the end of this season, it wouldn’t be inconceivable to see that both of this afternoon’s teams will be promoted, come the end of this season. Both are in the play-off placed in their respective divisions, and playing well. This afternoon, however, one of the clichés of the FA Cup did come through. The stronger, professional team ground down their spirited lower league opposition, and fully deserve their place in the Third Round of this year’s FA Cup. Sutton United, their bank account plumpened by their win against Kettering Town in the First Round of the competition, the visit of ESPN’s cameras and the gate receipts for today’s match, couldn’t quite match the exploits of the past. They gave it a damn good go, though.
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