FA Cup Shocks & The Two Faces Of The National League
The more things change, the more they stay the same. When the television cameras of the BBC visited Gander Green Lane in January 1989 for Sutton United’s FA Cup Third Round match against Coventry City, it was a very different place to today, a bowl-shaped ground flanked with trees, a completely idiosyncratic ground and completely unfamiliar territory for a visiting club that had won the FA Cup two years earlier. That bowl shape has gone now, replaced by familiarly utilitarian covered terracing behind each goal. And something else has gone too. The grass. The mud so commonly invoked by commentators as having a kryptonite-like effect on professional players is now also a thing of the past at Gander Green Lane, replaced with a luxuriant looking 4G playing surface. There were mutters last week that such a playing surface may offer an unfair advantage to the team that uses it regularly, but there in a nutshell is one of the contradictions of non-league football. Your damned if you play on a field modelled on that used for the First Battle of the Somme, and you’re damned if you utilise the best quality surface that you can on your limited budget.
The contrast between 1970, when Sutton United played Leeds United at Gander Green Lane, in the same round of the competition, could hardly be starker. The Leeds United manager Don Revie treated that match with obsessive attention to detail that he had his opponents watched on three occasions. The team that he played for the match was his full strength team and won the match by six goals to nil. On Sunday afternoon, Garry Monday made ten changes from the team that played their last league match, and included two players making their debuts for the club. A Jamie Collins penalty kick, early in the second half, was enough to win the 2017 editions of the two clubs for the non-league side, and furthermore their performance thoroughly merited it.
Sutton United’s triumph against Leeds United wasn’t the only significant non-league win of the weekend, of course. On Saturday afternoon, National League leaders Lincoln City beat Brighton & Hove Albion by three goals to one at Sincil Sincil Bank. To a point, Lincoln’s success this season has been a surprise in its own right. Before the start of this season, few would have predicted that Lincoln would have ascended to the top of the table by January, but otherwise the presence of these two teams in the same division tells a story about a significant change that has occurred in non-league football over the last three decades or so.
The decision to introduce automatic promotion and relegation between the fourth and fifth tiers of the English league system has had many ramifications, both at the foot of what is currently known as League Two and a division below it, in what is now known as the National League. Lincoln City are a “former Football League club”, with all the baggage that such a label implies. Whether this is a temporary secondment or not, the club has spent the majority of its history in the Football League, and such a history has an inevitable effect on the culture of any club in that position. And these expectations may be more difficult to manage at this level of the game than anywhere else. With only one automatic promotion place to League Two, numerous other “former Football League clubs” also trying to claw their way back, and a handful of ambitious, upwardly-mobile and frequently moneyed clubs also seeking what is widely perceived to be the boundless opportunity of a place amongst the top ninety-two, the space for disappointment is broad.
Sutton United’s position is somewhat different. The club was relegated from what was then known as the GM Vauxhall Conference two seasons after that win again Coventry City, and club had, prior to the start this season – the 2000/2001 season – spent only one back in non-league football’s top flight. In his post-match interviews on Sunday afternoon, the Sutton United manager Paul Doswell stated that,”The difference is we are no Lincoln City. That is still a big, big club with great support and great facilities. We don’t have anything like that. That’s why I think for a traditional, non‑league club we can be really proud of what we’ve done.” Now, it might be argued that such a comment carries a degree of self-aggrandisement about it, but it does also reveal that this dissociation between the “former Football League clubs” and had “traditional non-league clubs”, all of which meet in this one, unusual division.
And perhaps this is the role of the National League in the twenty-first century. Formed in 1979 as a pressure point towards the aim of getting automatic promotion and relegation from the Football League, with that mission having been accomplished within a decade (and having since been expanded upon), the National League in 2017 is English football’s clearing house, with its stragglers fighting to avoid the slip towards regionalised and semi-professional world below it, whilst those near its top are frequently seeking to regain former glories, such that they were. This isn’t a clear boundary in terms of achievement, of course. We only have to look at the achievements of Forest Green Rovers or Dover Athletic at one end of this season’s table or at the travails of Torquay United or York City at the other to see this. But it is a clear cultural demarcation in this particular division. The story of Lincoln City was written in the lower divisions of the Football League. The story of Sutton United was written in the Athenian and Isthmian Leagues. It feels like a testament to the meritocracy that does still exist within our league system that such differing backgrounds can compete throughout the course of a season as equals.
With Lincoln City and Sutton United have come into their matches last weekend from such different cultural perspectives, it might be easy seek to overplay or underplay one or the other. But both clubs deserve our most sincere congratulations on having reached the last sixteen of this year’s FA Cup. Lincoln City have arrested a decline in the club’s fortunes that saw the club finish in the lower reaches of the National League for five consecutive seasons following relegation from the Football League in 2011. Sutton United, meanwhile, have reminded the world in the most public way possible of their unique place in the history of our game. And both clubs have, at an altogether more prosaic level, made a significant amount of money from their involvement in this year’s competition, and neither have stopped earning from it just yet.
So, if the upper echelons of the Football League decide that they don’t really wish to win competitions, that’s their decision. We’ll never know whether fielding under-strength teams can ever actually have a definitive effect upon a club’s chances of bettering itself, whether through avoiding relegation or clinching promotion, so it’s impossible to make any particular comment on that. What we do know for certain, however, is that both Lincoln City and Sutton United have given their supporters days that they will never forget, and that the idea of one or both of these clubs progressing even further still isn’t over just yet. We all appreciate the business imperatives that clubs run to these days, and that the financial incentives for doing so are greater than ever before. Indeed, both Lincoln and Sutton have their own battles to fight in the league over the remainder of the season. Last weekend, however, despite the very different histories that led them to the same division as each other at the same time, both can take enormous pride in a job well done, and for two wins for the ever-dwindling number of romantics amongst us all.
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