Sutton United will always be introduced as the team who knocked Coventry out in the Third Round of FA Cup in 1989. For non-league clubs, it was a giant-killing escapade towers above all other results and achievements; The promotions which have been ground out over a whole season, or worked on for years, the spectacle of the play-offs, the hurt of relegations, or the relief of close escapes, all become smudged like old newspaper ink by the pressing thumb of time, yet over two decades on the Coventry result remains fresh on page of history; the Sutton club shop still doing a trade in DVDs of the finest hour and a half in their long history.
The FA Trophy may lack by some way the romance of its illustrious stablemate the FA cup and if Sutton do succeed in knocking out their opponents Eastleigh, only one step above them in the pyramid, it is hardly likely to be recalled as a giant-killing, but this fixture is nevertheless tinged with more excitement and expectation than usual. The ‘large amount of spice’ for this fixture, as Eastleigh manager Ian Baird put it, is provided by the return to the Silverlake Stadium of Sutton Manager Paul Doswell the man who could well have a claim to be dubbed the ‘Eastleigh Messiah.’ The perversity of cup competitions in generating fixtures which hold a significance for both clubs and supporters, but would not have taken place in the course of the league season, not lost on him as he revealed before the game to Radio Spitfire that the draw had put a “bit of a smile on my face”.
If Eastleigh can only look enviously at Sutton’s cup pedigree, it is because as recently as 2003 Eastleigh were playing in the Wessex league, step five of the pyramid, of which they had been among the league’s founder members in 1986. The club possessed a modest ground, with a small stand which adequately housed it’s a one-man-and-his-dog following. After the appointment of Doswell as manager in 2002 the club embarked on a rapid ascent of the pyramid landing in the Conference South only three years later in 2005. Doswell also involved himself off-field with a role in the upgrading of the ground facilities. Including the construction of a new stand, the works left the club with a ground capacity of 3,000. Their ambitions would however, not be fulfilled by Doswell who exited the club in 2008, but current manager Ian Baird would come agonisingly close to meeting them by guiding Eastleigh into the play-offs following a successful 2008/9 season only to suffer defeat at the hands of Hayes and Yeading; so far the club’s high-water mark.
Doswell, meanwhile, has been at work repeating his golden touch by steering Sutton to the top of the Ryman League Premier Division with a side consisting of no fewer than five former Eastleigh players. Andy Forbes, one of those lining up at the kick off, like Doswell can claim to be an Eastleigh legend having netted 143 times in 268 games for the Spitfires before exiting in the close season following a year which had included a brief public rift with manager Baird. On loan from Woking Forbes has once again re-joining long term admirer Doswell, repaying the admiration with 7 goals in 12 appearances.
It could easily have been Forbes who opened the scoring after five minutes, but he was denied by Eastleigh goalkeeper Barfoot who got down well to achieve a double save. A third save, however, was too much to ask of Barfoot and Craig Dundas duly dispatched the loose ball into the back of the net. The goal was ample reward for the committed start that Sutton had made, flinging themselves at every ball and never flinching from danger. Ensconced behind their respective goals, the Sutton vuvuzela began a duel with the Eastleigh drum which matched events on the pitch, neither side achieving complete control over the game. Barfoot made a save at his near post, Bottomley blasted a good chance wide, and late on in the half Richard Graham cut inside only to see his effort curl just wide of the top corner.
As the temperature dropped in the second half, the result seemed to have become almost as frozen as the toes of the spectators. Sutton spurned chances to finish the game off through poor finishing and Eastleigh had few chances, but just as the home fans thoughts began to turn to an early exit, Tony Taggart scored a late equalizer to force a replay. The goalkeeper he slammed the ball past, Kevin Scriven, maybe appreciated the irony that almost exactly three years earlier he had been Taggart’s teammate as the winger scored a last gasp winner against Notts County in the Second Round of the FA cup, setting Havant and Waterloovile on an epic FA cup run which would culminate in their fourth round encounter with Liverpool. It’s just one more act in the strange world of cup football.
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