As the trains wend their way out of central London towards Surrey, one could be forgiven for missing Sutton in amongst the ever-expanding suburbia. These days, it’s quite difficult to make out where London stops and Surrey starts, and it’s even more difficult to make out Gander Green Lane it amongst it all. Gander Green Lane is the home of Sutton United, a club that fit many of the boxes of the stereotype of the non-league giant-killer. Big ground with open terrace? Check. Unusual coloured kit (the club itself tends to call it “amber and chocolate” but the rest of the world knows it as “yellow and brown”)? Check. Yet Sutton United were responsible for possibly the greatest single FA Cup giant-killing of all time, when they biffed Coventry City on the nose in 1989.
Sutton’s reputation prior to the 1988/89 season was of being non-league football’s nearly men. They had been members of the Athenian League until 1963, when they joined the Isthmian League. They had played at Wembley three times, in 1963 (losing to Wimbledon in the FA Amateur Cup Final), in 1969 (when they lost the FA Amateur Cup Final to North Shields) and in 1981, when they lost the FA Trophy Final against Bishops Stortford. They made an impression in the national press in 1970, when they made the FA Cup Fourth Round. They managed this, curiously, without having beaten a single Football League side on the way, beating Dagenham, Barnet and Hillingdon Borough on the way to a home draw against Leeds United, who were one of the giants of European football at the time. In front of a crowd of 14,000, however, they were beaten 6-0 by Don Revie’s team.
Their fortunes began to change in the mid-1980s. Prior to 1986, places in the Conference had only been available to teams in the Southern and Northern Premier League, but from 1986 they allowed the Isthmian League the third promotion place, and Sutton were the first team to take advantage, winning the Isthmian League title for the second season in a row (and the third time in total). Once in the Conference, they acquitted themselves reasonably well, finishing in seventh and eighth place in the table. In 1988, they made the Third Round of the competition, beating Aldershot and Peterborough United before losing their Third Round match against Middlesbrough after a replay. The writing was on the wall for whoever they would come to draw the following season.
Their FA Cup run in the 1988/89 season almost ended before it started. They needed a replay after only drawing at home against Walton & Hersham in the Fourth Qualifying, but were fortunate in their draw in the First and Second Rounds, beating Dagenham away by four goals to nil and beating Aylesbury United 1-0 to take their place in the Third Round. The draw for the Third Round gave them the tie of the round – a home match against Coventry City. Coventry had caused a minor surprise of their own two years earlier, beating hot favourites Spurs 3-2 at Wembley to lift the FA Cup. Coventry had, at the time, been in the top division for more than twenty consecutive seasons. A whole generation of people (myself included) couldn’t imagine them being anywhere else, even though they were perenially tipped in the press as pre-season relegation favourites.
Gander Green Lane must have been an unwelcoming place for the First Division stars on that cold, blustery afternoon in January 1989. Coventry’s team contained seven of the players that had won the FA Cup two years earlier and had the scorer of the winning goal in that match, Keith Houchen, on the substitutes bench, but after an early spell of pressure, it soon became apparent that Sutton weren’t going to be overawed by them. Coventry’s passing was the crisper of the two teams, as one might expect, but Sutton’s midfield closed down every pass, biting at their ankles and not allowing them the time or space to play their normal game. Coventry created chances – Brian Kilcline headed straight at the Sutton goalkeeper Roffey. Sutton, however, had the best chance of the early stages of the match from their first corner. Coventry failed to clear the ball properly, and it was lobbed back in for Matthew Hanlon, whose low shot was excellently saved by Steve Ogrizovic. This, however was mere respite for Coventry. Just before half-time, Sutton won another corner on the left hand side. This time, the ball was flicked on at the near post by Mark Golley and, with Ogrizovic committed to trying to claim the cross, defender and captain Tony Rains had a free header to give Sutton the lead. Sutton held on comfortably to lead 1-0 at half-time.
Sutton’s lead lasted barely seven minutes at the start of the second half. They momentarily lost track of the pressing game that had been so successful in the first half, and Coventry winger Dave Bennett was allowed to carry the ball forward. His pass found Steve Sedgley, whose pin-point pass was threaded between two defenders for David Phillips. His shot beat Trevor Roffey comfortably, and Coventry were level. The cheer from the travelling supporters was about as obviously one of relief rather than celebration as one could ever hear. One might have expected Sutton to have folded, but Sutton held their nerve and, seven minutes later, were back in the lead. A short corner from the right-hand side seemed to catch the Coventry defence on the hop, Dawson crossed into the six yard area and Matthew Hanlon, who had come so close to giving them the lead in the first half, shot in from close range. Several minutes later, Hanlon could have put the game beyond Coventry’s reach when he half-volleyed over from twelve yards from another long, diagonal pass. Coventry began to push more players forward in the desperate hunt for a face-saving equaliser. Cyrille Regis shot across the face of goal and saw his shot brilliantly saved by Roffey. Keith Houchen’s looping cross-cum-shot hit the crossbar, and Steve Sedgley’s follo-up cannonned out of the post and the crossbar. As the volume of the crowd swelled to a fever pitch, Coventry’s balls into the centre became more ambitious – some would say more desperate. Brian Kilcline’s header was flicked off the line and over the bar by Jones.
When the full-time whistle blew, the crowd invaded the pitch and the avuncular, genial Barrie Williams, Sutton’s pipe-smoking manager had to scramble out from his dug out onto the pitch to take the acclaim of the crowd and the media. Sutton’s reward was a trip to Carrow Road to play Norwich City in the Fourth Round, but here their luck run out in the most startling of ways – they were beaten 8-0. What is most noticeable about the Coventry match is that, until the Alamo-esque last ten minutes, there didn’t seem to be anything between the two teams. Sutton were five divisions below Coventry that day, but they matched them ball for ball, and the visitors could have no complaints about their defeat. In 1991, however, they were relegated back into the Isthmian League Premier Division. A further championship followed in 1999, but their stay in the Conference that time only lasted for a single season. At the end of last season they found themselves in the Isthmian League Premier Division League again, this time having been relegated from the Conference South, which they joined in 2004. They are currently just above the relegation places, although crowds have held up reasonably well (at an average of 450). This Saturday they are back in the First Round of the FA Cup for the first time since the 1995/96 season, and have a home match against Notts County to look forward to. Football supporters with reasonably long memories will not be writing them off in that match just yet.