Having worked in Non-League football for the best part of a decade, Alan Alger gives us the lowdown on Sutton United, the National League and what might await us at Gander Green Lane.
Those that take a wider interest in football outside of the Premier League realise that the top-flight of Non-League football in this country is not full of electricians and builders getting their football fix. The vast majority of clubs pay full-time professional footballers to ply their trade on the pitch, rather than the building site or in an office. The Lincoln City players that pulled off an incredible shock at Burnley on Saturday (our potential quarter-final opponents) all have a full-time training programme and professional contracts.
Sutton United fall into the minority in their division. They are one of a handful of part-time clubs competing in the National League.
Their captain Jamie Collins IS a builder and divides his time between the site and using an understanding boss to fit in the time to play 46 league fixtures and compete in this tremendous cup run. Collins will not be fazed by tonight’s game. Nearly ten years ago he lead a team out at Anfield in an FA Cup tie, they even went ahead in the game – TWICE. That was with previous employers Havant & Waterlooville, who made it to the fourth round in 2007/08.
Havant were then playing in the Conference South, one level below the rebadged National League where Sutton reside. Their name joined a long list of teams from the lower reaches of the game that just a mention of can spark memories of magical FA Cup moments. Hereford, Altrincham, Stevenage, Wrexham and Luton Town to name a few.
The latter duo will send a shiver down the spines of most Gooners over 35. The Wrexham giant killing of 1992 caused me to rip a load of Arsenal posters off my wall after listening to the commentary on the radio. I like to think I handle the defeats far better than my 15-year-old self-did. Of course, Luton Town were a fellow top-flight team when we lost to them in the League Cup final. However, recent exploits at Norwich City as a Conference side earned them a place on the list. A list on which we now need to add Lincoln.
To allay any fears of those travelling to south London tonight – and the hordes watching on BBC1 who were not lucky enough to get a ticket – I have to say there is a difference.
Now the league is more professional at least two or three teams each Conference season play to much the same level as a League 1 side and on their day are capable of those stunning results that the Hatters and the Imps pulled off. Especially if the ‘giant’ takes things easy and rests part of their first team squad. Sutton are in the lower reaches of the division though, and not challenging for promotion.
Of course, we would expect Arsene Wenger to at least dip a little way into the second-string players and that makes perfect sense, even with a huge rest period until our next game. Our fringe players often feature experience at the International level of the game and should be head and shoulders above Sutton in technical ability.
Much has been made of the 3G pitch, but it would be folly to hold this back as an excuse. As has been said in many other places, it would be far worse to play OUR game on a mud bath.
Sutton’s form has been poor of late and they were competing on three fronts up until an FA Trophy exit at Boreham Wood in a replay a couple of weeks ago. A patched up team going down by a scoreline of 5-0. Since their excellent win over Leeds United in the previous round of this competition they have played four times, losing three and conceding 10 goals in the process. After this game, regardless of the result, they will have a fight on their hands not to be dragged into a relegation tussle, with fixture-backlog a real concern.
Sutton are a great local club with volunteers helping make sure the whole place ticks over day-to-day, not just for the visit of our superstars. Manager Paul Deswell works for NO wages (not £8.3million a year) and dips his hand in his pocket for other costs that arise throughout the season. Doswell also works closely with the commercial team at Gander Green Lane to maximise opportunities. Rightly milking this attention for all they can. It is also to be hoped that as a club Arsenal can make a retrospective donation of the TV fee and gate receipts to our opponents (after FA rules prevented this happening before the game).
It is fair to say that the money from this evening’s match could fund the club way into 2020 and possibly beyond.
Thanks Alan. Alan is an Account Manager with Betway and can be followed @alan_alger_
As expected the Gunners are heavy odds-on favourites and the only way to back us is to take on some of the handicaps on offer. For instance Arsenal to win by 3 (or more) is currently 4/5. Sutton are a huge 25/1, with a draw sending us back to the Emirates in a fortnight offered at 10/1′