When the 2017-18 domestic English season reaches its conclusion with the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium it seems inevitable that two top-flight Premier League teams will be pitting their wits against one another to lift the famous trophy.
However, it’s not just the conclusion to the competition that captures the imagination of fans around the country, but also the journey along the road to Wembley that fills the FA Cup with excitement and romance; not least at the prospect of lower league minnows causing a giant-killing upset along the way.
David versus Goliath victories don’t happen very often, and that's perhaps what makes such footballing feats so special when they do, adding to the rich history of the FA Cup and creating memories of almost mythical status that can endure for generations.
A date with destiny
The dishevelled Gander Green Lane ground of the late 80s was your typical non-league venue, although it did boast ‘Rose’s Tea Hut’, named after the lady who ran it for over forty years. On 7th January 1989, Sutton United fans arrived to eagerly arrived to watch their team take on top-flight opposition, though few could have imagined what they were about to witness.
Coventry City might be considered an underdog themselves these days, at longshot odds of 2000/1 amongst FA Cup betting odds this season, but in 1989 they were a club firmly established in the top-flight, having featured in the old First Division consistently since the late 1960s. They had also won the famous cup competition in 1987 and were expected to sweep the minnows aside with little difficulty.
Determination to cause an upset
Despite their lowly status, Sutton United more than matched their top-flight opponents during a battling first half, roared on by a crowd of around 8,000 fans packing every available space in the compact ground. Coventry City were struggling to make any headway and the home side were creating the most dangerous opportunities, particularly from set-pieces and corners.
Coventry keeper Steve Ogrizovic had already denied one great chance for the home side, but Sutton United deservedly took the lead from a corner in the 42nd minute; captain Tony Rains with the decisive header. Practice made perfect as legendary BBC commentator John Motson noted having observed the team practising near-post corners ahead of the game.
Coventry’s corner confusion
Hopes of an upset seemed to have been dashed when early in the second half when David Phillips latched on to a defence-splitting pass for Coventry, completing a flowing attacking move to fire his team back on level terms in the 52nd minute, much to the relief of the travelling fans.
However, the visitors would be undone once more when experienced centre-back and captain, Brian Kilcline, needlessly headed clear for a corner. Coventry expected another near-post assault, but Sutton United showed they weren’t a one-trick pony from set-pieces. This time the corner was played short for Phil Dawson to then pump the ball into the area, where Matthew Hanlon arrived to prod home, leaving the visiting defenders both static and stunned.
Coventry piled everything forward as Cyrille Regis missed a sitter, then Keith Houchen replaced him from the bench and was denied by the woodwork; whilst Sutton United keeper Trevor Roffey also performed heroics between the posts. Relief, joy, and jubilation followed at the final whistle with the home fans invading the pitch to congratulate their heroes.
The lasting legacy for Sutton United
It’s fair to say that in the Premier League era the gap in quality and wealth in football between the divisions has continued to widen, evidenced by the fact that Sutton United remain the last non-league team to eliminate top-flight opposition in the FA Cup.
Sutton United have since beaten league opposition on several occasions, including last season’s memorable run during which they beat AFC Wimbledon and Championship giants Leeds United to reach the fifth round of the FA Cup for the first time in their history. The draw paired them with Premier League side Arsenal, but a plucky display wasn’t enough as Wenger’s side did enough to leave Gander Green Lane with a 0-2 victory.
Still, that victory against Coventry City back in 1989 has cemented a firm place in the history books for Sutton United, meaning that whenever they appear in the FA Cup, people will always focus more than just a passing glance at how far they progress in the competition.
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