Non-league Sutton United reveal magic of FA Cup, score famous win vs. Leeds
SUTTON, England -- Gander Green Lane may sound like a quaint, leafy corner of southwest London suburbia, where nothing much goes on beyond the pre-war houses and parks, but Sutton United's tiny home is becoming the place where the giants of English football fear to tread.
Twenty-eight years after knocking then-top-flight Coventry City out of the FA Cup in one of the biggest shocks in the competition's history, the National League minnows were at it again against Leeds United, eliminating one of the country's most illustrious clubs with a 1-0 fourth-round victory on Sunday.
A 54th-minute penalty by captain Jamie Collins secured a place in the last 16 of the FA Cup for the first time in Sutton's history, alongside fellow non-leaguers Lincoln City, and added another glorious chapter of giant-killing for this spirited little club from the Home Counties.
The last time Leeds visited Gander Green Lane, in January 1970, they were champions of England, running out 6-0 winners. But on this occasion, they suffered the humiliation of elimination at the hands of non-league opponents for only the second time in their history -- Histon, in 2008, being their other non-league defeat -- and ended the game with 10 men following the 83rd-minute dismissal of captain Liam Cooper for two bookable offences.
Just imagine the sentiments of the Leeds supporter in the away end, bearing a "New York Whites" flag -- all the way from Manhattan for this!
Separated by 84 places in the football pyramid, Sutton belied their lowly status with a dominant performance, deservedly claiming their place in the fifth round.
Never before have two non-league clubs made it so far in the FA Cup, but for a competition supposedly losing its lustre, Sutton and Lincoln have delivered a stunning riposte this weekend to those who believe it has lost its significance.
Sutton's heroics of 1989 against Coventry continue to be spoken about and repeated almost three decades later and it will be the same with the class of 2017. Their names will be etched into FA Cup history and those supporters who invaded the pitch at the end in celebration will also retell the story to future generations for years to come.
"This has to be the biggest day in our history," claimed Sutton manager Paul Doswell. "We have had the glory days in the past, but want to make our own history with this team and we are now in the fifth round for the first time.
"If we get a big draw, it'll be a game changer for years to come. We have no ambitions to be a Football League club, this is our level, but we will invest in the stadium and the youth system."
As the Leeds team coach squeezed into the stadium car park, down a narrow alley barely suited to wide-load vehicles, the grim reality of what lay ahead would have hit home for Garry Monk and his players. They were in a no-win situation.
Once-mighty Leeds, Champions League semifinalists as recently as 2001 and now aiming to reclaim their Premier League status this season, were taking on a hungry, physical and organised Sutton, knowing that the watching world was hoping for an upset.
The venue was non-league in the truest sense: a tiny stadium, bursting to the rafters, with advertisements for Beaver Pest Control and Rapid Readymix concrete and supporters snaking around Rose's Burger & Hot Dog stall.
And then there was the pitch, the most awkward of playing surfaces, heavily weighted in favour of the home team. Sutton train on the semi-artificial 3G surface, know how to cope with its exaggerated pace and bounce -- and how to slide tackle without suffering painful friction burns -- and they exploited their familiarity, especially in the early stages.
The hosts were first to every ball, crunching into tackles while Monk's players hesitated, and the opening half hour was a tale of Sutton dominance and missed chances.
Roarie Deacon was incorrectly ruled offside when he scored in the sixth minute, but the former Arsenal youngster remained a thorn in Leeds' side, forcing a stunning mid-air save from Marco Silvestri five minutes later and then winning the second-half penalty following the slightest of touches from the Leeds goalkeeper.
Deacon, at 25, is a classic example of the talent toiling away in the non-league, waiting for the chance to be elevated back to the level of their youth.
Jamie Vardy, a Premier League title winner at Leicester last season, has shown the way for the likes of Deacon, having been plucked from then non-league Fleetwood Town in 2012 before embarking on his remarkable journey to the top with club and country.
Whether Deacon can recreate Vardy's story is another matter, but the Londoner tormented Leeds throughout this cup tie, with Bedsente Gomis also displaying the kind of ability that would not be out of place in the Championship.
Leeds were arguably short on that kind of quality, but with Monk having made 10 changes to his starting lineup -- senior debuts were given to youngsters Paul McKay and Billy Whitehouse, with teenage forward Mallik Wilks also making his first appearance just three days after his brother was shot dead in Leeds -- the Championship team made life much easier for Sutton.
With back-to-back away games coming this week against Blackburn Rovers and Huddersfield Town, Monk was unrepentant about his decision after the game, insisting that promotion is the club's sole objective this season.
"Our performance wasn't good enough, we didn't get to the levels we expect," Monk said. "But I take full responsibility for the team selection.
"We have a game in three days' time. I have to get the balance right of making sure there's freshness and energy. We have a lot of games coming up in February.
"You try and make the right decisions when you look at the squad, who's ready and who's not, but when it backfires like this, I take responsibility. I'm the manager.
"Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don't, that is life.
"But I stand by my decisions. I wanted to be competitive [Sunday] and on Wednesday (against Blackburn), but unfortunately we weren't today.
"We didn't want that to happen to us, but we have to take it on the chin."
Monk and Leeds left with their tails between their legs, bruised by the ignominy of losing to Doswell's team, but it may be an even bigger victim in round five.
"I think we'd like one of the Premier League big boys now," goalscorer Collins said. "Man United, Arsenal, someone like that, away."
Nobody will fancy a trip to Gander Green Lane, though; not Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City or any of the other Premier League teams left in the cup, but Sutton would welcome them with glee.
"This will be a big upset out in the public but, for us, we knew we could do it," Collins said. "It's a fantastic day for the club, all the lads are buzzing and you can see what it means to the fans.
"I think when we saw their team sheet, especially at home, we always thought we had a chance. But at home, we fancy our chances against anyone."
Still, next up is Boreham Wood in the FA Trophy next Saturday. The glamour of the fifth round will have to wait.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_