Non-league Sutton a fun reminder of why clubs were established in England
SUTTON, England -- From the glittering Allianz Arena to Gander Green Lane. Rarely has an Arsenal manager ever had to prepare for two so-very-different away trips in the same week. Bayern Munich are, as they so painfully proved on Wednesday, one of the finest club sides in the world. Sutton United, on the other hand, are part-timers who were only promoted to the fifth flight of English football last May and are struggling to stay there.
How best to encapsulate the differences between these two football clubs? With the wages? Mesut Ozil is reported to be on a £140,000 a week. The average wage at Sutton is £500 a week. With the stadium? The Emirates holds just over 60,000 people. The Borough Sports Ground on Gander Green Lane holds just over 5,000, of which only 765 will have a seat. With the players themselves? The Arsenal squad have their every need met and are fully supported by elite coaches in their quest for sporting success. The Sutton players can only train twice a week because they all have proper jobs. Their goalkeeper is a picture framer. Their centre-back is a car salesman.
This is non-league football. And it is not to be taken lightly.
Leeds United did just that in the FA Cup fourth round and they paid a heavy price. Manager Garry Monk made 10 changes to his regular team, handed two debuts to youth academy players and watched in horror as Sutton strode to a memorable victory. After their Champions League humiliation, will Arsene Wenger dare to risk fielding a weakened side?
"If you see Ozil and [Alexis] Sanchez on the team sheet our chance doesn't come beyond nought," said Sutton manager Paul Doswell. "Or you go the other way and you play a team of under-23s that are still internationals mixed in with one or two of their squad players and that gives us the 1 percent chance that we'd be after."
Doswell is not a conventional manager. For starters, he doesn't take a wage from Sutton. Indeed, it's very much the other way around. As the owner of a London property business, he augments the club funds by sponsoring the team himself. And while other managers might seek to use their moment in the spotlight to earn a move to a Football League club, Doswell has no intention of leaving.
"I'm not being disrespectful, but going into League One or League Two holds no enthusiasm for me at all. I've got a very good company that I need to run, it's 30 years old and it's very important. We employ over 100 people and I'm not a CV manager, I've got no interest going into any league club."
Far from moving up the ladder, many of Sutton's players have travelled in the opposite direction. Four members of their squad were once on the books at Arsenal, but have been forced to reignite their careers from a lower level. There is, however, no question of split loyalties.
"We don't care who we play against," says striker Roarie Deacon. "We just want to win."
"I'm an Arsenal fan," says midfielder Craig Eastmond, "so I wasn't happy to see them lose to Bayern Munich. But when you go on the field you don't support anyone, just the team you play for."
Four days before the game, Sutton United opened their doors to the world's media. One door is opened a little too wide and Doswell's news conference is preceded by the furious roars of backup goalkeeper Wayne Shaw, who discovers that someone has sneaked in and stolen £150 from his wallet.
That the theft should happen at all is appalling, but for it to happen to Shaw is especially bad. The 46-year-old, 280-pound stopper has been the unlikely pin-up of this cup run. He's an ebullient character, happy to play the part of the "roly-poly goalie" for the media, but he also works as an ambassador for Sutton's disabled team. And it's evident from his performance in the warm-up that, should first-team goalkeeper Ross Worner be injured, he would be quite the obstacle for the likes of Olivier Giroud.
"Yeah, I still throw myself across the goal!" he laughs at the start of the day. "I think I can still do it. The knee hurts, the foot hurts, the back hurts, but I'll be back in the fridge and ready for Monday if needed.
"Ross is brilliant, though," Shaw adds. "I'm just there with a smiley face, the roly-poly goalie as they keep calling me. But it's all about the lads, it's not about me."
In fact, a day like this might not even be simply about the lads. There's something very English about Sutton's media day as it's more like a village fete than a training session. As workmen noisily construct a temporary TV studio in the corner of the ground, club officials skitter around, worrying about the state of the roof on the main stand. The local mayor, replete with a golden chain, chats happily with journalists about the "low crime, good schools and lovely green suburban atmosphere" of the London Borough of Sutton.
There are whoops and hollers in one half of the pitch as the players go through a loose warm-up routine and their excitement is matched by that of more than 100 children laughing and shrieking excitedly as they play their own games in the other half. People are doing something you don't readily associate with football at the highest level these days. They are having fun.
Sutton's 3G artificial turf pitch means that the playing surface is available for everyone. As the players drift back to their day jobs, a team of young girls take to the field to enjoy the sort of facilities denied to many children in London. It's a reminder of the reason that football clubs were established in England in the first place. Not for the pursuit of marquee players or international revenue streams, but to represent their community.
Arsenal will almost certainly win on Monday night, but there are no nerves on Gander Green Lane. The players and the coaching staff are ready. Wenger will most likely take his place in the FA Cup sixth round, but not before he's seen the very best of Sutton United. For the rest of us, it's a chance to see the very best of English non-league football.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.