Sutton ready to return to normal after Arsenal and FA Cup circus leaves town
Sutton United's FA Cup adventure is over.
Last Thursday, the world's media descended upon Gander Green Lane, eager to hear the backstories of the builders, picture framers and fitness instructors who make up the first team. By Tuesday afternoon, the last of them will have left and life will return to normal. And for manager Paul Doswell, normality can't come quickly enough.
"As much as it's been great for the club, it's not been the best three weeks of my life," he told reporters after the game.
"It's bizarre, it impedes everything that you do. This social media world is not all it's cracked up to be. People will criticise you for whatever you try to do.
"I'll be glad to get away from this, from a personal point of view, to just go back to the normality of living my life."
Doswell was rightly proud of his players for the display they put in against Arsenal, but he was dismayed by the actions of a number of Sutton supporters. There was a streaker in the first half, two plastic bottles were thrown at the Arsenal dugout in the second half, and there was a pitch invasion and small scuffles between supporters and police at the end.
"I've seen some odd stuff on Twitter; what people were going to do when they got here," Doswell added. "You saw that idiot run on the pitch. That was the big moment in his life."
Much could be read into the reaction of the Sutton supporters in the main stand as the pitch invasion dragged on after the final whistle. Many of them booed the incursions and there were cheers when police officers frogmarched one young man across the pitch.
There was more than a passing suspicion among the old guard that few of the offenders were likely to be at the next home game. It was a sad end to what had been an uplifting night and you would expect the Football Association to take a keen interest in the way so many people ran to the Arsenal end to goad the visiting supporters.
They may also decide to take a look at the strange case of the aforementioned roly-poly goalie, Wayne Shaw. Forty-six years old and weighing in at 20 stone (280 pounds), he has become something of a cult hero during the cup run, but his decision to make a show of eating a pie on the bench in the second half certainly raised eyebrows. Was it a publicity stunt? Or was it, given that an online bookmaker had offered odds on this exact scenario, some sort of bet?
"I don't know," said Doswell. "I would assume so, but I don't know. I think Wayne's become this global superstar. He's no doubt had a chance to make some more coverage on the back of this.
"The reality is that I don't know, but it wouldn't surprise me. I don't think it shows us in the best light."
He's right. And that's something of a shame, not least because Shaw is an affable, likable character who is an ambassador for Sutton's disabled team and works as an odd-job man around the ground. No one would begrudge him the chance to make some money, even if this sort of thing does feel a little cynical, but the FA has strict rules regarding betting.
But amid the disappointments, the core story remains. A non-league team, a club that came up from the sixth flight of English football only last season and may yet return there next season, gave Arsenal a serious test in the FA Cup.
Arsene Wenger remarked afterward that the level of non-league football had improved dramatically during his time in England and this was more than adequate proof.
Sutton were tenacious and driven, they made a handful of chances that might, on another day, have punished Arsenal. By rights, the Premier League side should have expected to win this by a comfortable margin. But there was nothing comfortable about this encounter.
Arsenal took time to adapt to the artificial turf at Gander Green Lane. The sprinklers had been switched on long before kickoff, leaving what would have already made for an unfamiliar surface even more treacherous. It was notable that so many Arsenal players were taking extra touches to ensure that the ball was under control. That prevented them from blowing holes in Sutton's determined defence. But it's that turf that has made Sutton such a force in their own community. The cup run has put them on the map, but that ability to open up their pitch to teams of all abilities is what makes Sutton such a valuable local asset.
Arsenal's noble decision to fund learning facilities at the club, a compensation for the FA obliging them to take half the gate receipts, will help continue the good work.
Behind the scenes this week, scores of largely unpaid volunteers worked tirelessly to put this game on. In the stands, amid the hordes of new faces, the loyal, hardcore Sutton fans received their reward for all those cold, thankless nights. And they certainly will be back for the next home game.
In the end, that's what should be focused on, because that's what remains after the circus finally leaves town: A likable local football club with quirks and character, and hopefully, after all the excitement, a few new (well-behaved) fans too.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.