Ah, the FA Cup 3rd Round weekend. Of course, in modern football, it is now a long weekend. Long gone are the days where almost all of the matches would be played at 3pm on the Saturday and the first you really heard of a proper giant-killing was via the radio or the vidiprinter on Grandstand.
As we enter this season’s FA Cup 3rd Round – possibly the round where the romance of the cup starts to wane as top-flight sides put out the players who need some minutes and a handful of kids (even more likely in these Corona-infested times) – it felt right to roll back the years to the first FA Cup 3rd Round shock that I can really remember.
January, 7th 1989. Gander Green Lane, Sutton – the home to Conference side Sutton United. The GM Vauxhall Conference, a hard school of knocks if the 10-year-old me was to believe everything I read about football in my formative years. Coventry City, winners of the most famous cup competition in the world just two seasons before were the visitors and, well, you never know, right?
Except at that age, I really didn’t know. Giant-killings were not on my radar yet as me and football were only really just starting to get to know each other.
As I have probably written before, I knew the 1986 World Cup existed but didn’t really engage with it as a 7-year-old kid who wasn’t really into the beautiful game yet.
There are vague memories of engaging in the 1987 League Cup Final, won by Arsenal – the first game Liverpool ever lost with Ian Rush scoring if my memory serves me correctly (and I happened to be moving from the living room to my bedroom when the winning goal was scored – a trick I can still repeat several times a season to this day). The first game I truly recall talking about with friends at school and watching in full, mesmerised, was the 1987 FA Cup Final where the aforementioned Coventry inflicted a first cup final defeat on Tottenham ever. This was the match that ‘got me into football’ I believe, as that next season I was playing in goal for my local team and by the end of the 1987/88 season was a fully signed up in my head fan of Luton Town.
So, January 1989 – indulge me as I remind myself (and hopefully you) of what the world was like (obviously not the personal bits for me, you probably weren’t there).
According to everyone’s favourite fact-based website Wikipedia, Great Britain seemed about as much fun as it is right now. The Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, was talking up how the government would be placing extra emphasis on grammar in its National Testing. I’d be lying if that hadn’t kicked off a thought process around making grammar part of all the testing people are going through during the latest round of Covid worry. If that wasn’t scaring people enough, a government report stated that up to 50,000 people in the UK might be HIV positive and that 17,000 people would die of AIDS before 1992.
Edwina Currie virtually shut down Britain’s egg production revenue stream by saying all eggs had salmonella. 35 people died the previous month in the Clapham Junction rail crash and the Lockerbie disaster where PanAm flight 103 exploded midair killed 270 people.
The one bright note around this time seemed to be that unemployment was falling – down to a mere 2m, the lowest number since 1980. Kylie and Jason were top of the charts with “Especially for You” and as a Neighbours addict, these made me very happy indeed.
It tells me the kind of 10-year-old I must have been given that I seem to recall all of these news lines. The HIV storyline was being pushed in EastEnders, I was quietly confident I’d be OK on any extra grammar testing and even my far less geeky acquaintances at school would have been aware of Lockerbie and Clapham. I think this would have been my second season as a goalkeeper for Heath End Wanderers and by now, might have actually looked like I knew what I was doing. I’d have known that Mum had Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that go on to kill her just five years later and I might have even been just cottoning on the fact that Luton might have had their peak year last season and were not the finest long-term bet going.
In football, Arsenal topped the First Division ahead of Norwich City by two points and with a game in hand. West Ham were bottom of the table and my beloved Luton sat 15th. Having grown up with Manchester United going on to dominate, it’s quite interesting to see that they were in 9th – still very much in the Ferguson rebuild era, one that was still well over a year from seeing any silverware.
Gazza had joined Spurs for £2m but the money Newcastle got was not enough to keep them in the First Division – they went down with Middlesbrough and West Ham (who sacked a manager for the very first time in their history, waving goodbye to John Lyall). Arsenal, of course, went on to win the title – their 9th in their history at this point. Luton? 16th – two points off the drop zone and making sure they were sticking around in the top flight long enough to be a turkey voting for a Christmas they would never see. Luton were eventually relegated in the last ever First Division season having voted in favour of the Premier League – a competition they are yet to play in.
But, we digress massively. Back to the FA Cup 3rd Round and Sutton, one of those London suburbs that you cannot really class as London.
When you look back, Sutton United vs Coventry City had all the boxes ticked for stereotypical potential FA Cup giant-killing. Sutton were struggling in the Conference but were, as we know, at home. And Gander Green Lane was your typical non-league ground of the time. A leveller, as they would say. The First Division boys wouldn’t fancy it. Even to this day, I do find that a little strange given that First Division pitches and facilities weren’t exactly at the level they were today. But, even with that in mind, it was a proper setting for the tie.
Then there was the gaffer – Barrie Williams. A former English teacher, Williams loved to quote Kipling and smoke a pipe. The players, as is an absolute prerequisite, had a variety of actual day jobs. The skipper, Tony Rains, worked in insurance. The goalkeeper, Trevor Roffey, was a brickie – as was match-winner on the day Matthew Hanlan. Their strike force did have some pedigree of sorts – Lennie Dennis had played for Jamaica and Paul McKinnon had turned out for Malmo in the Cup Winners’ Cup before.
And, a good family connection never goes amiss either. Sutton’s previous big day out at home in the cup had come 19 years earlier (1970 by my reckoning) against the mighty Leeds United. Leeds won 6-0 that day and Sutton’s goalkeeper was Roffey Senior – Trevor Roffey’s old man, Dave. Narratives around whether the junior Roffey could do better etc ahoy.
And what about Coventry City?
They turned up 5th in the First Division – well on track for their best league finish in years and hopeful of going deep into the FA Cup once again. John Sillett was still dining out on their FA Cup win of two years earlier but had the best side the fans had seen in a long while. Many of the starting XI had Wembley winner’s medals – Steve Ogrizovic, Lloyd McGrath, David Phillips, Steve Sedgley, Brian Kilcline, Trevor Peake, Dave Bennett, Cyrille Regis and Keith Houchen (sub at Sutton) all climbed the Wembley steps in 1987 – 10 out of the 13 players that played that day.
According to FA Cup folklore, the only way Sutton could hope to beat Coventry centred on their ability at set-pieces. In their ranks, they had a chap called Micky Stevens who could knock in a deadly corner. Manager Williams was so keen to utilise this option that he had the side practising corners on the common next to the ground on the morning of the match. Observers suggest that the impromptu session would have not struck fear into Sillett’s side – though post-match Stevens claimed he had not been worried by the poor session, blaming the surface and pre-match nerves for it not going to plan.
By 2pm, Gander Green Lane was packed to a capacity 8,000. Those partaking in the matchday programme had the chance to read Williams quoting Kipling’s ‘If’ in his notes. The club was guaranteed a £25k payday regardless of the outcome – but the fans, not caring about this, were buzzing dreaming of a famous, if not highly improbably, win. Note the 2pm kick-off – I can only assume it was something to do with quality of floodlights.
The cameras were there as the match had been chosen as one of three for that evening’s Match of the Day – Motty was on the mic, a good omen given his first commentary gig was at Hereford on an also-famous FA Cup giant-killing occasion?
Jimmy Greaves, having backed Coventry to lose every tie in their 1987 parade, felt, as pundit for the day, that Sillett’s men would go through and “go far” in the tournament once again. The Guardian’s David Lacey, whilst noting that Sutton were obviously underdogs, felt a draw was possible. The Coventry players were also confident of victory, with club historian Jim Brown commenting that they “clowned their way through the pre-match warm-up” – as noted in Coventry City: The Elite Era : a Complete Record.
For the first five minutes after referee Alf Buksh blew his whistle, Sutton hardly touched the ball. In fact, Coventry could and should have been at least two-nil up by this early stage. Yet, Sutton survived and grew into the game – limiting Coventry to one other real chance in the first half, ‘Killer’ Kilcline heading straight at Roffey.
Three minutes before half-time, Gander Green Lane erupted. As predicted by Williams, a Micky Stevens corner caused Oggy all kinds of problems in the Coventry goal and Tony Rains (insurance, remember) headed home.
Williams, quoting Kipling or otherwise, would have urged Sutton to keep it tight for the first ten of the second half but they were unable to do so – Coventry broke quickly from a wasted Sutton free-kick and Steve Sedgley, later of Tottenham, laid on the equaliser for Dave Phillips.
Coventry’s huge sigh of relief did not last long, however, Seven minutes later, Kilcline narrowly avoided heading into his own net giving Sutton another corner. This time, variation. Stevens played it short to Phil Dawson (building contractor) who swung the ball into the box. Hanlan volleyed, Sutton lead with a minimum of 30 minutes plus stoppage time to play.
Sillett reacted by sending on Houchen for Regis and Sutton started to cling on – two goal-line clearances keeping them ahead. With seconds remaining, Roffey made a final save that saw the giant-killing complete. Sutton United had knocked out the recent winners of the FA Cup 2-1.
Post-match, Williams was whisked off to the studios in the same suit to guest on MotD. Hanlan and Rains ended up on Wogan, naturally.
Sillett handled the shock with the class associated with the man, telling Williams to “enjoy it” when shaking his hand. As the Guardian reported, he said “It’s been a very hard day for my players. Sunday is going to be worse when they read the papers and realise they have made history the wrong way round.”
Sutton drew Norwich in the 4th Round – a side at that point dreaming of a first-ever First Division title. Sadly for the non-league side, their run ended there. Norwich ran out 8-0 winners that day (but fell away to 7th in the First Division come the end of the season).
Understandably, league clubs were keen to sign Sutton players following that afternoon – but it was only Paul Rogers (commodity broker) who turned pro signing for Dave Bassett and Sheffield United in 1992.
Was this the biggest giant-killing of all time? Many will say no, of course. But, I would challenge each of the naysayers to show me a non-league side knocking out a team comprising of eight FA Cup winners from two seasons previous. That really doesn’t happen that often, you know?
Sutton United 2 – 1 Coventry City
Sutton: Rains 42, Hanlan 60,
Coventry: Phillips 52
Sutton: Roffey, Jones, Rains, Colley, Pratt, Rogers, Stephens, Dawson, Dennis, McKinnon. Hanlan
Coventry: Ogrizovic, Borrows, Phillips, Sedgley, Kilcline, Peake, Bennett, Speedie, Regis (Houchen), McGrath, Smith.
Referee: A Buksh (Donis Hill)