It’s certainly been a memorable season for Sutton United and it can’t be argued that a cup run that saw victory over Leeds United followed by a battling defeat at the hands of Premier League Arsenal was an unwelcome distraction.
U’s fans will look back on the 2016/17 season with some fondness but there are definite parallels that can be drawn between Sutton and Lincoln City, the National League club who went one step further in FA Cup terms but ultimately claimed the one prize that non-league fans truly covet.
We live in an age of buzzwords and at time when it became too laborious for pundits and commentators to use the phrase ‘FA Cup upset’, Sutton United embarked on a season where their ‘cupsets’ became the talk of football. The drama of that fifth round tie with Arsenal, a game that was as distinctive for events in the dugout as it was for those on the pitch, rather overshadowed the Us’ earlier exploits.
Three league sides had been defeated on the way to that match, with Cheltenham Town, AFC Wimbledon and Leeds being dispatched in order to concentrate on other priorities.
Sutton were certainly ‘punching above their weight’ and while that’s a common footballing cliché, it’s not one that you would have directed towards Arsenal at the time. The Gunners’ worst nights were yet to come in Munich and at Selhurst Park but a study carried out by online betting operator Betway Insider shows that Arsene Wenger’s men have been among the Premier League underachievers right across the 2016/17 campaign, winning only once at odds of 8/11 or higher.
A 2-0 defeat in the fifth round followed for Sutton as reserve keeper Wayne Shaw ate his way into notoriety and out of a job. It was predictable enough but the aftermath, dominated by ‘pie-gate’, rather overshadowed the Us’ achievements.
Based on current tables, Cheltenham Town sit 15 places above Sutton United in the ladder. AFC Wimbledon are 45 slots ahead but it’s Leeds United who stand out in this particular set of stats, as the Championship club and former Division One and FA Cup winners currently reside in seventh place in their own division. That’s a colossal 76 places ahead of Sutton and is a fitting epitaph to what has been a memorable cup season.
In any other season, non-league Sutton’s FA Cup exploits would not have been eclipsed elsewhere but Lincoln City had to take things a step further and become the first non-league side since Queens Park Rangers in 1914 to reach the last eight. But Lincoln did more than just make it beyond the early rounds of the Cup; they achieved something far more tangible than a glorious run by claiming the National League title and promotion to division one. Contrast those league efforts with those of Sutton United as they look forward to another campaign in English football’s fifth tier.
With just one game left to go in the 2017/18 campaign, Paul Doswell’s side sit in 12th position and the most that three points can get them from their trip to Macclesfield is a jump to tenth. In terms of personnel, the loss of 45 year old reserve keeper Shaw was of more significance to the media but Dan Fitchett’s recent switch to Wealdstone may just hurt them in 2017/18.
In 2015/16, the 25 year old forward became the first Sutton player to score twenty goals in a campaign since 2000/01 and his strike against AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup suggested there could have been more to come.
But why focus on Sutton United and suggest that they deserve to be anything more than a mid-table National League side? The answer is that the manner of those performances in the FA Cup suggest that fans could expect a more sustained promotion challenge next season. Against Leeds United, Doswell’s men were behind in terms of possession at a rate of 32% to the Championship side’s 68%, but the U’s had more attempts on goal at 11 to Leeds’ 5.
Against Arsenal, possession was very similar as Sutton conceded at 33% to 67% but that compares very favourably to the stats shown by Lincoln against the same opponents.
While Lincoln City march onwards and upwards, it’s been a very mixed campaign for Sutton United fans but elements of that Cup run suggest that 2017/18 may bring something far more tangible and rewarding, if a little less memorable.