If being routed at Bayern Munich felt uncomfortable for Arsenal’s players, the embarrassment from slipping up on the next assignment will be far greater.
Arsenal has to travel only to the other side of London for Monday’s FA Cup match. Playing at Sutton United, though, will be a step into the unknown for the pampered millionaires from Arsenal, browbeaten by the 5-1 Champions League loss in Germany.
The match will provide a stark clash between a 13-time English champion, packed with some of the world’s costliest talent, and a fifth-tier semiprofessional team that reached the fifth round of world soccer’s oldest cup competition for the first time in the club’s 118-year history.
Gander Green Lane stadium, with a capacity of 5,013 that includes just 765 seats in one tiny stand, has a ramshackle, boiling-hot dressing room – due to faulty valves on the radiators – and cold showers that run to a trickle. Sutton lacks the resources to fund stadium renovations and already relies on a loan of more than 1 million pounds ($1 million) from a manager who goes unpaid and also runs a property development company.
“The boiler is absolutely shot to pieces, which is why at best they will get lukewarm showers,” manager Paul Doswell said on Thursday in a modest hospitality room with a leaky roof. “The water is struggling to get through those three little pins in the showerhead. We thought about putting new showerheads in for about two seconds. And then we thought, ‘No, we haven’t done it for any of the other teams coming down.”’
Languishing in 17th place in the fifth-tier National League, Sutton produced one of the biggest shocks ever in the FA Cup when it beat Leeds United, a former English champion now playing in the second tier. That 1-0 victory in the fourth round was secured by Jamie Collins , the captain who is also a construction worker, scoring a penalty.
Could there be an even bigger upset against the multimillionaires on the Premier League’s fourth-place team?
“If you see Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez on the team sheet, our chance doesn’t come beyond zero,” Doswell said. “But if they put another team out, then it does get to the one and two percent chances.”
Typically, Premier League teams rest their stars in the FA Cup as the importance of the competition has diminished. But had Arsene Wenger not lifted the cup in 2014 and 2015, he might no longer be in charge of Arsenal.
Humiliating nights like Wednesday, coupled with a 13-year Premier League title drought, make Wenger’s Arsenal future seem even more precarious.
“Do I feel sympathy for him? No,” Doswell said bluntly. “He is well schooled, and he has been in the job for 20 years.”
There will, however, be some sympathy in the Sutton dressing room which is packed with Arsenal fans.
“Hopefully they are not going to be star struck,” said forward and coach Craig Dundas, himself a lifelong Arsenal fan, “but it’s on their mind the whole time.”
Sutton midfielder Craig Eastmond failed to make the grade at Arsenal after winning the FA Youth Cup in 2009 with current first-teamer and friend Francis Coquelin.
“I’ve done that dream, I’m still happy,” said Eastmond, who played 10 times in Wenger’s first team. “Sometimes you get knocked down and you have to pick yourself up and go again and that’s what I have been doing here at Sutton.”
That means trying to forget about the glittering career he hoped to enjoy at the pinnacle of football.
“We try to rehabilitate those players in a positive way,” Doswell said. “For them, it’s a mental thing as well. It takes us months to get them even enjoying their football again.”
Instead of playing at Arsenal, where record-signing Ozil earns 140,000 pounds a week, Sutton’s maximum salary is 600 pounds – a reflection of the disparities between the London clubs.
But as the cost of watching teams like Arsenal soars, going into lower-league games becomes more appealing with prices lower and fans feeling a greater connection with the players.
“We are definitely picking up people who are disenfranchised, (put off) paying 100 pounds for a Premier league ticket,” Doswell said.
The prize money and television revenue from this dazzling FA Cup run will transform Sutton. While Arsenal generated 354 million pounds last year, Sutton’s turnover was around 800,000. This run will undoubtedly help Sutton break the million-pound barrier, with 300,000 pounds earned just from the victory over Leeds. There will be another windfall from hosting Arsenal, regardless of the result.
“It won’t go into buying players,” Doswell pledged.
He outlined plans for four new changing rooms for youngsters at the club in a London suburb close to the Wimbledon tennis club, and 15 miles south of Arsenal’s 60,000-seat Emirates Stadium.
A trip to north London for a money-spinning replay would be the ideal result for Doswell and the Sutton bank balance. It just needs Sutton to exploit the fragile state of a demoralized Arsenal side and hope they can cling on for a draw.
“The pressure is not for us, it’s them,” said Maxime Biamou, a French forward in the Sutton said. “It’s the magic of the FA Cup playing a team like that.”