“What are you up to on Saturday?”
“Oh, I’m covering the Sutton United game in the Scottish Challenge Cup”.
“Sutton? As in South London’s Sutton United?
“Yes, the very same.”
“But why are they in the Scottish Challenge Cup? They’re an English non-league team?”
Imagine that conversation, several times over, sometimes with expletives in and sometimes out. That was what I went through every time I tried to explain to anyone, friends or family, why I wouldn’t be going out like any normal individual on my first full day back at university.
Instead, I found myself in Airdrie, not too far outside of Glasgow, for a Scottish Challenge Cup tie between Airdrieonians, winners of the competition in 2009, and Sutton United of the National League.
So why exactly were Sutton, winners of the 1979 Anglo-Italian Cup and the team that memorably reached the last 16 of the FA Cup in 2017, playing in the Scottish Challenge Cup?
Well, the reason is fairly simple: an attempt to build bridges and make the competition more exciting. For a long time the Challenge Cup, the equivalent of England’s EFL/Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, was seen as a bit of a distraction for clubs in the Championship chasing promotion and just an extra set of fixtures for everyone else. As a means of changing that, in recent years teams from Wales, Northern Ireland the Republic of Ireland have also entered, alongside under-21 sides from several SPL outfits.
It’s given the competition a bit of extra flavour and this year the SPFL decided that in order to build bridges with their colleagues in England, they would ask the two best sides in the National League not to get promoted last year to play, an invitation warmly welcomed by Boreham Wood and Sutton.
The two English sides entered at the second-round stage, with Sutton travelling up to Airdrie as Borehamwood got a plum home tie against Dunfermline Athletic.
Borehamwood, who share a ground with the Arsenal Ladies team, lost on penalties in last Saturday’s early kick-off against Dunfermline (It is worth noting that Dunfermline’s travelling supporters made up 675 of the 1,017 in total at the game in Borehamwood – equivalent to 66.4 per cent), meaning that Sutton were England’s only hope of participation in the last 16.
Sutton brought 101 travelling fans with them for the game at the Penny Cars Stadium, with the final attendance standing at 831. That’s a fairly meagre total for a stadium that can hold approximately 10,000 when full, but it was the club’s second best attendance of the season so far.
After reaching the stadium myself, albeit later than planned due to a combination of a broken down train and my cripplingly bad orienteering skills taking me on a rather scenic detour of Drumgelloch, I decided to speak to some Sutton fans outside the ground about their expectations heading into the tie.
Some were a little worse for wear after nights out in Glasgow the night before, others were just tired after early flights or overnight bus journeys. But the general consensus was one of great opportunity, that Sutton were lucky to be in this spot and that they wanted to enjoy it.
Whether they would leave Airdrie with a win remained to be seen though. They’d not seen much of the opposition, but were aware that they also used an artificial surface like the one Sutton have at Gander Green Lane. The Sutton manager, Paul Doswell, had said earlier in the week that Airdrie’s pitch was significantly harder than Sutton’s and that it may pose some issues in the early going, and that it did, with one player injured in the warm-up and a couple of others struggling with muscle injuries in the second half.
As game time approached, the Sutton fans found their voice and I gradually began to panic about my summarising duties for the afternoon. Was it possible that I’d do a Chris Kamara and miss a goal entirely, or would I get some poor player’s name horrifically wrong? In actuality, I didn’t make any heinous errors, and as there was only one goal I was able to sit back and enjoy the action.
The rain stopped just before 3 pm, meaning that by the time Welsh referee Mark Petch blew his whistle, the pitch was already drying out. Both teams struggled in the early going for a proper foothold, until Airdrie almost capitalised on a dreadful mistake in the Sutton backline.
Under relatively little pressure, Aswad Thomas misjudged the ball, slipped and underhit his back pass, allowing Dale Carrick to charge through, only to drag his shot wide of Ross Worner’s far post.
Airdrie followed that chance up with a corner soon after, the first of the game, but it was from that Sutton managed to get the game’s only goal. The corner was clearer to Tom Bolarinwa on the halfway line, and he passed it to Tommy Wright. Wright caused the Airdrie defender Kieran MacDonald all sorts of problems before bursting past and firing a low shot on his left in the bottom right of the goal.
That goal saw Sutton head into the break ahead, with them looking much more organised but Airdrie creating more obvious opportunities. Leighton McIntosh, with four goals in all competitions heading into the game, saw a couple of shots blocked, whilst Sean Crighton had his header easily saved from a corner.
The second half saw a flurry of yellows as the game got a lot scrappier, but also a number of chances for both sides. Tommy Wright, who was excellent all afternoon and a real handful, crafted a couple of good chances for himself, whilst Josh Taylor will have been disappointed to see his curling effort go narrowly wide of the left-hand upright after beating two defenders.
Up the other end Airdrie came really close to an equaliser just before the hour mark, as Jonathan Page’s cross was met by Scott Robertson, but the right-back could only put his header over the Sutton bar. Dale Carrick went for the spectacular in injury time with a scissor kick, but that was saved expertly by Worner, making his first full appearance for Sutton since playing in their tie with Arsenal in the FA Cup 18 months ago, sparking jubilant celebrations from the Sutton fans and players.
It was a good game of football between two relatively evenly-matched sides. Sutton looked more organised throughout and had more quality at the back, but Airdrie did well and had Carrick’s late chance gone in, penalties would have immediately followed and it could have been an entirely different story.
Doswell, the Sutton manager, praised the players he brought in specifically for the game.
“It was all about getting through, all about being professional, and I think the lads deserve a lot of credit. Although we did leave four or five first-team players at home, the other lads have come in and done a real good job.”
Doswell also spoke about history and how good it was for such a tight-knit community club to progress. They certainly did make history by playing their first game on Scottish soil, simultaneously becoming the first English side to score and win in the competition. As for the community feel, well what can you say? The fans that came were polite, friendly and in good spirits throughout and the club streamed the fixture, with commentary, back to their stadium where fans unable to make the journey could watch the game for £5.
By the end of the game and the post-match interviews, the sun was out and it was certainly shining on Sutton. Their very own “European Tour” was continuing, although they would not find out their fate until yesterday afternoon when the draw for the Irn-Bru Cup third round was made. Some fans had looked for a potential home tie with Dundee United because of the potentially massive gate it would bring, but the Tangerines were eliminated by Alloa on penalties, meaning there was no one tie that really stood out.
Trips to Dublin, Coleraine, Connah’s Quay, Dingwall, Fife and Paisley were all still potentially up for grabs though and whilst many Sutton fans probably wanted a home tie, the chance to visit new grounds is always something football fans relish, so every tie represented an opportunity.
First out the hat: Arbroath vs Edinburgh City. Then came Dunfermline against Alloa. Four balls out, four ginger balls to be precise, and four Scottish participants.
Then it was East Fife at home to Queen of the South. Again, another all-Scottish tie – had they lost the balls of the teams from outside Scotland?
That assumption seemed all the more strong when the next tie was the St Mirren under-21s against Queen’s Park. Only eight sides left to draw and five of them were from outside Scotland.
Connah’s Quay Nomads, the sole Welsh side left, were drawn against Coleraine, Northern Ireland’s only remaining representative. Then came the Bohemians of Dublin, currently 10th in the Irish Premiership.
(Visualise the stereotypical rustling of the balls, the symbolic stirring them before one is majestically retrieved.)
BALL NUMBER TWO: SUTTON UNITED!
So Sutton were drawn away to Bohemians. A trip to Dublin and Dalymount Park now awaits Paul Doswell’s side in a little over a month’s time, and it should be a cracker.
— IRN-BRU FOOTBALL (@irnbrufootball) September 11, 2018
Much of the current football climate frustrates me, and I’m sure it does many others, as too many bureaucrats seem content to keep imagining up new competitions that don’t make much sense and take away some of the game’s natural competitive spirit. This though, is a competition, cup run and team that I can firmly get behind and you should too.
Why? Because it’s absolutely mad and wonderful at the same time.
Soooo… Bohemians vs Sutton United in Scotland’s Irn Bru Cup. Whichever boozed up Scotsman came up with the idea for this bonkers competition deserves a pay rise. I am so sold on the whole idea of it
— Aaron Flanagan (@aaronflan) September 11, 2018