When non-league Sutton knocked out top-flight Coventry

One of the more magical aspects of the FA Cup is the possibility of a giant-killing, a tie that throws together two sides that would never normally meet, and that should only lead to one result given the ‘giant’ plays at a much higher level than their opponent. The most romantic of these matches come when a non-league side – one that has sometimes had to fight their way through several qualifying rounds to get their plum tie – meets a top division side. All too often, in this moneyed age, the outcome is inevitable but occasionally the minnow has its day, 7 January 1989 was one such day, and produced one of the biggest shocks ever in the competition.

In 1987 first division Coventry City won one of the last memorable FA Cup Finals as they beat favourites Tottenham Hotspur 3-2 – something of an upset itself – their goals including an imperious diving header from Keith Houchen and an unfortunate Gary Mabbutt own goal that sealed victory for them in extra-time. It was a glorious day for the Midlands side but fast forward 20 months from that sunny May afternoon at Wembley and Coventry found themselves at a much less auspicious stadium in London: Gander Green Lane, Sutton. That venue made headlines for the wrong reasons a couple of seasons ago, hosts Sutton United getting embroiled in ‘Pie-gate’ after their fifth-round defeat to Arsenal, but rewind to January 1989 and it was quite the opposite.

The downed giant in such defeats often come into the game in poor form, or with weakened teams, but with Coventry neither was the case. They had thrashed Sheffield Wednesday 5-0 in their previous outing and had eight players that featured at Wembley two years earlier starting against Sutton, with another on the bench. This was a strong Coventry team, it contained Scotland forward David Speedie, Welsh international David Phillips and England under-21 regulars David Smith and Steve Sedgley, with the late, great Cyrille Regis up-front too.

Sutton were your stereotypical non-league opponent; part-time players, relishing their moment in the spotlight with a characterful manager in charge. The Sutton boss was a former English teacher Barrie Williams, a pipe-smoking wordsmith with a penchant for a quote: Kipling forming part of his programme notes that day. The tie had unsurprisingly been picked by the BBC to be televised given Coventry’s 1987 trophy win and Sutton pushing Middlesbrough to a replay in the previous season’s third round. The stage was set, there was even the other non-league leveller, a dodgy pitch which seemed to have more sand on it than grass, this coming well before the 3G pitch they have there now.

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Coventry started strongly, despite the conditions, but their hosts were up for it and matched their loftier opponents, snapping and snarling into challenges showing the Sky Blues little respect. Coventry were the better side, technically, but Sutton were making them particularly uncomfortable from set pieces – another essential ingredient for a cup upset – and shortly before half-time made one count. Captain and left-back, Tony Rains – an insurance clerk by day – appeared in the six-yard box to head home a near-post flick-on to give them the lead and turn the volume up in the packed ground another notch.

If Sutton thought Coventry were going to feel sorry for themselves, they couldn’t be more wrong. The first division side came out after the break on the front foot and it came as no surprise to see them equalise early in the second period, their left-back scoring too, David Phillips finishing smartly after good work by Sedgley and Dave Bennett, to cheers of relief from the away fans. Those supporters no doubt hoped that would signal the end of the hosts’ resistance, but Sutton had other plans.

The U’s regrouped and were soon snapping at Coventry’s heels once more and regained the lead just seven minutes later. It was another corner that did for the visitors, winger and bricklayer Matt Hanlon tapping home from barely a yard out after a Dawson cross caught out the Sky Blues’ defence. The Sutton fans, temporarily silenced by Phillips, were back in full voice sensing the giant-killing they were all there to see was genuinely on.

Another important ingredient in any cup upset is luck, and Sutton got it in spades as Coventry threw everything at them in pursuit of a second equaliser, their goal leading a charmed life. A combination of goalkeeper Trevor Roffey and the woodwork denying the Sky Blues repeatedly, Sedgley hitting both the bar and post with one effort. Even substitute Houchen couldn’t provide any heroics on this occasion as the semi-professional side hung on for a memorable victory.

Sutton were brought back down to earth in the next round when they travelled to another First Division side, Norwich City, and found themselves on the wrong end of an 8-0 thrashing. Despite that humbling they could still look back proudly on being one of the few non-league teams to knock out top-tier opposition; at that point they were one of only four teams to have done so since World War Two, and it would be 14 years until we saw it happen again when, ironically, Norwich lost to then non-league Luton Town in 2013.

By Rich Beedie

Part of our Magic of the Cup series

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