LONDON, United Kingdom, Feb 17 – For Micky Stephens, assistant manager of English non-league team Sutton United, Monday’s FA Cup fifth-round tie against Premier League giants Arsenal carries a vivid sense of deja vu.
In January 1989, Stephens was a pivotal member of the Sutton team that stunned Coventry City, FA Cup winners 19 months previously, in one of the tournament’s most celebrated upsets.
He has spent this week helping the current Sutton cohort prepare for the challenge of facing Arsene Wenger’s star-studded side and thoughts of that dizzy afternoon 28 years ago have not been far away.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Stephens told AFP in a pitch-side interview at Sutton’s 5,000-capacity Gander Green Lane ground in the south London suburbs.
“It’s a great memory for me and my family and I shall cherish it.”
Then aged 28, Stephens worked full-time for a bank in the City of London financial district during the week.
In a pre-match publicity stunt, one newspaper had him dress up as a City gent — suit, bowler hat, yellow Sutton scarf — and pose for photographs on Waterloo Bridge.
A right-sided midfielder who compensated for a lack of pace with a right foot that “could put a ball on a sixpence”, Stephens idolised the Tottenham Hotspur playmaker Glenn Hoddle.
Coventry were top-flight perennials, fifth in the old First Division and in the middle of a 34-year stay in England’s uppermost tier, but Sutton’s part-timers felt no sense of inferiority.
“We weren’t novices. We had jobs in the week, but we knew what we were doing,” says Stephens, who is a Sutton local.
“After 20 minutes, they hadn’t really tested our goalkeeper and we’d had a few forays into their half, a few corners.
“We thought, ‘hang on a minute, we’ve got half a chance here’.”
Sutton had identified set-pieces as an area where they could hurt Coventry and it was from two Stephens corners that they scored their goals in a 2-1 victory.
The all-yellow kit Stephens wore that day is framed in his loft and his souvenirs also include a programme, a match ticket and a scrapbook of press cuttings and photographs.
– ‘Alive and kicking’ –
Prior to Luton Town’s victory over Norwich City in 2013, Sutton were the last team from below England’s four fully professional leagues to beat a top-flight team in the FA Cup.
The money Sutton earned from the Coventry tie helped them build a new clubhouse and the fifth-tier National League club hope Monday’s game against Arsenal will prove similarly beneficial.
Having upset second-tier Leeds United in round four, Sutton will be appearing in the fifth round for the very first time.
As a Chelsea supporter who married into a family of Arsenal fans, Stephens has added reason to relish the occasion.
Arsenal are reeling from their 5-1 Champions League drubbing by Bayern Munich and Stephens thinks Sutton’s synthetic 3G pitch and spartan changing rooms will come as a shock to them.
“It will take someone pretty thick-skinned not to walk into the dressing room and the tunnel and think, ‘this is not what we’re used to’,” says Stephens, who returned to the club in 2008.
“Not that it’s shabby, but it’s a small and pretty dingy changing room
“It’s got everything they need: coat hooks, showers. There’s just not many of them and it’s not very pleasant on the eye.
“I think that will shock them a bit, but they’re paid enough money to deal with that.”
It is a common lament that the FA Cup has lost some of its lustre in recent years, with the big clubs regularly fielding weakened teams, but for Stephens its allure has not diminished.
“For me and for clubs like this, the FA Cup still has the magic,” he says.
“The romance and the back stories can’t fail to ignite people’s enthusiasm.
“It’s our national domestic cup. This game might be a little reminder that it’s still alive and kicking.”