Sutton United 0-0 AFC Wimbledon
In the build-up to this clash, it was difficult to pinpoint the most interesting sub-plot. Is it the fact that the teams are 49 places apart in the English football pyramid? Or that they feature two of this country’s longest-serving managers? Is it the fact that Sutton have a rich heritage in this competition, knocking out top-flight Coventry City twenty-eight years to the day? Or that AFC Wimbledon played their first match as a ‘new’ club against today’s opponents in a friendly, before six promotions in thirteen seasons saw them rise from the Combined Counties League to their current status as a League One club?
Whatever the ‘correct’ answer, the sense of anticipation made for a febrile atmosphere at Gander Green Lane. While both clubs were disappointed that this fixture was not televised, it probably enticed more fans to the ground, with 5013 expectant fans pouring through the turnstiles, despite there being only 765 seats. The hosts had pulled out all the stops to accommodate the hordes of media representatives, and a certain Alan Pardew was also in attendance.
The first-half began energetically, even though quality football was at a premium. Of those in Sutton’s starting line-up, the only player never to have played in the English Football League was Maxime Biamou. This level of experience meant that the gap between the two teams was minimal and indeed it was Sutton who enjoyed the better chances over the course of the match. The first of these came after five minutes following an interception from Bedsente Gomis. He slipped in a neat through-ball to Matt Tubbs. Tubbs, who enjoyed a productive spell at the Dons two seasons ago, got the ball out of his feet but hit his shot wide of James Shea’s left-hand post.
Tubbs had made an encouraging start to the match and seemed intent on proving that he still belonged in Football League company. He won a free-kick a few minutes later, which Roarie Deacon took. The former Arsenal and Sunderland trainee floated an inch-perfect delivery into the box for Nicky Bailey to get his head on, but the former Charlton and Middlesbrough midfielder diverted his effort over the bar. The hosts were clearly relishing the opportunity to put one over their local rivals, but Wimbledon soon provided a reminder of their threat, with Lyle Taylor curling the ball over the bar, leaving keeper Ross Worner slightly concerned.
Despite being on the back foot for much of the opening stages, Neal Ardley’s men had enough quality in their ranks to force the issue as the half wore on. Tom Elliott and Lyle Taylor have formed a strong partnership up front, and the former almost made a connection to the latter’s cross. The Dons had a bit of momentum now, with 37-year-old Dannie Bulman’s snapshot gathered in by Worner, before Andy Barcham almost ran clean through, only to be thwarted as he was bearing down on goal.
Dean Parrett was also growing into the encounter, demonstrating his prowess from free-kicks and giving the Sutton defence a few nervy moments. However, one of those deliveries ironically led to possibly the hosts’ best chance of the first half. Worner’s punch away found Deacon and the winger drifted forward before playing a sumptuous through-ball to Biamou, who sprinted clear. Just when it looked as if he would send the home fans into ecstasy, his effort with the outside of his right foot whistled over the bar. The groans from three sides of the ground and the delirium in the Wimbledon end gave you a sense of just how important that chance was. Minutes later, Deacon knocked the ball down to Gomis, who blazed over.
A nagging suspicion in a game of this sort is that an off-colour display from the league side in the opening period would pick up in the second half and this duly happened. At the forefront of this revival was the impressive Parrett. The tricky winger had come through the ranks at Tottenham but never really got the chance to demonstrate his potential at White Hart Lane. Following a three-year stint at Stevenage he moved to Kingsmeadow in the summer of 2016 and his ability was shining through in this match.
In charge of set-pieces, he whipped another free-kick delivery that was punched away, before sending in a cross that was gathered in by Worner. His partner in crime Barcham was also displaying quick feet of his own, evading a few challenges before flashing a shot across the face of the goal with Worner stranded. Wimbledon were now starting to look like the side who would take the game by the scruff of the neck. However, Deacon was always capable of turning the game in his side’s favour and another pinpoint pass set Biamou free. This time the Frenchman got his effort on target, but Shea got down smartly to palm the ball away from danger. Seemingly buoyed by that chance, the non-league outfit began to knock on the door again. However, Tubbs, despite his willingness, does not have the stature to hold the ball up and became an isolated figure, leading to his eventual replacement by Dan Fitchett. Neither team was content to sit back, but the end product was lacking.
Then, five minutes from the end of normal time, the referee had a big decision to make. Dons captain Barry Fuller made his way into the box only to be taken by substitute Bradley Hudson-Odoi. The massed ranks of Wimbledon fans behind the goal howled for a penalty, but the man in the middle Keith Stroud waved away the protests. After watching the TV replays, it did appear that Hudson-Odoi took the ball although his trailing leg did catch Fuller from behind. Undeterred, Wimbledon kept pressing and after pinball in the box following a corner, Paul Robinson snatched at his shot, which flew just over the bar into the Sutton sky.
Hudson-Odoi aimed to atone for his risky challenge, giving his marker twisted blood before curling in a delicious ball that nobody gambled on. A lack of clinical finishing was both side’s undoing and this was typified when, in the dying embers of the game, Elliott failed to connect cleanly when close to goal, knocking his effort wide, which was quickly followed by another effort by Robinson, valiantly blocked by a member of the Sutton rearguard.
The Vanarama Conference side then had one last chance when they were awarded a free-kick. The anticipation had reached fever pitch, as the home fans dared to dream one last time. The ball was swung by Deacon and after an almighty scramble, Gomis leapt like a salmon, only to direct his acrobatic bicycle kick over the top.
Given all the fanfare that had preceded the fixture, the outcome was underwhelming. However, there was plenty of endeavour on display, with both sides clearly going for the win. Both clubs would welcome the revenue boost that a cup run would bring (if not the added workload). The replay takes place on Tuesday 17 January and there is the significant carrot of a home tie against Leeds United for the victor. The prospect of a further Cup giant-killing awaits.