Mention Sutton United to football fans, and many will justifiably recall that day at Gander Green Lane in January 1989, when the Conference team shocked 1987 FA Cup winners Coventry. But how many remember the following act in Sutton's FA Cup story that year, the difficult second album, if you like? If Coventry had been Sutton's successful debut in the eyes of the public, then Norwich City away was their Neither Fish Nor Flesh moment.
In fairness, Sutton were more than one hit wonders. Even before their Coventry exploits, the team managed by Barrie Williams had made some ripples in the 1988 FA Cup, knocking out League opposition in Aldershot and Peterborough, before taking Second Division Middlesbrough to a replay at Ayresome Park. The 1-0 defeat against a Boro side that would gain promotion to the top flight highlighted Sutton's capabilities, but it would be the Coventry match that firmly placed the club on the map.
Defeating a First Division team that was sitting in fifth place was always going to grab headlines, yet there were other ingredients in place that added spice to the occasion. Nine of the Coventry team present for the shock in Surrey had featured at Wembley during the glorious FA Cup final win over Tottenham, and in anticipation of a possible upset, John Motson had been dispatched to Gander Green Lane, with the tie the main feature on Match of the Day.
All of these factors - the shock, the opponents, the BBC coverage - saw the media exposure around the club soar, with Williams attracting a great deal of attention. We may have been informed ad nauseam that the former teacher liked to quote Shakespeare, Kipling, and Hardy, but we would also discover that here was a man who had done a sterling job at Sutton during his ten years in charge.
"I am delighted that we won by playing good football," Williams said after the Coventry match, before revealing that he had done his homework prior to the Cup tie. Spotting a possible Coventry weakness at set pieces, Williams had taken his players to a park near to Sutton's Gander Green stadium to practice a few routines on the morning of the match. As Williams may have quoted himself, action is eloquence.
Taking on Norwich at Carrow Road would be a completely different examination, though. Williams' part-time players, including bricklayers, assistant bank managers, insurance executives, a commodity broker, and a sheet metal worker, would be facing a team that had topped Division One for a large part of the season, as Dave Stringer and his men continued to prove the doubters wrong.
A recent win at Anfield demonstrated Norwich's confidence, and although they suffered only their second home defeat to the same Coventry team that had been humbled against Sutton, there was no debating that Sutton's 12/1 odds for the tie were fully justified. However, Stringer warned against complacency, stating that Sutton would have nothing to lose, and pointing out that their displays against Middlesbrough were proof that they should not be underestimated.
Views from the Sutton camp varied. Williams was refreshingly honest. "I wouldn't say that Norwich will give us a good hiding, but I would have to accept that Norwich will beat us easily. Some people are giving us an even chance, but that's plain daft. We know we have no right to be on the same pitch as them." Captain Tony Rains, who scored the opener against Coventry, felt Norwich may become nervous if Sutton could hold out for the first twenty minutes. Jamaican international forward Lennie Dennis was much more bullish: "We are in with a realistic chance."
In the week leading up to the fourth round, the players of Sutton were in demand, as their feelgood story grabbed the nation. Turning down an offer of agent representation from Eric Hall - "The players unanimously agreed they did not want anything to do with an agent," Williams stated - a Ladbrokes spokesman admitted that they had never known support from the public for a non-league team like they had seen with Sutton, forcing their odds to descend from 2,000/1 to 500/1.
Sutton would enjoy a great deal of support on the day, with 17 coaches making the journey to Norfolk, as 6,000 Sutton fans piled into Carrow Road creating the biggest crowd of Norwich's season so far. It soon became apparent, though, that the chances of witnessing a famous upset would be a distant dream.
Sutton goalkeeper Trevor Roffey had already saved well from Mark Bowen and Malcolm Allen, before he was beaten for the first time after 14 minutes. Trevor Putney's deflected drive was the first crack in the fragile Sutton dam, and when Allen doubled the lead just two minutes later, John Motson stuck his neck on the block by claiming "It looks as though the Sutton Cup dream may be over as early as the 16th minute."
A fantastic finish from Robert Fleck gave Norwich a 3-0 lead at half-time, as Williams' fears prior to the match were realised. "Norwich gave us a lesson," Williams would later admit, and the gap between Division One and the Conference was clearly demonstrated in Norwich's fourth goal. A slick and fast passing move involving Bowen, Fleck, Mike Phelan, Andy Townsend, and Putney, led to Allen's second of the match, as Sutton's weary players began to chase shadows.
Through it all, Roffey performed admirably, yet after a defensive error involving Robyn Jones and Nigel Golley, the keeper let a weak Fleck shot squeeze past him. Roffey's Dad Dave had played in Sutton's last fourth round match, a 6-0 defeat to Don Revie's Leeds in 1970, and as Norwich continued to pile on the pressure, Roffey later revealed his main fear: "I didn't want to let in ten." With 40 minutes remaining, it seemed a very realistic danger.
Even more so when Fleck completed his hat-trick five minutes later. Sportingly Roffey shook the hand of Fleck, an image that featured in the papers over the next few days, and even after sacrificing £60 in wages travelling up on the Friday, and being in the firing line all afternoon, Roffey "enjoyed every moment and wouldn't have missed it for anything."
Allen received a helping hand from Roffey when he too notched his hat-trick after 73 minutes, yet there was nothing the keeper could do about Allen's sublime lob for Norwich's eighth and final goal. For the Welsh international, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time, his place in the starting XI only confirmed when Robert Rosario pulled out through injury.
As the final whistle sounded, Sutton were generously applauded on a lap of honour. "Their (Norwich's) supporters accorded the non-league side a genuine welcome and a hero's farewell," wrote Ian Stewart in The Times, with Norwich keeper Bryan Gunn later presenting his kit and gloves to Roffey. Williams was spot-on when he said that his team "gained fame in victory, so we lost nothing in defeat."
"I told them (the players) at the end there was no disgrace, Norwich were a credit to the professional game," Williams continued. "I hope we were a credit to the non-league game." Throughout the whole experience, Williams and his team had gained huge popularity, but the Sutton boss knew the reality of the situation. "We'll be yesterday's heroes soon enough."
"I'm sorry we didn't do better for the fans, but football can be a harsh mistress," Williams concluded. He had no need to apologise, though. Williams and his men had given their supporters a day out at a Division One stadium, and of course had added another entry in the list of FA Cup shocks by defeating Coventry. It would take 24 years for a Conference team to repeat Sutton's feat of beating a top flight club. Norwich fans probably don't want reminding of that, though.