From the grandiose Allianz Arena to ramshackle Gander Green Lane.
Arsenal superstars like Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil face an almighty comedown after last night’s Champions League exertions in Munich when they travel to non-league Sutton United for Monday night’s FA Cup tie. Former Hearts striker Ian Baird will be waiting with a traditional non-league welcome.
Baird is first-team coach with the Vanarama National League side and revelled in beating his old club Leeds United in the previous round. Arsenal’s visit is a different proposition altogether given their array of international luminaries. Arriving at the 5000-capacity South London home of Sutton United will test the resolve of Arsene Wenger and his Champions League aristocrats, though.
The painted brown walls of the away dressing-room are meek and uninspiring. There is a dustbin in the corner and a fire extinguisher on the wall. On the concrete terracings outside, locals will be baying for blood in the most unusual of London derbies. Bayern Munich’s palatial surroundings will seem an absolute world away and Baird is keen to capitalise should Arsenal feel exposed.
“I’ve been to Bayern Munich’s training ground and to the Allianz. They’re phenomenal,” said the man known as ‘Bairdy’, who scored 19 goals in 79 games for Hearts between 1991 and 1993. “Arsenal are coming to Gander Green Lane, which isn’t Wembley, that’s for sure. We’ll do our best to make sure they’re comfortable in our ramshackle dressing-rooms – which are painted brown, with the dustbin in the corner and a fire extinguisher.
“We’ll treat them with the utmost respect but they’ve got to bear in mind they’re coming to a non-league football ground. That’s where we are. We play in the Vanarama National League. We don’t have the facilities that they’ve got and hopefully those little indiscretions can help us get a result.
“We’ve got an artificial pitch and I’m a bit of a dinosaur on these matters but this pitch is tremendous. For somebody like me to say that, it really is something. We don’t see it as an artificial surface. It’s actually a hybrid [part grass, part astroturf] and it doesn’t cause any injuries at all. We’ve played 45 times on it and won 41 times. It’s not a leveller because Arsenal have a hybrid pitch at the Emirates too, I believe.”
Baird is every inch the FA Cup veteran at the age of 52. He counts Leeds, Newcastle, Southampton and Middlesbrough amongst his former employers but is as excited about Monday night’s tie as any he ever played in. As a traditionalist, it hurts him to see bigger clubs fielding weakened teams in the competition.
“Leeds United came unstuck here. They thought they could come down, make ten changes and still be good enough to beat us. They lost 1-0,” he said. “Over that weekend, the same thing was done by Newcastle and Brighton. They’ve got their reasons, probably financial, but, if I’m being honest, I don’t really understand it. They should treat the FA Cup how it deserves to be treated, which is as the best cup competition in the world. You see sides disrespecting it a little and I’m from the era of players playing two and three games a week. That’s what we did and it didn’t seem to bother us.
“Sutton United have always been quite a well-known non-league side because of what they did to Coventry in 1989. To possibly better that is a tremendous opportunity. To bring Arsenal to Gander Green Lane, given their standing in world football, it doesn’t get any better for us. The FA Cup never loses its magic for non-league clubs. The further you get, the more you benefit financially and that provides stability.”
If Arsenal don’t fancy a Monday night cup battle, Sutton, managed by Paul Doswell, could well mastermind one of the biggest shocks in FA Cup history. “I think you’ve certainly got to have a mindset as a big club going to a smaller club. You’ve got to turn up and be prepared to roll your sleeves up. We’ve taken advantage of everybody who hasn’t done that,” said Baird. “The biggest thing for us will be the occasion but we want to make sure we don’t let ourselves down. From a coach’s point of view, we’ll be hoping we don’t concede an early goal and make it a difficult evening. The longer the game goes without us losing a goal, we’ll feel we have a chance. That’s what happened against Leeds.”
He has past experience of upsetting the status quo from his time in Edinburgh. Hearts split Rangers and Celtic in 1992, Baird’s first season at Tynecastle, after topping the league for four months under then-manager Joe Jordan.
“There was an opportunity that year. We were top of the table for months. I always remember Joe Jordan going to [chairman] Wallace Mercer to ask for a couple of new players and he wouldn’t give him the money. We ended up losing the league title to Rangers, which started them on their nine-in-a-row run.
“It’s very hard for anybody to knock out the big two in Scotland because of the strength they have. I still hear from Gary Mackay, Robbo, Dave McPherson, so I still keep in touch on Hearts. Interesting choice of manager, by the way. Although, to be fair to Craig Levein, he’s always looked at things differently. I hope the lad does well because Hearts is a big club. People down here don’t really understand it because they haven’t been involved in Scottish football but Hearts is big in Scotland.”
Not quite as big as Arsenal, though. The bigger they come, the harder they fall at giant-killing Sutton United.