For the second time in three years Sutton were forced to submit to Notts County's higher status in the football pyramid, but as on the previous occasion they were able to leave the Gander Green Lane pitch at the end of the game with their heads high and listening to the well-deserved appreciation of the largest crowd for a competitive game at the ground since 1993. The margin of defeat may have been a goal wider, but the probably gave a better account of themselves than in the first round exit in 2008, but they were unable to take advantage of their best spells of the game in the first twenty minutes of each half, had their hopes of a late all-out attack on the Notts County goal hampered by the dismissal of Karl Murray with seven minutes left and, most culpably, handed a chance a minute before half time to cancel out Jeff Hughes' clever goal by Sam Sodje's foul on Craig Watkins, missed the resulting penalty. Nevertheless Notts County knew at the end that they had been given a stern examination, and were relieved to come through it and head for a third round tie at Doncaster.
The fate of the winners was known well before kick off, but once the 3,704 spectators had taken their places it was Sutton who looked the keener to go to the Keepmoat Stadium with a high tempo opening that suggested they were going to take the game to the Football League side. After just three minutes goalkeeper Stuart Nelson flapped at Harry Beautyman's cross under pressure from Sam Page, but recovered to block Leroy Griffiths' low shot, and Krystian Pearce was soon in referee Craig Pawson's book for a foul on Beautyman. Sutton continued to impress, and after quarter of an hour some persistent running by Craig Dundas kept a Watkins pass in play when it looked to have been hit too firmly, and his fine cross was met by a firm downward diving header from Beautyman that forced a good save by Nelson low to his left. The early storm slowly blew itself out, however, as County gained a measure of control as the half went on, with most of the strings being pulled by Alan Judge. He had already forced Kevin Scriven to back-pedal and tip a cross from the right over the bar when he broke down the right after a Sutton free kick had broken down and crossed for Karl Hawley whose shot was deflected over. Judge then tried his luck from all of thirty yards and was only just off target with Scriven again scrambling, but twelve minutes before the break his incisive run set up another chance for Hawley, and although his low shot from twenty yards would have been unlikely to trouble Scriven unduly, Hughes' neat intervention as he nipped in front of Karim El-Salahi diverted the ball in to the opposite side of the goal with the keeper wrongfooted.
Eight minutes later it could have been close to being all over when El-Salahi played Ben Burgess onside as the striker ran on to a through pass, but recovered to make a fine goal-saving tackle after Burgess had taken the ball round Scriven. It was the last contribution from El-Salahi, filling in at left back in the absence of Alan Bray and Neil Jenkins and struck by the curse afflicting those in that position for Sutton this season as he limped off with a knee injury, but looked to have been a crucial one as within a minute the excellent Chris Piper had broken free of a midfield tussle and played a pass through to Watkins on the left edge of the penalty area. Watkins turned inside Sodje and was tripped by the defender, with Mr Pawson pointing unhesitatingly to the spot. The defender suffered no further sanction, although with defenders covering between Watkins and Nelson it would at worst have been a booking, and Nelson dived to his left to push Griffiths' low spot kick away. It was a crucial moment – many of the seated U's supporters were on their feet as Griffiths took the penalty and the atmosphere as the players came off at half time had he scored would have given U's every belief that they could go on and cause an upset, but despite the setback they started the second half as they had the first. Watkins headed wide from a Griffiths cross and Murray made a disappointing contact with a corner from the right, flashing the ball across goal, before Anthony Riviere was tripped just outside the penalty area and Paul Telfer's low skidding free kick had to be held by Nelson.
As U's continued to push forward Griffiths whipped over another good cross from the left corner flag and Beautyman dived to head just over the top, but as they had in the first half U's couldn't keep up the pressure and, again, County looked increasingly comfortable as the chances became fewer. The introduction of Fola Orilonishe for Telfer with ten minutes to go seemed to be the signal for U's to pile forward in the closing stages in search of an equaliser, but within three minutes Murray had been booked twice for fouls, and while both yellow cards were soft the referee probably had the letter of the law on his side in both incidents. The dismissal was a considerable hindrance to U’s hopes of putting County under any concerted pressure, and what hopes they did have were finally extinguished when Scriven blocked a shot from Ishmel Demontagnac, but when the substitute regained possession and crossed back in to the six yard box, Hughes hammered the ball in after a brief scramble which had seen Scriven save again from Hawley. Even then Watkins might have scored a goal that no-one would have begrudged him or his team as he just failed to get a touch on a Griffiths cross, but all U’s were left with was deserved acclamation for a fine effort.
Notts County: S Nelson, J Kelly, A Sheehan, S Sodje (sub M Edwards 58), K Pearce, K Hawley(sub H Bencherif 89), N Bishop, A Judge, B Burgess (sub I Demontagnac 58), G Mahon, J Hughes . Subs n/u L Mitchell, J Stirling, C Allen, H Hollis. Goals: Hughes (33, 87). Booked: Pearce (6-foul).
At the end of the game against Notts County I’ve got an overwhelming feeling of pride, firstly at the way the club conducted themselves off the pitch, secondly at the way my players conducted themselves on the pitch, and thirdly at the fact that financially the club is now secure in a nice way for the next two or three years.
Without a doubt we could at least have taken the tie back to Nottingham. We started the first fifteen or twenty minutes particularly well and had the first two or three chances. Harry had a fantastic header that the keeper’s made a good save from, Leroy’s had a chance when the keeper’s made a good stop, and I looked at Kevin Scriven at half time and asked him what he’d had to do and at that point he said he hadn’t really had any saves to make. The big turning point was the penalty and there are two views to that. The defender could have got at least a yellow card or maybe even a red which would have changed the game, and later Karl Murray was booked for two very soft fouls – I’ve seen them on the television replay – and that killed the last ten minutes for the crowd because we were going to give it a right good go in the last ten minutes. That’s how they got the second goal as we went three at the back, and that hurts a bit because I don’t think they deserved to win by two.
Disappointment isn’t the word over the missed penalty, it’s sheer frustration. But Leroy’s been an absolute godsend to me at this club, the way he goes about his business, the influence he has on the other players, and there’s absolutely no blame from me attached to him at all.
We started the second half well, with Harry putting a header just over when he might have brought it down on his chest, Craig Watkins had another header over, Leroy’s had a chance when he maybe should have had a go rather than trying to pull it back. But you’re talking about a team who’s only just behind Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday, and if we’d been playing one of those today people would have maybe realised the enormity of the task. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s Notts County that they don’t get the same feeling, but they’ve got Premier Division experience in Gavin Mahon and some real quality in their side, and a really good manager under Martin Allen, and I’d really like to think everyone gives us the credit we deserve.
We’d heard the draw beforehand and we turned it round and asked whether Notts County would really want to go to Doncaster in five weeks time, but we would. It would be a nice little adventure for us to go to Yorkshire for the weekend, so we turned it in to a positive that maybe Notts County wouldn’t have the same incentive. But give them a lot of credit – it was a professional performance, they took their chances when they came, and you’ve got to take your hat off to how they’ve come here, because it’s a difficult place to come and they’ve done well.
Our problems continue at left back, which is a strange situation. We’ve lost Alan Bray, which was a big blow, then Neil Jenkins dislocated his shoulder, and now it looks as though Kes might have suffered quite a serious knee injury, so I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do about a left back, but we’ll wait and see