By Ron Flatter
Imagine “Hoosiers” in real life, and combine it with George Mason’s run to the Final Four 11 years ago. That is what is going on in English soccer right now – times two.
Lincoln City and Sutton United – two clubs you probably had not heard of until maybe this month – maybe – are making a run that has not been seen in England’s FA Cup tournament in 103 years. They have made it to the Sweet 16 over there in a tournament that throws the billion-dollar clubs from the Premier League into brackets with weekenders who kick the ball around between ales.
Mind you, that is a final 16 from a field that started not with 68 but with 736 teams. These two teams are at the fifth level of English soccer – below the Premier League and Championship and League One and League Two and, well, there is no League Three.
Actually, one of these clubs has already gone one step better to reach the Elite Eight.
Sean Raggett, 23, etched his name into English giant-killing immortality on Saturday, when he headed in a corner kick in the 89th minute to lift Lincoln City to a stunning, 1-0 victory at Burnley, a club that just last month paid $16 million for a player to try and maintain its place in the Premier League. Instead, it was busted out of the FA Cup bracket by the Imps of Lincoln, the first “non-league” club to reach the FA Cup quarterfinals since 1914.
Thus Raggett becomes Bobby Plump, the teenager who held the ball at his side forever before making the game-winning shot in the 1954 Indiana state high school basketball championship. And by getting to the FA Cup quarterfinals, Lincoln City is now Milan High, Plump’s team that inspired the movie “Hoosiers.”
Raggett’s goal means Lincoln, a town of about 100,000 in England’s East Midlands, is now known today for more than a 900-year-old cathedral and a history of making locomotives and steam shovels. Its soccer club has now pulled off the equivalent of an NAIA team knocking off a team from the NBA.
Now it is Sutton United’s turn. The little club from south London not only crashed the last 16, but it will be a 20-1 underdog at home Monday when it faces mighty Arsenal. Yes, the Arsenal from the north side of London owned by the same Stan Kroenke who is building an American football pleasure palace for the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers, and whose pocket change might pay for half the roster at Sutton.
Instead of their plush surroundings at Emirates Stadium, Alexis Sánchez and the Gunners will walk into a 5,000-seat stadium Monday night in Sutton that looks like one that your local high school might have abandoned. Forget seeding committees. This was the luck of the blind draw that pairs FA Cup opponents in each ensuing round.
For getting this far in the FA Cup, clubs like Sutton United and Lincoln City will have been rewarded with $1.25 million or so apiece – with more coming in from these latest matches. To put that in perspective, Arsenal paid about $40 million to lure Sánchez from Barcelona. Sutton pays its best players maybe $700 a week. Jackpots like this from the FA Cup pay the bills at Sutton and Lincoln for more than a year.
Dare to dream? Sutton United is 1,000-1 to win the FA Cup. Lincoln City is down to 150-1. Then again, Leicester City was 5,000-1 to win last year’s Premier League championship. How did that work out? By comparison to that 38-game season, this is like a simple dice roll.
Think about it. In the FA Cup, it really is just one game at a time.