Approximately two hours before the 2022 Papa Johns Trophy final kicked off, Olympic Way (commonly called Wembley Way) was busy with fans intent to make the most of their time on holy ground.
At the top of the stairs by Wembley Park station, several Sutton United supporters stopped to take photos of the grand arch that looms over Brent, proof of an unthinkable reality. Prior to Sunday’s final, their club had not played at the home of English football since 1981, when two bone-white towers were the stadium’s distinguishing feature.
“There?” Mike Dowling incredulously pointed to the gargantuan stadium when Dream Team asked him if he ever thought he’d experience such a day with his beloved Sutton United. “Never in a million years. It’s completely insane, absolutely mental. There’s been tears already this morning when I was walking the dog.”
Who could begrudge Sutton fans savouring the occasion given the circumstances? 2021/22 is the Us’ first ever season in the EFL and, naturally, preserving their new-found status was always the priority. For them to reach Wembley in a cup competition while simultaneously pushing for a play-off place in League Two, safety comfortably assured, represents halcyon days for those who frequent Gander Green Lane.
“We’ve all been really excited and really happy for the whole day. But actually, everyone I’ve spoken to… the result, we’re not that bothered. Matt [Gray] and the players are bothered, they want to win. As fans, we’re here to enjoy the day.”
Rotherham fans are more accustomed to the surroundings of the national stadium having visited relatively recently in the past decade. Still, Wembley’s sheer scale is comically large when framed around teams from the lower leagues. The Millers’ New York Stadium is but a corner of the 90,000 capacity behemoth England call home. And Sutton’s humble ground is a hot dog stand in comparison.
“To be in a cup final at Wembley, it hits different,” explained Rotherham fan Danny Ogden-Glaves. “First cup final since 1996, first cup final at the new Wembley because since then it’s all been play-off finals. For me, a cup final just hits different.
“We’ve got an entire generation, and probably a bit over that, who have never seen Rotherham in a cup final. It’s really galvanised the fans.”
Inside the stadium, fans were contained to the lower tier which sounds underwhelming until you realise that accounts for an attendance of just over 30,000, almost double the combined capacities of the two clubs’ stadiums. In fact, the clash between the League One leaders and League Two’s new boys achieved a higher attendance than several top flight-games among Europe’s top five leagues this weekend.
The passion for football at every level of the pyramid in English football is truly remarkable. While the Premier League is undoubtedly the height of melodrama, there is an unmistakable authenticity about the teams who compete in the Papa Johns Trophy. By nature, it is impossible to find a fickle glory hunter among them.
Just before kick-off, there was a semi-surreal interlude as Paul Elliott (of Chuckle Brothers fame) emerged on the back of a Papa Johns delivery bike with the trophy sat atop the storage box behind him. The comedian is a lifelong Rotherham fan and his appearance, complete with to-me-to-you shenanigans when placing the match ball on a plinth in combination with Sutton-born Tim Vine, briefly eased the tension in the air.
All that work was undone once the game got underway however as the inescapable possibility of Wembley glory took hold. The atmosphere was noticeably different to the one that accompanies England friendlies. Harry Maguire was booed by a portion of those in attendance when the Three Lions took on Ivory Coast last month but Rotherham and Sutton supporters could not conceive of any behaviour that was not total commitment and support for their respective causes.
The paper planes that so frequently pollute the skies of England friendlies were grounded. There was not a ripple of a Mexican wave. Where there is sometimes expectant arrogance, instead there was nothing but hope cut with jittery nerves. And the most telling sign that the final was contested between two sides from the lower leagues: the chorus of ‘YOU’RE SH*T, AHHHH!’ that followed every goal kick.
The opening exchanges indicated the game would be a cagey affair but the shackles were broken by the dancing feet of David Ajiboye 13 minutes in. Sutton’s No7 beat three men before gifting Will Randall the chance to realise a boyhood dream of millions. Unfortunately, the 24-year-old pulled his shot wide of the near post when it looked for all the world the net would bulge.
Rather than wilting after spurning a golden chance, the underdogs were encouraged to take on their Championship-bound opponents and opened the scoring in the 30th minute through Donovan Wilson. The Papa Johns Trophy specialist’s composure in the box for his slotted finish contrasted beautifully with the pandemonium that engulfed Sutton’s half of the stadium. Fans adorned in yellow and black fizzed to give the appearance of a wasp nest suddenly severed in half.
Rotherham’s rhythm was constantly scuppered by top scorer Michael Smith’s inability to stay onside. The 30-year-old target man developed a chronic case of the Inzaghis but without a poacher’s finish by way of compensation, as was the legendary Italian’s trademark. However, midfielder Ben Wiles took it upon himself to level the scoring just before half-time, following two neat touches with a dipping strike from just outside the box that went in off the crossbar for added aesthetic value.
The pendulum swung back Sutton’s way soon after the restart when Craig Eastmond stabbed home at the second time of trying after more trickery from Ajiboye on the right flank. It was a rare strike from the former Arsenal player and one that perfectly fits the bill of the archetypal captain’s goal.
Having eliminated Wigan in the semi-finals it seemed as if Sutton would slay League One’s other promotion favourite to secure a famous cup win. But amber hearts were broken in stoppage time. Just as Eastmond had been announced as Man of the Match by the stadium announcer, Jordi Osei-Tutu found the top corner as the Millers’ second-half pressure finally broke Sutton’s stubborn resistance.
The League Two side were visibly deflated by the 96th-minute sucker punch and the inevitable happened in extra time as Rotherham scored twice, first through a Chiedozie Ogbene long-range stunner and then a header from Michael Ihiekwe.
And so Sutton were defeated 4-2 but manager Matt Gray and his players held their heads high as they soaked up the applause from their fans who appreciated such a tremendous effort, not just on the day but throughout the campaign.
“I am gutted because we’re whiskers away from a great performance and walking up those steps as winners,” Gray reflected. “It’s been a great experience for us in the build-up and coming here but I could tell the focus in the group, knowing exactly what we had to do to try and get the job done. That’s why I’m gutted for them more than anybody because they were so close.”
As for Paul Warne, his popularity in Rotherham is in danger of leaving Earth’s atmosphere. If he is able to steer his side back to the Championship after lifting the Papa Johns Trophy at Wembley then he’ll never have to buy another drink in the Yorkshire town. Although the likeable coach cheekily referred to as ‘Warniola’ wasn’t even aware that the final would go to extra time if the scores were level after 90 minutes.
“I thought it was going straight to pens, embarrassingly,” he said after victory was assured. “I started saying to Matt: ‘Have you got any decent penalty-takers?'”
The New York Stadium faithful are now hopeful the magic of a Wembley triumph will inspire them to correct their stuttering league form which has allowed the likes of Wigan and MK Dons to gain ground in recent weeks.
“It will be a massive confidence boost,” Danny said. “It’ll probably get us back onside a little bit and hopefully it’ll push us onto the league title.”
What’s evident is that the Papa Johns Trophy is anything but a distraction or an afterthought. Both Rotherham and Sutton harnessed the power of a cup run to provide fans with long-lasting memories. More so, the competition is further prove of how life flourishes below the Premier League. The assumption that the top flight is the be-all and end-all in this country couldn’t be further from the truth.