Craig Eastmond is standing in the cramped away dressing room at Sutton United’s Gander Green Lane stadium – the one that will accommodate Arsène Wenger and his Arsenal squad for Monday night’s FA Cup tie – and he knows what they will think. After all, Eastmond was once an Arsenal player.
Towards the back, there is an old‑fashioned communal bath but it has been largely out of commission this season because the boiler is broken. “Teams can use it as an ice bath, if they want,” Clive Baxter, the Sutton kit man, volunteers. “Tranmere Rovers did that.” Happily for Arsenal, there are four showers that do have hot water.
In a corner by the bath is an exposed piece of pipework that has a tap on the end and a bucket underneath. “Drinking water,” reads the notice. But what really makes this such a strong interior-design look are the walls in the changing area; the deep, chocolate brown walls. They are the brainchild of the manager, Paul Doswell, who commissioned the paint job after he took charge in 2008. He hopes the migraine‑inducing aura can unsettle visiting teams.
“The Arsenal players are probably going to think: ‘What is this, really?’” Eastmond says. “But this is non-league. This is the real world, the real stuff. There’s always stuff wrong with non-league pitches and non-league dressing rooms but you can’t make them feel at home. It’s going to have to be one where they’re thinking: ‘Ah, I don’t really want to come to Sutton and play this on a Monday night.’ No one fancies going to a non‑league team, really.”
Eastmond heard Doswell say the same thing to him in September 2015. “He said: ‘I know you probably don’t want this move to Sutton but you need to start somewhere to get back up the ladder,’” he says.
The 26-year-old was on the scrap heap following his release from Yeovil Town at the end of the previous season. The days when he was playing for Arsenal, having graduated from the club’s academy, felt like a speck in the rearview mirror.
Eastmond made 10 appearances for Wenger’s team – between October 2009 and November 2010 – and there were notable highs, including his debut as a starter in a home win against Liverpool in the League Cup.
The boy from Battersea in south‑west London started three times in the Premier League and was also in the starting XI for the Champions League group phase defeat at Shakhtar Donetsk, in which he scored an own goal. Eastmond was ahead of Francis Coquelin, among others, in the defensive-midfield pecking order and, having supported Arsenal as a kid, it all felt impossibly sweet. He was on the path to stardom.
It did not work out as he had hoped. Eastmond had loan spells at Millwall in the Championship and Wycombe Wanderers and Colchester United in League One before his contract at Arsenal expired in 2013 and he joined Colchester on a permanent deal. He has had injuries and a managerial change at Colchester worked against him, but his descent from the Champions League to non-league in a little under five years is still difficult to fathom.
Eastmond talks about how it was “a depression” to leave Arsenal. “I’d supported them my whole life and then I was playing for them,” he says. “I had my name on the back of my shirt and I was playing for Arsenal – what I’d always wanted. You’ve got to move on. I knew a lot of people who were leaving clubs and going down leagues but they were playing more first-team football and that’s what you want.
“You have to go out and play first-team football, men’s football, real football – where you are fighting for points, fighting for other people who have kids, where they’ve got to put food on the table. That’s where the reality is.”
Eastmond admits he does think back to when he played in the Champions League – “but not too much” – and it is easy to wonder whether there was any point when he fell out of love with the game. “You always have ups and downs, from when you’re playing to not playing,” he says. “You always think: ‘Why am I not playing?’ And then you think: ‘Ah, why do I have to play? You get frustrated with yourself and when that happens, you start to fall off the pedal and then you can be in the middle of nowhere, really. I was not playing anywhere [in the summer of 2015]. I was training by myself.”
Eastmond has got his mojo back at Sutton. He was outstanding last season, when he helped them to win promotion to the National League – the top tier of the non-league game – and it was a surprise he did not get offers from clubs in the Football League at the end of it. There was interest from the League Two side Barnet in the January transfer window but Eastmond felt empowered to turn them down.
“I said to myself: ‘I can do better,’” he says. “I’m still on a Cup run and there will be more clubs watching, especially with it being against Arsenal. Getting back into League football is definitely the next step. You see people getting moves from non-league to League One, the Championship. It’s possible. It’s not luck.”
The Arsenal tie is important for Eastmond on many levels, not least in terms of it providing a shop window for his talent. Like his Sutton team-mates, he is part-time at the club, training on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, but unlike some of them he has no other job. He works with a fitness trainer – the former Leicester City and Bradford City midfielder Jamie Lawrence – on the days when he is not at Sutton and he is determined to give himself the platform to return to the full-time game.
Eastmond was almost denied the chance to face Arsenal. He was on tenterhooks until last Tuesday night. He had been shown a straight red card for a tackle in the FA Trophy tie at home to Boreham Wood on 4 February and incurred a three-match ban, which stood to rule him out against Arsenal.
Fortunately for him, the game ended in a draw and the replay, which was played three days later and became one of the three he had to sit out. The others were the league matches at Solihull Moors and Guiseley. Sutton had been scheduled to go to Tranmere in the league on the day of the replay with Boreham Wood but that was postponed after Tranmere also drew in the FA Trophy and had to replay against Chelmsford.
Had Sutton won or lost in the original tie against Boreham Wood, Eastmond would have been suspended for Arsenal. Moreover, had the replay at Boreham Wood or either of the games against Solihull on the Saturday before last or Guiseley on the Tuesday been postponed – a genuine risk at non‑league stadiums in times of bad weather – Eastmond would have been suspended.
“I was checking the weather forecast every day,” Eastmond says. “Luckily, there were no postponements. I didn’t think I deserved to be sent off but when I was, I thought: ‘I’m missing the Arsenal game.’ I wasn’t thinking about the team winning, losing or drawing. We couldn’t even appeal against the decision afterwards because you could get an extra game on top and then I definitely would have missed the Arsenal game.”
Eastmond began his career at Millwall but he moved to Arsenal at the age of 11, where he played as a right-back. He was part of the 2009 FA Youth Cup‑winning team, alongside Jack Wilshere and Coquelin, before he stepped up to reserve-team level and was converted – on Wenger’s instruction – into a defensive midfielder.
The stories trip off Eastmond’s tongue. He remembers Steve Bould, who was then the club’s Under-18s manager, as being particularly fearsome. “When he gets angry, you know,” Eastmond says. “You had better be quiet, no joking around.”
An inspiration was Cesc Fàbregas, who was three years his senior. “His vision and technical ability were unbelievable,” Eastmond says. “No one else could get near him. He was always two steps ahead, before the ball came to him.” Robin van Persie was also on another level. “We used to call his left foot ‘the Magic Wand’,” Eastmond adds. “Literally, anything on the left foot, you know it’s going to be a goal.”
What about Wenger? What was he really like behind closed doors? “He’s exactly what he’s like in front of doors,” Eastmond says. “He just tells you how it is. He is honest. He tells you what you need to learn and it’s up to you whether you take it on board. He believes in you.”
For Eastmond, the Cup draw has brought it all back. “Everyone was thinking we were going to get Lincoln City,” he says. But Sutton got Arsenal, who are now in for a culture shock.
“Their last game was at Bayern Munich, in front of 70,000, and they’ll be down here in front of 5,000,” Eastmond says. “That’s the thing about the FA Cup. It gives little teams an advantage. It would be amazing if we beat Arsenal. It would be history.”
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