Craig Eastmond has been on tenterhooks for the past two weeks.
The 26-year-old’s red card for Sutton United against Boreham Wood in the FA Trophy almost saw him miss out on his dream FA Cup tie against the Arsenal team where his career started.
Eastmond was left praying to the weather gods that Sutton United’s games away at Boreham Wood, Solihull Moors and Guiseley weren’t postponed.
Thankfully, for himself and the club, they weren’t.
The midfielder now has the chance to line up against Arsenal and Arsene Wenger, the manager who gave him his professional debut, with the FA Cup throwing up a dream tie for the lowest-ranked side in the competition.
Paul Doswell’s team have already beaten Football League opposition in the shape of Cheltenham Town, AFC Wimbledon and Leeds United, and their reward is a classic David v Goliath encounter in the fifth round.
“You want a big team, especially Arsenal because I used to play for them, “added Eastmond.
“I had been there a long time so everyone at the club was just buzzing with the draw.
“I think we were due to a big draw to be fair.
“We all wanted a big team such as Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea or any Premier League team away which would have been decent, but we’ve got a home tie so that’s even better for us.
“A lot of people were phoning me once the draw had been made and were asking me for a ticket.
“I’m just really happy that we’ve got Arsenal because I didn’t think I’d get the chance to play against the club again.”
Eastmond spent more than a decade in north London and came through the club’s famed academy.
He was learning his trade there when Arsenal were the number one team in the country, playing some of the best football the Premier League has witnessed, with Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira leading the club to domestic glory.
“It’s always good when you are coming through at a club as a youngster at a time when the club are doing well on the pitch,” said the midfielder.
“Even if the club are doing well you are still doing well, even if you are not playing in the first team.
“You are still learning an awful lot because Arsenal are a massive club and they always bring youngsters through, eventually you will be given your time to shine.”
Eastmond’s time to shine in the first team came after he played his part as a right back in the club’s successful 2009 FA Youth Cup final victory over Liverpool.
That victorious team contained the likes of Jack Wilshere, Henri Lansbury and Francis Coquelin.
The FA Cup tie has thrown up the prospect of midfielders and old friends Eastmond and Coquelin coming face-to-face and it is a battle he is relishing.
“I know his ins and his outs and I know he’s a very good player because he’s still playing at such a high level,” said Eastmond.
“It’s going to be amazing seeing the old faces and I just can’t wait to see everyone.
“It’s just going to be like any normal game of football, though.
“Obviously it is going to be good playing against your old friends and old manager, but it’s just one where I’m going to have to play my normal game.”
Eastmond and Coquelin came through the first team at the same time and appeared together in the FA Cup and League Cup during the 2009/10 season.
The Battersea-born player would go on to represent the Gunners on 10 occasions, including a Champions League tie away at Shakhtar Donetsk in which he scored an own goal in a 2-1 defeat.
Eastmond played four games for the club in the Premier League but chances were always hard to come by with the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri in midfield.
Game time might have been few and far between but the experience picked up from training alongside them proved invaluable.
Eastmond said: “It was fantastic to learn off players of such quality.
“Those players always wanted the ball and all you had to do was feed them the ball and then they would make stuff happen.
“That was the main thing that helped me.
“My job was to get the ball and play it to them and then let them play and create things.”
Eastmond is now at the heart of the action for Sutton and the driving force from midfield.
Three weeks on from the cup draw, and after surviving an excruciating wait to find out whether he could play or not, the midfielder will take to the pitch against the club he joined as an 11-year-old.
FA Cup giant-killings aren’t unusual for Sutton. In 1989, they rose to fame after knocking out first division side Coventry City in the third round, and Eastmond isn’t counting out another huge upset against his old pals.
“There’s always a shock in the FA Cup so you never know,” he said.
“They’ve obviously had a big Champions League game this week against Bayern Munich so I’m sure they’ll have some big names on the bench at ours. Hopefully, we can go and take full advantage of that.”
Feature image courtesy of SUFCtv, via Youtube, with thanks