Football fans will follow their team’s journey every single step of the way through a range of emotions, but the thought of your team going out of business is almost unimaginable to most. More often than not a newly reformed side will rise up from the ashes sooner or later, with Maidstone United being another fine example of how the glory days can be achieved once again. The Stones will ply their trade in the National League next season, one league below where they were before dissolving in 1992, which is their reward after 24 years of a somewhat nomadic existence.
The club can now begin to dream of climbing back into the promised land of the Football League, after achieving back-to-back promotions in the last two campaigns, but their passage has not been without a struggle or two. The Stones fans were forced to endure an eleven year spell away from Maidstone where they ground-shared with Sittingbourne & Ashford United. Also within that period there was another cloud of debt hanging over the club, but thankfully this time the club has recovered under new ownership. These days the Kent side operate thanks to a secure foundation and possess their own ground, the Gallagher Stadium, which is a prime example of far the club has come.
The darkest days for football fans in Maidstone came soon after the club reached it’s highest point within the English pyramid. The club won their first ever promotion to the Fourth Division (League Two as it is currently known) in 1989. Although it was the greatest feat in the club’s history, it ultimately came at a cost. Maidstone’s three year spell in the Football League was plagued by financial problems that accumulated to £650,000 worth of debt.
The chief executive of the Professional Footballer’s Association, Gordon Taylor, gave his thought’s on the club’s demise, “I feel particularly sad for the hard-core supporters who came into the League on a dream ticket and saw it turn to disaster,’ He also added “The climate at the lower end is such that the League must be wary of who they let in. They must have good financial backing. Not just to pay the players but because of ground improvements. It is very expensive being in the Football League.”
The club suffered from some extremely poor management decisions, but when the owners decided to buy a plot of land for £400,000 without any prior planning permission, the writing was on the wall with regards to Maidstone United’s future. Huge running costs and a decline in interest from supporters also attributed to the club’s demise, before they failed to compile a squad for the 1992/93 season.
The current Maidstone United began life at pretty much the bottom rung of the ladder, as the newly formed Maidstone Invicta found themselves in the Kent County League Division Four for the 1993/94 season. The club immediately claimed the league title & gained promotion to Division Two during their first season in existence, following a re-shuffle of the leagues system. Invicta then went on to win Division Two the season after before they remained in Division One until 1999. During this spell, the club changed their name back to the original Maidstone United in 1997, as the club began to slowly re-build towards former glories.
Paul Bowden-Brown was the chairman who nurtured the club through the early years after he took over the club from Jim Thompson, who was banned for his role in the collapse of the previous club. Paul’s input in the early stages and up until 2010 was invaluable in helping create the foundations of where the club are today, especially as it is no easy task in taking the club from the very bottom upwards. He eventually passed on the reins to Oliver Ash and Terry Casey as co-owners and majority shareholders, after he initially gained planning permission for the club to build a new ground in the centre of the town.
Bowden-Brown kept the club in Maidstone until the end of the 2000/01 season, a season in which they won the Kent County Premier Division after they had secured promotion from Division One two years previous. The club were located at the reserve and training pitches in the shadows of their old London Road stadium, but upon promotion to the Kent League the club were now forced to seek a new home. The ground failed to meet the league’s guidelines which set up the start of the club’s ground-hopping adventures. Maidstone therefore re-located to Sittingbourne for an eight-year period. This allowed the club to continue to build, winning the Premier Division twice in 2001/02 & 2005/06. On the back of their second title, the club subsequently saw themselves promoted back to Step 4 of the Non-League ladder and into the Ryman Division One South.
Maidstone continued their success by gaining instant promotion to the Ryman Premier on the back of winning the Division One South title in 2006/07. Although things were going right on the pitch, things were starting to turn sour off the pitch. Funding for the new stadium within Maidstone was seemingly hard to come by, and it proved to be at a financial cost to running the team at it’s current level. Bowden-Brown put the club up for sale in 2008, and in his final tenure as chairman there was a reported figure of £350,000 worth of debt hanging over the club. This is where Oliver Ash and Terry Casey came in to save the day, taking over the Stones in 2010. Alongside the changes in the boardroom, the club also moved home to Ashford United’s The Homelands from 2009-2011, as the board looked to cut expenditure costs wherever they could.
With Ash and Casey now at the helm and the club preparing to take a new direction financially, things took a turn for the worse on the pitch. Maidstone took a backwards step by seeing themselves relegated back into the Ryman League Division One South on the back of a tough 2010/11 campaign.
Despite that initial setback, Maidstone have gone from strength to strength since then. Jay Saunders was appointed as manager at the club after taking over in an initial caretaker role. The former club captain has been a mainstay ever since, and has helped transform Maidstone on the pitch to coincide with all the investment generated from board level. Saunders guided Maidstone to sixth position in his first full campaign in charge, where games were played once again in Sittingbourne as the new ground neared completion. This was just the start of things to come for Saunders with three promotions on the horizon.
The following 2012/13 season will forever be remembered by Stones fans not only for the move into their new home, but also for their promotion back into the Ryman Premier via the play-offs. Maidstone christened their new home in July 2012 with a friendly against Brighton & Hove Albion with 2,226 in attendance. The ground was completed at a cost of £2.9 million, much higher than the initial £1.5 million estimate. The new board were clearly keen to succeed, and they certainly made up for the financial shortcomings on previous occasions upon completion of the stadium. Maidstone’s new home ignited interest amongst the local community with average crowds of 1,698 gracing the Gallagher stadium across the first season there. The stadium also showcased a state-of-the-art 3G pitch, which is becoming more and more common place within the Non-League game. The momentous first season at the Gallagher ended with a 3-0 play-off final win against Faversham Town to complete the first step of Maidstone’s rise up the pyramid.
After a season of bedding into their new surroundings back in the Ryman Premier by finishing 7th, Maidstone supporters could prepare to rejoice again at the end of the 2014/15 season as they were crowned league champions. Maidstone finished on 98 points, three clear of Hendon in second to secure promotion to the National League South. It was to be another feather in Saunders’ cap as he rewarded the board for sticking with him, as they saw the Stones lose only six times all season. The race to the title was also spearheaded by Jay May’s 22 goals which saw him end up third in the goalscoring charts. Maidstone also enjoyed their most productive cup run to date, reaching the Second Round of the FA Cup. They eliminated League Two side Stevenage in the First Round thanks to a 2-1 victory in a replay, but exited the competition at the hands of Wrexham by a 3-1 scoreline.
Few could have imagined how well Maidstone eventually fared in their inaugural season in the National League South, but the fans have continued to come in their droves to back the project. Average crowds in excess of 2,000 spurred on the side throughout the season as they finished a very respectable third in the standings. The club even pushed long-time leaders Ebbsfleet close towards the end of the season, but both sides fell away as Sutton United romped to National League South glory. Saunders’ men then had to contend with the play-offs and a two-legged encounter against fourth placed, Truro City. Maidstone travelled to Cornwall for the first leg and came away with a 2-0 victory thanks to goals from Joe Healy & Alex Flisher. Maidstone then completed a 3-0 aggregate victory in the second leg with another Flisher strike, as they eased into the final.
Then came the play-off final away to Ebbsfleet United, who themselves were keen for redemption after letting a huge points advantage slip from their grasp in the latter weeks of the season. The final itself was a dramatic one with the tie going all the way to penalties. Danny Kedwell twice took the lead from the spot for Ebbsfleet, but they were pegged back by goals from Bobby-Joe Taylor & Dumebi Dumaka, who struck in the dying embers of extra-time to demoralise Ebbsfleet. Maidstone were victorious in the shootout, winning 4-3 on penalties after Danny Kedwell this time missed from the spot. Mass euphoria from the travelling Maidstone fans ensued as they now knew they would join the likes of Tranmere Rovers, York City & Dagenham & Redbridge in the National League next season.
The club is now fully focused on meeting the National League requirements for next season, with improvements and expansion planned by the board. There will be an upgrade to the 3G pitch to improve it’s quality for the higher level. Club chief executive Bill Williams commented on the 3G upgrade, “Our current pitch, with all the use it was getting, was starting to show its age. We wanted to satisfy the league and make sure we had a top quality pitch in place for the foreseeable future.” Maidstone aim to have the work on the pitch completed by mid-July to leave plenty of time to prepare for the new season.
Alongside the pitch improvements, the club also has plans in the pipeline to improve the ground capacity. Secondly, we need to increase the Gallagher Stadium’s capacity by another thousand. This will require investment of up to £750,000 to build a new 2,000 capacity stand at the Springfield end”, Williams added.
Those improvements should put the club in good stead for the next few years, but they will now need to keep progressing on the pitch to recoup some of the money spent on the infrastructure requirements. With Saunders in charge, Maidstone possess a fine young manager who has took the club further than many could have imagined. Combining that with the ever increasing attendances, Maidstone could well be on the path to the Football League once again. Next year will mark 25 years in existence for the new Maidstone United FC & the club looks to be in a stronger position than it has ever been.
Written by James Hunt
Image: Maidstone United