Saturday, 1 October 2011

Kent's sleeping giant is stirring

Bring The Stones Home.

Four words which encapsulate the recent history of Maidstone United, who once flew the flag for Kent in the Football League. Many better men than I will detail the tale of a club effectively homeless since 1988, resigning from the League for financial reasons four years later, reforming almost at parks football level and gradually clambering back up the non-league pyramid. Broken promises, false dawns and an on-going 'buy a brick' scheme have charted the club's drawn-out attempts to return to Maidstone, but a shining light is now beaming at the end of the tunnel.

It is October, 2011. The present-day Stones are among the title hopefuls in Division One South of the Ryman League under the management of midfielder Jay Saunders, who narrowly failed to mastermind a miraculous escape from relegation in April after taking over from the hapless Andy Ford. A plot of land in Maidstone town centre, on James Whatman Way, is to house their new stadium, due to open in time for the start of next season. An open morning has been arranged for supporters and townsfolk to visit the site, view the plans for the ground and speak to club officials. As I walk in, onto what is still a very basic building site, a splash of colour greets me; fans in shirts of all shades of yellow, orange and gold, a walking encyclopaedia of this extraordinary club's twisting tale. Last season, average crowds of more than 300 made the 40-mile round-trip along the M20 to watch the Stones play their home games in Ashford. That in itself offers some indication of the supporters' stubborn determination to stick with the club 23 years after senior football left Maidstone. The general consensus among those running the open morning is that the club would regularly attract gates in excess of 1,000 at Whatman Way. Other than Gillingham, only Dartford break four figures with any regularity inside the county and they play two division above the Stones. Certainly, with a population of 75,000, Maidstone can comfortably support football at a much higher level. An estimated 500 people drop in to Whatman Way during the two hours; further encouragement for those at the club who have worked painstakingly to reach this point.

That afternoon, an FA Cup tie against Bognor Regis Town provides a timely reminder of why the return home is so important. The game is being played 11 miles away in Sittingbourne, where the Stones are ground-sharing for one more season. Bourne Park has a certain charm about it although for Maidstone, it's the equivalent of a community church being allowed to use a secondary school gymnasium for their Sunday services and having to swap back the hymn books for crash mats before locking up. Still, the swarming car park suggests the tenants are once again going to outperform their landlords when it comes to pulling in the punters.

Played in temperatures normally reserved for pre-season friendlies, the tie starts sluggishly but suddenly comes to life when Terry Dodd pings home the opening goal for Bognor and then makes it 2-0 when experienced Maidstone goalkeeper Charlie Mitten inexplicably spills a trickling pass at the striker's feet, virtually on the goal line. Mitten's party piece is still to come, though, as he allows a 40-yard back-pass to roll under his boot and into the net midway through the second-half. The tie is dead, or so we believe. Late strikes from Tom Mills and Baff Addae - the previous FA Cup player of the round - set up a grandstand finale but Mitten, racing upfield for a stoppage-time corner, can't atone for his earlier blunders and Bognor are through. The fixture will be repeated on the final day of the league season and already it looks as though the Stones' final game at Bourne Park could prove hugely significant. Either way, the next time the club are handed a home tie in the FA Cup, the game will be played in Maidstone. Their homecoming will be big news for sport in Kent and the only shame is that I won't be there to see it happen.

In other news...

Having watched the Merseyside derby on Sky Sports earlier today, I was left wondering 'why are referees still immune from giving post-match interviews?' David Moyes will almost certainly be the latest manager hauled in front of the FA for his comments about Martin Atkinson's decision to send off Jack Rodwell, although Atkinson will not have to answer to the footballing public. Moyes was honest in his assessment, saying Atkinson was wrong to show the red card and should have been given a different game in the first place. The least referees should offer is an explanation of their key decisions, just as managers are obliged to do after every game. If Atkinson, or any of his Premier League officiating compatriots, are pulled up for wrong decisions this weekend, the sanction will be no stronger than a temporary demotion to take charge of a Championship game. Not good enough.

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