The current incarnation of Maidstone United FC is a non-league club who were formed in 1992, and are based in the county town of Kent, located thirty two miles south east of London.
However, the original club of the same name who were formed in 1887 and their eventual demise add a rich fabric to the current clubs history.
In 1894 Maidstone were founder members of the Kent League. In 1898 they moved into their new Athletic Ground on London Road, which seemed to inspire them as between 1899 and 1901 the club were crowned as league champions on three consecutive occasions. In 1950 'The Stones' moved to the Corinthian League, where they won the league in 1956. A year later the club joined the Athenian League and two years later the Isthmian League.
In 1971 Maidstone made the switch to the Southern League, reaching the Premier Division a couple of years later. After several top six finishes the club were invited to become founder members of the Alliance Premier League, later to become the Football Conference. They played their first game in that competition at home to Scarborough.
In 1984 The Stones won the league, but didn't receive enough votes to be elected into the Football League. The club Chairman Jim Thompson who also held a high position on the league committee, as well as being considered one of the great and good in the town, looked to try and get a League place. He thought he had found a solution by selling the Athletic Ground and buying a piece of land for £400,000 in the Hollingbourne area of the town with the proceeds, where they hoped to build a new stadium. Meanwhile The Stones would share Dartford's Watling Street ground, which was twenty miles away.
In April 1988 Maidstone played their last game of football in the town and moved to their 'temporary' home. The following season United won the Conference title as much of the remaining money from the ground sale was spent on players wages under the managership of John Still, to win promotion to the Football League.
Still left to be replaced by Keith Peacock, who's squad was full of quality including Steve Butler, Ken Charlery and Warren Barton. Money was also spent on refurbishing Watling Street in readiness for its elevation in status. After reaching the play offs in their first League season before losing out to a Dion Dublin inspired Cambridge United, they struggled as Peacock was replaced by Graham Carr as gates dipped and the finances began to run out even though the star players were sold for large amounts. The new ground back in Maidstone hit a major snag when planning permission for it was refused.
During the 1991-92 season the entire squad were made available for transfer and the club put up for sale. Carr departed to be replaced by Clive Walker to steady the ship. An attempt was made by north east businessman to buy the club and move it to Tyneside to merge it with Newcastle Blue Star FC. The League soon quashed this suggestion. Meanwhile Thompson had also joined the board of Dartford FC and was part of a property development group that bought Watling Street.
After a close season where the club only had two registered players, they eventually resigned from the Football League on the 17th August 1982 and went into liquidation. Four matches into their new season, the same fate befell Dartford FC with Thompson as Chairman. The supporters of The Darts kept their name alive and continued their youth set up.
Meanwhile fans of Maidstone United formed a new club originally called Maidstone Invicta FC in August 1992 to replace the old one. Because of the lack of a home ground, the team were forced to begin right at the bottom of the football pyramid, starting in the Kent County League Division Four. Home games were played on the old clubs training ground next to the site of the London Road stadium, which was now a DIY superstore.
The team won a promotion at their first attempt. Thompson was in charge of the club until he eventually received a ban from the game in March 1994, even though he remained as President of the Conference until 2007. Two years later he died, with the legacy of losing two Kent clubs their home grounds.
In 1997 the club changed their name back to Maidstone United and by 1999 the team had managed to win promotions to the Kent County League Premier Division. At the end of the 2000-01 season they finished in second place and gained senior status. The club were accepted into the Kent League for the next season, but because their ground was not of a satisfactory standard, they were forced to share with Sittingbourne FC at Central Park.
The clubs Chairman Paul Bowden-Brown looked to find a way around the llegailities so that a new ground could be developed at James Whatman Way, close to Maidstone town centre. The team won the league and cup double at their first attempt, but were denied promotion to the Southern League because of problems over the lease at Central Park. This was solved when both Sittingbourne and United moved next door and developed a ground at Bourne Park on the old training ground.
Old hero Steve Butler returned to the club to score some more goals for another spell. In November 2004 planning permission was granted for the new ground at James Whatman Way, on the proviso that a lease could be agreed with its owners; The Ministry of Defence. The Stones won a second Kent League title at the end of the 2005-06 season and promotion to the Isthmian League. More vitally, a ninety nine year lease was signed on the ground so that building could commence.
|Bourne Park, Sittingbourne|
The Stones won promotion to the Premier Division at their first attempt, where it struggled. It was apparent that trying to raise the money for the new stadium and funding a successful team was problematic so a bid for a £1.2M grant was submitted to the Football Foundation. Unfortunately this was rejected, so Bowden-Brown put the club up for sale.
In the summer of 2009 the club decided to move to Homelands, the home of Ashford Town to try and save money, but this only led to their financial woes as gates dropped. The managerial duo of Alan Walker and Lloyd Hume resigned as once again wages were deferred.
In October 2010 the club was bought by shareholder Oliver Ash and Terry Casey as Bowden-Brown resigned as Chairman. A couple of managers came and went before club captain Jay Saunders was appointed. Despite a valiant effort he could not save the team from relegation, but he was rewarded with a contract. In September 2011 The Stones returned to Bourne Park as construction started at The Gallagher Stadium, which was the name of the construction company who built the ground and paid for the naming rights in a five year deal.
Work continued with apace throughout the 2011-12 season on the stadium as it was confirmed that it would be fitted with a top of the range 3G artificial pitch. The team narrowly missed out on the end of season play offs.
The Gallagher Stadium was officially opened on the 14th July 2012 with a friendly against Brighton & Hove Albion in front of a sell out crowd of 2,226, twenty four years after the last game at London Road. The Stones went on to win promotion in the first season at their new base as league runners-up following a 3-2 play-off final victory over Faversham Town.
In 2014-15 United went on to win the Premier League title. The championship was sealed in front of a packed house against East Thurrock United, as crowds continued to the Gallagher Stadium, which was proving to be one of non-league football's big success stories.
The re-formed club also reached the first round of the FA Cup for the first time as Stevenage were defeated in a replay after a 0-0 draw in the away game at Broadhall Way. Wrexham ended the run in the second round.
The club were promoted to the newly named National League South; formerly the Conference South. Saunders' side continued their upward spiral and reached the FA Cup first round once again. Yeovil Town won the game at Gallagher Stadium.
Maidstone United FC will play in the National League South in the 2015-16 season.
Maidstone United 4 Scarborough 1 (Saturday 26th August 1989) Division Four (att: 3,372)
For details of The Stones first ever home League game, please go to:
Maidstone United 1 Ebbsfleet United 1 (Tuesday 31st July 2012) Pre Season Friendly (att: 1,136)
I had been keen to visit the new home of Maidstone United for some time. Indeed, I kept in touch with their progress for many years, especially as I was at their first ever League 'home' game twenty three years previously.
I had marked down the game against Ebbsfleet as I was on early shifts, and I wanted to give the ground a bit of time to bed in, and for the workers at the club to get used to their new surroundings so that I could see it in its best light.
After work I had met my pal Dave Cammish and his son Ashley. They had been to the Olympic Weightlifting at the ExCel in the morning and were later heading to the Women's Football at Wembley between England and Brazil. I caught up with them on Piccadilly before we decided to take a look at the BT London Live in Hyde Park to take in the Olympic atmosphere that had really caught our imagination.
The security at the park was tight to say the least. I had my deodorant confiscated! I hadn't realised that I was about to board a plane. Anyway, I got over that setback after offering my musings to the staff and we enjoyed ninety minutes wandering about seeing the displays and watching the live action on numerous big screens. Dave bought us a pint each, which came to the princely sum of £10, and there was no bitter on sale. Disgraceful for a games held in the Uk, especially after Danny Boyle had done so much to showcase our history and heritage at the amazing Opening Ceremony.
Never mind. I said my goodbyes knowing that I would be in for some proper ale later as the Gallagher Stadium's clubhouse was called the Spitfire Lounge and was sponsored by the fine Kent brewers Shepherd Neame. I had a doze on the train from Victoria before waking up as we neared Maidstone East station.
I was in good time, so I decided to dine at the nearby Wetherspoon's house, The Society Rooms. The pub was busy, including many Stones fans in club colours. It was steak night and I got served immediately. What could go wrong?
I eventually got my answer. The kitchen was obviously overrun. I should have had my wits about me when I ordered and there was confusion behind the bar as a food order was misplaced. After twenty minutes my meal came out with an apology. They had bought me things on it that I specified that I didn't want. Apparently they'd 'cocked it up'. I shook my head and asked for my money back and left for the ground. I simply couldn't wait.
I walked down the hill to the Gallagher Stadium with plenty of other fans. It took less than ten minutes from the station and pub. Everything was in pristine condition as I expected. I paid a slightly pricy £10 to get in and a fair 50p for a thin but colour programme, before entering the Spitfire Lounge. I was met with chaos.
Plenty of fans naturally wanted to give their club some income, although I was surprised just how many were in there. There was no discernable queueing system although there were harsh looks if anyone looked to have jumped a turn to be served. The staff were young and inexperienced, save for an older woman who appeared in charge and a man who was doing his best to sort out the two handpumps. Both the Spitfire and Master Brew were off and did not return. The youngsters were all smiles but no substance. One decided that drying glasses one at a time rather than serve the thirsty masses in plastic glasses was a worthwhile job. I settled for a bottle of Spitfire. I'm sure that they'll get it right in time. I experienced the same thing at Wealdstone's first game at their new home and they improved quickly. The Stones need to get a system in place so that they don't see much needed income being spent in the local pubs instead.
I took my beer outside to survey the scene. I entered by turnstiles in the south east corner. The lounge was to my right as soon as I went inside. As well as the bar it contained the changing rooms and classrooms for the academy and wider community. Further up the east side was an excellent Main Stand, built into the banking. It had a raised seating deck and a further section at the rear with seats in front of corporate boxes, which were accessed from the rear. There was open banking either side, which offered scope for expansion. The South Stand was a small covered terrace holding 250 standing fans. Behind it was more room for expansion, which had the toilets and a portable bar. The West Side was flat open standing with dug outs on the half way line and the River Medway running behind it. Finally the North Stand was a similar version of its opposite, only with double the capacity.
Finally, but probably most significantly was the pitch. Maidstone had installed a state of the art 3G artificial pitch to enable the stadium to become the hub of local football with wide usage. The club were looking to promote the pitches and get widespread use by heading a group of professional clubs called 3G4US.
As I stood near to the turnstiles I heard the man on the gate ask a group if it was their first visit? When they said it was, he told them where everything was to improve their experience. I thought this was first class customer service.
The teams came out to a good ovation, including around a hundred visitors from the north of the county. The atmosphere was more that of a league or cup game rather than that of a friendly. It was encouraging to see lots of youngsters in attendance. Football fever had really caught the imagination on its return to the town.
The match followed suit. There was no quarter given and the pace was relentless, no doubt helped by the excellent playing surface as the players didn't have to worry about untrue bounces or the ball hitting divots.
I had seen Ebbsfleet tear Tonbridge Angels apart by a 6-1 scoreline a couple of weeks earlier, and they started in similar vane. They went one up when Ben Greenhalgh scored with a real beauty into the bottom corner after a neat build up on seven minutes. The away fans near me were happy as we had a pleasant chat about the old days. The Stones gradually responded and had a goal wiped out, even though Fleet looked extremely dangerous on the break. Somehow they never added to their lead. They paid for this as Maidstone equalised when Paul Booth levelled on the half hour mark.
I chose the portable outside catering van for some sustinence. As I ate my unhealthy but tasty food a steward came and chatted after seeing my Scarborough Athletic polo shirt. He was originally from Merseyside, but now lived near the stadium. He had never bothered with the club while they were in exile, but had volunteered to run the car park on matchdays when The Stones came home. His wife had the job of 'sweeping' the pitch on a motorised device as well as her normal occupation as a school teacher. Both were very proud to be involved and helping the club. I was even offered a walk on the pitch at full time, but sadly I had to get away quickly for some shut eye before work the following day. I got the same vibe that all at the ground were very proud of their roles.
I had a wander around the ground again at the break to appreciate the stadium. In the second half Ebbsfleet were once again showing more likelihood of scoring, but The Stones who were two divisions below their visitors in league terms also had plenty of attempts on goal. Neither keeper was being troubled nearly enough.
|Corner flags, 3G style|
What really impressed me from a commitment aspect was that the tackles flew in and the pace was unabating. I had the impression that players more than ever had to work for their contracts and were eager to impress. The pitch also held up to the tackles. The players all wore normal boots and the got straight back up after sliding and crunching tackles, none the worse for wear.
The game ended level and I followed the crowds heading back into the town centre. The man on the exit gate thanked everyone for their attendance and wished us a safe journey home, which was a really nice touch. I made the 21.48 fast train back to London with a couple of minutes to spare. I got back to the capital to see thousands of joyous faces on their way home from their Olympic experience, many of whom were part of an amazing 70,000 crowd at Wembley.
I really enjoyed my experience at Maidstone United. The stadium and pitch were top class and the welcome from everyone involved at the club was superb and encouraged me to consider a return. They just need to sort out the bar and it will be just about perfect.