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At 5.30pm on Saturday evening Maidstone United will line-up in front of the BBC Wales cameras,

As they visit Conference Premier side Wrexham in the second round of the FA Cup.

Maidstone United: Making their way backThey made it there thanks to two goals from Frannie Collins that saw them beat League Two Stevenage 2-1 in a first round replay. The game made history given it was the first match in the FA Cup proper played on a 3G pitch at their new Gallagher Stadium ground. For ‘The Stones’ it is the first time a team with the name Maidstone United have appeared in the second round since 1991, and it has been a long journey in more ways than one since then.

The Maidstone United that lost to Kettering in the second round of the 1991-92 FA Cup was formed in 1897, and played for the majority of their history at the Athletic Ground on London Road in the Kent town. From when they were formed until they turned semi-professional in 1971 they played in various amateur leagues before joining gaining a place in the Southern League Division One South that year with a young defender by the name of Roy Hodgson on their books who was also taking his first tentative steps in to management by also assisting the then manager Bob Houghton. Hodgson had moved on within a year and missed the club’s first promotion to the Southern League Premier Division before they became founder members of the Alliance Premier, now known as the Football Conference, in 1979.

The club then went on to win the Conference title twice in 1984 and 1989. They missed out on promotion to the Football League the first time as it was before the days of automatic promotion to the League and they failed in a bid to be elected. In 1989 they did make it, taking Darlington’s place in the Fourth Division, as the current Luton Town manager John Still guided them to the Conference title. As they entered the Football League it was clear their London Road ground was not big enough for League requirements so sold the land to the then furniture giants MFI and moved to Watling Street, Dartford – some 20 miles away from the town in a move that spelt the beginning of the end.

The club had spent big in an attempt to get into the Football League and continued to splash out as they made the play-offs in their first season missing out in the semi-finals to Cambridge United. The problem was their fans didn’t appreciate the 40 mile round trip for every home game and despite the success saw crowds drop from around 2400 to 1400. Not surprisingly the combination of high spending and low crowds meant financial problems were round the corner and amid such problems began to struggle on the pitch, finishing 19th in their second season. The sale of their best assets had already begun as they tried to counter the debts – future Newcastle United and England full-back Warren Barton, one of several players to move on for six figure sums during that spell, being sold to Wimbledon for £300,000.

Around that time the club took a gamble and shelled out £400,000 on a piece of land in east Maidstone with a view to building a new ground back in their home town. Maidstone the town and the surrounding borough had a population of 150,000 in total back then, the then board made the assumption that kind of figure that crowds of 5,000 plus could be obtained if the club was playing back in the town. The trouble was they didn’t seek planning permission before shelling for the land and were left in a desperate state when the local council turned down their plans to build on the site.

The result was the entire playing staff was put up for sale followed by the club itself but the poor results on the pitch meant there was little interest other than from a North East consortium who wanted to buy the club and move it to their part of the world and merge it with Newcastle Blue Star FC. In the 1991-92 season the club finished 18th after struggling for much of the season as Division Four ended the season with 22 clubs, having started with 23 – the Football League had been looking to grow the league to 94 teams but soon gave up. Aldershot had folded in the April amid financial problems of their own, their results being expunged from the records, and Maidstone would soon follow.

The following season, 1992-93, was the first season of the Premier League ushering in an age of footballing millionaires but at the start of that golden road another journey was coming to an end. Maidstone were due to start the new season at Scunthorpe United on 15th August 1992 but at that stage, now under the ownership of John Waugh – the leader of the aforementioned North East consortium – who had bought the club from previous chairman Jim Thompson, the club had only two players registered. Needless to say they did not fulfil the fixture at Scunthorpe and just two days later resigned from the league the club statement simply stating ‘Time has run out.’

Maidstone became the last Football League club to drop out of the league due to bankruptcy, former league clubs Scarborough, Halifax Town, Chester City and Rushden & Diamonds all suffered similar fates in the years to follow, but only after being relegated to the Conference. Maidstone joined an unwanted club that included Aldershot and Accrington Stanley amongst others as teams to resign their place in the Football League.

As is so often the case when a club folds there are always people to pick up the pieces and try again and with Maidstone it was no different. A new club came into being – Maidstone Invicta –a junior club built around nucleus of the old club’s youth team and ironically was playing back in Maidstone, on London Road. They were using the old team’s former training ground as they started all over again in the Kent County League Division Four, some ten levels below the Football League. They weren’t allowed to start any higher due to only being registered as a junior team.

Again, as is common with Phoenix clubs, the new Maidstone would have a lot of success in their early years with four promotions in the first seven years of their existence. They started the 2001/02 season, having re-adopted the suffix of United in 1995, in what was then the Kent League – now the Southern Counties East League – having successfully applied for senior status by then. They were still five levels below the Football League and were only able to make the move after they agreed to a ground-share with neighbours Sittingbourne, their London Road ground deemed inadequate for the Kent League. It wasn’t quite as bad as Dartford, the journey was only around a 20 mile round trip, but had shades of the past about it.

The move at first was a success as they secured the league and cup double in their first season but were denied promotion due to problems with the lease at Sittingbourne’s Central Park ground, a problem that would see both clubs move out and into a purpose-built complex on adjoining land. It would be another four years before any more league success would come their way, though the 2002/03 season did see them return to the FA Cup for the first time in over ten years reaching the second qualifying round. The 2005-06 season saw them win the league and cup double again and this time promotion was secured and they moved up to the Isthmian League Division One South, now known as the Ryman League. At the same time a long-held dream was beginning to take shape as they signed a 99 year lease for a piece of land on James Whatham Way back in their hometown by the River Medway.

The success continued as they gained promotion to the Isthmian League Premier Division in their first season. They found the Premier Division a little tougher though and the steady on the field success the new club had known hit the buffers, and not just on the pitch. Around that time – with echoes of the past – financial issues started to raise their ugly head again.

In the summer of 2009, being unable to afford the rent, they moved out of Sittingbourne’s Bourne Park and moved in at The Homelands ground of Ashford Town. It was back to another 40 mile round trip for the Maidstone fans and not surprisingly crowds dipped again.

Struggling on and off the pitch the club suffered an almost inevitable relegation at the end of the 2010/11 season – the first of the new club’s history. During that season long-time chairman Paul Bowden-Brown stepped down having felt he had taken the club as far as he could. Bowden-Brown had been in charge 19 years having taken over from Jim Thompson, who had originally set up the new club but was prevented from running it going forward having subsequently been banned from football for his role in the demise of the old club.

With new owners in place and a new manager, Jay Saunders – the former club captain – a new era was about to be ushered in for Maidstone football. Summer 2011 saw them move back to Sittingbourne but more importantly building began at the site on James Whatham Way. On the pitch the club missed out in the play-offs in the 2011-12 season but by summer 2012 their new £2.6 million ground – The Gallagher Stadium – was ready. The dream that had first been thought of around 22 years earlier had finally come to fruition. The club had its own brand new stadium, in its own town, a ground that matched their ambitions. A capacity crowd of 2226 met its opening with a friendly against Brighton & Hove Albion on 14th July 2012 and quite frankly the club haven’t looked back since.

The 2012/13 season saw a different outcome in the play-offs as they beat Faversham Town 3-0 to move back into the Premier Division. A season on, consolidation followed but in the current season Saunders has guided them to second in the table so far, seven points behind leaders Margate but with four games in hand. The reason they have so many games in hand is due in part to their success in the FA Cup. Their appearance in the second round proper may well be their first appearance in that round since 1991 but the tie against Stevenage in the previous round was the first in the competition proper for the club since it reformed and that in itself presented an achievement.

Maidstone United are an example of perseverance, of a determination to not let football in the town die. They may not have had the more relatively spectacular returns of success and status of say FC Halifax Town or Chester FC, but are slowly but surely getting there. They started off a lot further back than most clubs in a similar state and have struggled without a true ground to call their own for so long. With matters at long last seemingly in order both on and off the pitch they can perhaps dream of making it back to the Football League once more, and maybe hanging around a little longer this time.

Originally published at inthestandsport.com

Post written by Rich
for InTheStandSport, Blog: inthestandsport.com, Twitter: @InTheStandSport

Note: The views expressed within this blog post are those of the contributing author, and may not necessarily reflect those of MatchDayApp Limited, its representatives or associated partners.

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