The garden of England with no one playing football on the lawn? That will never do...
Maidstone, the county town of Kent, is a pretty place. Tucked inside the sleepy bends of the River Medway and gleaming fresh from a textbook council regeneration project, the town is certainly one on the up; luxury apartments have sprung up upon the banks of the river and a beautifully kept park ensures that this part of The Garden of England remains just that.
Saturday afternoons are dominated by the shopping activities at the brand new Fremlin Walk, part of the lavish redevelopment scheme that has set the town apart from the slumbering, neighbouring Medway Towns. These stand as a sad reminder of the economic turmoil of the eighties that saw its docks close and unemployment rise to unbelievable levels. However in this conglomeration of small towns, ten miles downstream towards the meeting of the Medway and the Thames, Priestfield Stadium, Gillingham, stands as a reminder to what Maidstone has lost but Medway retains.
Maidstone United collapsed and disappeared from view in August 1992. With just two registered players, no home ground and debts that even the European Central Bank would have doubts about bailing out, it was always going to be an uphill battle for the Stones. This was the nadir season of Kentish football: The misery surrounding Maidstone's demise was almost compounded by the relegation of Gillingham, who finished second bottom ahead of Halifax, with the Yorkshire club banished out of the Football League for the first time in more than seven decades. Without a Paul Baker legendary header two games from the end of the season against the Shaymen it would have been curtains for both the county's clubs, but the Glenn Roeder managed, Nicky Forster inspired Gills lived to fight another day.
If Wimbledon's switch to MK Dons isn't counted, the amber shirted United remain the last Football League club to go out of business. Despite various near misses for Portsmouth, Bradford and Sheffield Wednesday, none have been completely liquidated since 1992. A little-known fact of their demise is that in fact Maidstone, like Wimbledon, were singled out to be moved across the country (to Tyneside) in order to keep their leagues status and as such, supply the North-East with another football club. This fell through and Maidstone fell apart; folding and starting life again in the Kent League.
It should be noted that while the town of Maidstone hasn't had a league team for two decades, the last time a league fixture was played in the town was in fact almost four years previously in 1988. In a striking parallel with Wimbledon, the Stones moved 15 miles across the county to Dartford where their dwindling fans gloomily saw out their last seasons as a professional entity. The club does possess quite a remarkable set of Alumni and came to the public eye after Chris Smalling was brought to Fulham from the club by Roy Hodgson, another ex-player. Other notable names include Peter Taylor and Warren Barton, who was sold to Wimbledon for £300,000.
Into the 21st century and there are signs that Kent Football is on the up once more. In the north on the banks of the Thames, Dartford are pushing hard for promotion into the Conference while on the White Cliffs in the South of the county Dover Athletic are not too far behind them. Meanwhile, the London border teams, Welling and Bromley, are also in the Blue Square South, as well as Tonbridge Angels, near-neighbours of Maidstone, who have acquitted themselves well after promotion last year.
These teams are one and two leagues behind Ebbsfleet (once Gravesend and Northfleet) and Gillingham respectively, the Gills entering their 20th year as Kent's only representative in League football. For a county of 1.68 Million people, making it the largest non-metropolitan county in England, to have just one of its 92 League football teams is a poor return, particularly as that team is languishing in the 4th tier.
Kent has no other successful sports teams with which football would need to compete, in contrast to similar counties such as Devon or Northumberland. Its Cricket Club, based in Canterbury, is in a state of crisis, while the biggest Rugby and Ice Hockey facilities attract just a handful of spectators every weekend. Even in urban Medway where the population numbers some quarter of a million, just 5,000 of them make their way to watch the Gills on a match day. Gillingham Chairman Paul Scally was outraged at the “Valley Express” scheme, which brought fans to Charlton from the area by bus back in their Premier League days, but the rot had started long before. While the Kent public is not football-apathetic, it is clear that some sort of incentive is needed, ideally better performances on field, to fill Priestfield on a regular basis.
Maidstone, with another 75,000 inhabitants has also been wasting a fine opportunity to sell itself to the public because there is still no stadium in the town. The Stones instead play their home games at a run down dog track in an industrial estate near Sittingbourne, where they moved after their spell in Dartford. Such is its notoriety, this particular industrial estate was the lowest priced property of the ill-fated Kent Monopoly, contrasting starkly to the decadent Medieval architecture of Maidstone itself, the club's spiritual home. Admittedly, with the club now in the Ryman First Division, 5 tiers below the hallowed 92, attracting fans is a big ask; but moving back to the town would restore a sense of civic pride whose momentum could be ridden up the divisions to at least the Blue Square South.
The chance to test this theory will come next season when the brand new Whatman Way Stadium, which due to sponsorship will be called the Gallagher Stadium, opens next to the river in August. The stadium, will initially be able to hold 3000 spectators but will have plenty of room for improvement, should the club make it back to the football league. A capacity of 7000 has been provisioned for this distant, yet not inconceivable, eventuality.
Interestingly, the stadium will be built not with a grass pitch, but instead first ground in England to use a synthetic 3G surface. Currently, this is without controversy; however there is a marked difference between playing on 3G and turf, despite the recent improvements that make the nasty Omniturf pitches at QPR, Preston and Oldham, seem a distant memory. Whether the pitch will give Maidstone an advantage over their rivals is yet to be seen, however should distinct progress be made it is sure to become a bone of contention for visiting sides. The Football League and Football Conference are yet to decide on whether such a surface is allowed, therefore depending on the results of the coming two seasons it could be that the 3G surface is only in action for one year.
The benefits of the surface are obvious, beyond the lurking suspicion that it could be used to gain an advantage during home games; the pitch will be immune water-logging and freezing which cause fixture congestion and disrupt revenue flows, which for a club such as Maidstone would be disastrous. However, extra funds can be sourced by renting out a pitch that is less susceptible to wear and tear than normal grass to local schools and clubs, thus providing more money and a greater role in the community for the club.
What will this bring to Kent on a broader scale? Realistically, without further investment it is unlikely that any of the non-League sides will make an entrance into the football League in the near future. Whilst Gillingham look in little danger of dropping out of the 92, it would be a tragedy should such a large county, which is in areas like Medway is suffering badly from the economic crisis, be stripped of all league sides. However, the green shoots of recovery, particularly in Maidstone but also Dartford with their remarkable eco-stadium, are clear to see. While it is not necessary for the county town to have a league football club, inspiration is a must.
For a town to have a heart and soul is a wonderful thing. This is what Whatman Way and Maidstone United must provide.