Maidstone's night of FA Cup glory moves them closer to Wembley
MAIDSTONE, England -- The music is loud and the beer flows freely in the bar at Maidstone's Gallagher Stadium. And why not? After all, the small club, who play in the seventh tier of English football, have just sealed one of the greatest results in their history: A 2-1 FA Cup first-round replay victory over Stevenage, a side who play three divisions above them.
In the days before the biggest game of his career, manager Jay Saunders repeatedly referred to Maidstone as, "a family club," a statement that can be something of a cliche in the badlands outside the Football League. In this case however, it's entirely appropriate. This is a football club that has already been to the brink, fallen in and then returned to tell the tale. A bond exists between the supporters and the staff that you don't always find at other teams, even at this lower level.
That's why, when the Maidstone players go for a beer to celebrate their historic victory, they don't head into town and hide in the VIP section of a nightclub. They just walk out of the dressing room and into the supporters' bar next door.
Maidstone, a thriving town on the commuter belt around London, does not have a glamorous sporting history. In the unlikely event you've heard of their team, it's probably because of the only memory they evoke: their sudden liquidation and expulsion from the Football League in 1992.
Perhaps they were never meant to be there in the first place. Promoted in 1989 while renting nearby Dartford's stadium, they quickly found themselves out of their depth. Forced to pay for upgrades to another club's stadium to meet league standards, not to mention to their own squad for the same reason, they hurled the last of their resources at a series of failed attempts to build their own home and collapsed three years later.
From the ashes of the club, a new operation emerged and slowly rose up through the lower reaches of amateur football, but they remain the only club to have been in the Football League without hosting a league match in their own town.
They are now in the Ryman Premier League, which sits beneath the Conference South, the Conference Premier and Stevenage's current level, League Two. Even if Maidstone won every game from now on, they still wouldn't host league football in their own town until 2017, but at least now they know that they can.
Their stadium, set against the bank of the river Medway, opened in 2012 and has everything a small community club need. There are conference facilities, a modern bar and function room for social events, and a pitch robust enough to cope with the strain of hosting games for all of Maidstone's teams, of all ages, genders and abilities.
This is because the pitch at the Gallagher Stadium isn't grass, it's a third-generation (3G) synthetic surface, and that, more than Maidstone's return to the spotlight, is why so many people have watched their progress with interest. They are the first team to use such a surface in the FA Cup, and the debate over its suitability continues to rage.
The pitch is being brushed as I arrive at the stadium. A single lawnmower trails what appears to be a very large doormat behind it, leaving a fine, wet spray of tiny rubber balls in its wake. It looks good, but it isn't popular with everyone.
Maidstone's pitch up close. There are millions of tiny rubber balls nestling between the blades like the Borrowers. pic.twitter.com/3C0XM3dvi6- Iain Macintosh (@iainmacintosh) November 20, 2014
In October, the Professional Footballers' Association spoke out against plans to allow synthetic pitches in Leagues One and Two.
"It would seem that [chairmen] are being driven by promises of increased commercial revenue streams and not for reasons of quality, integrity and safety," said the PFA's Simon Barker.
Last month, Stevenage manager Graham Westley had words about the pitch after the 0-0 draw that set up this replay.
"As a surface it doesn't work," he told reporters. "When you're playing on it, the players' safety is in jeopardy. It's unforgiving and puts the body and joints through lots of grief."
But Sanders isn't having any of it.
"I don't think people realise how far the pitches have come," he tells ESPN FC on the eve of the game. "I must admit, when I was first told about the 3G pitch, I was a bit sceptical because you remember the old pitches of the 1980s, but it's a million miles from that. It feels like you're playing on a perfect pitch.
"Don't get me wrong, everyone loves a nice grass pitch, but at our level this works. Besides, when you see some of the real pitches in League One and League Two, they're terrible! I think Graham Westley was disappointed with the result and he wanted to have a pop about the pitch, but I think if he looked into it he'd realise that his comments were a bit extreme."
Owner Terry Casey is rather stronger.
"It's born out of ignorance," he tells me a few hours before kickoff. "Anyone who says this isn't the way forward, they don't understand what this does for you. It enables young people to learn how to play football on a consistent and even surface. They all still do slide tackles, all the kids. There's nothing you can't do on that pitch."
When Casey bought the club in 2010 with business partner Oliver Ash, Maidstone were living a nomadic existence. They had reformed after liquidation in the junior Kent leagues on a pitch the club had previously used to train on.
Promotion to the Kent League in 2001 necessitated a ground share with Sittingbourne, 12 miles to the northeast. In 2009, they took advantage of the cheaper rent at Ashford, 20 miles to the southeast. Attendance plummeted, and they returned to Sittingbourne in 2011. Finally, in 2012, they moved into the Gallagher Stadium.
"The first thing we had to know when we took over was whether we could service all the debts on the books," Casey explains. "The next thing we needed to know was whether we could service all the debts that weren't on the books; they were even worse. After that, we needed enough money left over to build the stadium. There was no point if we couldn't build the stadium."
Looking good at Maidstone where the 3G pitch is set to make its FA Cup debut. pic.twitter.com/wLv36PFibR- Iain Macintosh (@iainmacintosh) November 20, 2014
Construction work got underway only to be halted for 12 weeks when a small colony of slow worms was discovered on the land. They had to be carefully removed by hand and relocated.
"Those bloody things," Casey says, laughing. "We've never paid so much to transfer a living being. The CEO here, he's dealt with the transfers of so many big players over the years. He said he's never known a deal like it. They cost us a fortune."
Manager Saunders was appointed in 2011
"It was a tough job," he tells me before the game. "We didn't have our own home. But that all seems a million miles away now. Since we've been back in Maidstone, the gates we get have been phenomenal for our level. It is a very close-knit club; you'll find the majority of people who work around the ground are the ones who stayed with the club when it folded and dropped into the lower regions of football. I think the main credit has to go to Oliver Ash and Terry Casey, the owners who stepped up and made the dream a reality. Nights like this are a reward for them."
Yet there's no let-off for the owner now. As kickoff approaches, there are jobs all around the stadium that need his attention.
"Terry and his wife, they'll be doing the sandwiches for the director's box," Saunders says with a chuckle. "That's what this club is like. The players bring their children, the chairman brings his grandchildren; it's such a welcoming place. We're trying to do things the right way down here and get a good reputation."
The stadium begins to fill up long before kickoff. A full house is expected, which means fans won't be able to change ends at half-time as they normally do. Meanwhile, the game is being shown live on television and a bright light bathes the anchorman and two pundits while supporters gather behind the cameraman.
Loud inquiries are made as to whether Gillingham, a local league side, are watching. Stevenage's support, a hardy group of 100 or so who have braved the London ring road at rush hour to make the 75-mile journey, shiver at the other end of the stadium but they are baited nonetheless by an increasingly boisterous home support.
Saunders tells me afterward that he told his players to keep things tight and make sure that they got to half-time still in the game. They do that and more, opening the scoring in the second minute.
Alex Flisher, not a towering figure by any means, rises like a jump jet to release Jay May. His shot is saved by Stevenage's Chris Day, but Frannie Collin is there to put away the rebound. The crowd go wild, and a mustard yellow smoke bomb is set off .
When Stevenage attack, they find the going no easier. If comet 67P came down in Kent, you get the feeling that Jamie Coyle or Sonny Miles would head it back it into orbit. Maidstone go in at half-time with their advantage intact.
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I see Casey in the main stand and ask him whether he's enjoying himself. He puffs out his cheeks.
"I'd resigned myself to losing," he says. "I thought it would be 3-0. I wasn't expecting this. This is going to be stressful now."
Stevenage boss Westley is stressed, but for different reasons. When his players re-emerge for the second half, they do so with renewed intent and stinging ears and score quickly when Simon Walton makes space and finds Darius Charles, who unleashes a superb volley to level the scores.
For the first time, Maidstone look like what they are: part-time footballers facing professional players who really don't like to be made to look stupid on television. The visitors' chances begin to mount, but only for a short period as the intensity drains out of Stevenage and Maidstone find another gear from somewhere.
A grim stalemate develops and the game seems destined for extra time until the 87th minute, when Collin rises to head home Ben Greenhalgh's cross. Jubilation in the stands is barely contained. When the full-time whistle goes, containment is lost. The stewards' resistance to a pitch invasion is short-lived as fans pile on from all sides. Saunders and his players are mobbed.
Near the entrance to the dressing rooms, I find Casey standing against a railing taking it all in with a look of profound weariness on his face. Though naturally delighted, he looks a little like a man celebrating a famous victory.
"Did you ever think this could happen?" I ask him.
"No," he smiles. "No, I never did." With that, there is a clattering of footsteps and he vanishes under the embrace of celebrating friends and family.
Crestfallen, the Stevenage players battle through the mass of home supporters while Maidstone's heroes return in dribs and drabs, exultant and dripping with sweat. The door to the dressing room swings back and forth as well-wishers and club officials stream in and out.
Casey, now with a huge grin on his face, strides in with armfuls of champagne, and an enormous cheer goes up. For reasons known only to the Maidstone staff, their celebratory song of choice is "Going Loco Down in Acapulco" by the Four Tops.
Meanwhile, Westley is ushered under a bright light to explain his team's defeat to the audience at home. Then he has to speak to the local media and, before he can escape, the poor man has to repeat himself all over again to the Daily Express and ESPN FC.
On every occasion, he is pushed on his thoughts on the playing surface, but he refuses to accept that the 3G pitch gave Maidstone any advantage.
"Our home gave us an advantage," he says. "We drew 0-0. Their home gave them an advantage, they won 2-1. The surface at our place was grass; the surface here was artificial. Over two games they beat us."
"They played very well, they're a decent outfit," Westley continues. "They've got good quality players. I'm sure they'll go up this year. They've got attitude and winning spirit." He nods toward the tunnel where Luther Vandross is now blasting out of the speakers. "You only have to listen to their dressing room to understand that. They're a club that's going forward."
"The scenes at the end show you what this means," beams Saunders when he's finally pulled out of the crowd. "It's been amazing. It's been an amazing couple of weeks. To get the draw up there and then to bring them back and beat them has been amazing for everyone involved. It's for the supporters, a night like this. For those who stayed loyal when the club went under. It's just astonishing."
Maidstone will now travel to North Wales, where they'll meet Wrexham of the Conference Premier League. Wrexham are a club with their own history of giant-killing, having knocked Arsenal out in the third round in 1992.
On Dec. 6, they'll be the giants. And Maidstone have nothing to lose.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.