But promotion means losing 3G
11 March ~ Financially struggling lower-league teams around the country must envy Maidstone United their current problems. The Stones were effectively homeless for two decades, after selling their ground in Maidstone and spending their brief sojourn in the Football League playing their "home" games 25 miles up the road in Dartford, they then went bust, reformed and fought their way up from village greens to the eighth tier. Faced with a likely repayment, including interest, of £2-3 million Maidstone United opted for an artificial 3G pitch.
As the bright white glow seen every week night in town testifies, the facility hosts around 40 hours of football a week. Last August, Maidstone's business plan involved mass-use of the pitch by local teams and predicted around 800 supporters per first-team game for home matches. Given the paltry support when Maidstone ground-shared with nearby Sittingbourne, many thought 800 an optimistic call.
United currently sit on top of the eighth-tier Isthmian Division One South. Competition from live coverage of Manchester United vs Real Madrid and miserable local weather meant their lacklustre 0-0 home draw with Folkestone Invicta on March 5 marked Maidstone's lowest crowd of the season; 1,005 paying customers. Four days later 1,851 people paid to see an improved Maidstone canter to a 3-0 win at home to Tooting and Mitcham.
With the end of the season in sight Maidstone are in a three way fight for the one automatic promotion place to the Isthmian Premier Division. They currently stand as the 14th best supported club outside the Football League, besting half the Conference Premier – three levels above – for average attendance and making their 800 supporters a game estimate look needlessly negative.
One significant problem remains. Maidstone's 3G pitch is acceptable should they gain promotion to the Isthmian Premier. Above that level, in the Conference South and beyond, only traditional grass pitches pass muster. That will jeopardise the local and community use that has proven a public relations masterstroke for a club newly returned to their home town.
Some are arguing that United should be allowed to have it both ways and that durable 3G pitches would be a good idea in the higher tiers because of the income stream they provide. This view has some sympathy among other clubs but nobody has yet made a serious argument for 3G pitches in the sixth tier. Opinions among the Stones' support are divided; if rapid promotions become a reality, they may need to have made up their minds within 12 months. Neil Nixon