Stones throw

Winning promotion to the League proved to be a disaster for Maidstone United. Steve Hemsley is watching their slow climb back

Believe it or not, one of the most sought-after football programmes in Kent is for Scunthorpe United’s opening game of the 1992-93 season. The reason for this oddity is that it was the last Football League programme published for a game involving Maidstone United.

What makes the publication even more collectable is that the match scheduled for August 15th, 1992 never took place because the Stones went into liquidation only days before. In fact, Maidstone were in such a financial mess at the time that the club was unable even to provide a list of players, giving Scunthorpe no option but to leave their team line-up completely blank.

The demise of Maidstone United is one of the saddest footballing stories of recent times. The club played only three seasons in the League, and go down in history as the only member club never to play in their own town.

Maidstone sold their London Road ground to furniture chain MFI in 1988 and moved to the ageing stadium of Southern League Dartford in what was supposed to be only a temporary groundshare. Amazingly, they won the Conference in 1989 and faced the cost of bringing their adopted home up to Football League standard. Add to this the cost of renting the stadium and the millions invested in failed planning applications to find a site for a new ground in Maidstone and it becomes clear why the club got into such difficulties.

The final nail in the coffin was the borough council’s rejection in 1991 of the Stones’ ambitious plans to build a modern multi-sports complex, including a 10,000-seater football stadium, on the outskirts of the town. Finally, the money had run out.

Of course there were the usual desperate last-minute efforts to save Maidstone – inc­luding one bizarre attempt by a Newcastle businessman to rename them the Newcastle Browns and play home games at St James’ Park – but these were nothing more than the last desperate gasps of a club drowning in a sea of debt.

The board finally admitted defeat in August 1992, days before the scheduled Scunthorpe game that never was. The Stones’ last match in the Football League was a 3-0 defeat away at Doncaster Rovers on May 2nd, 1992, in front of a meagre crowd of 1,680. The club was reformed as Maidstone Invicta and they have just completed their most successful season since they began the long climb back up the non-League pyramid.

The Stones, who changed their name back to Maidstone United in 1997, now play at the old side’s training ground, situated behind the MFI store that is a constant reminder of how things used to be.

While other reformed Football League clubs including Aldershot and Newport AFC started their new lives in senior leagues, Maidstone’s inability to retain their senior status with the Kent County Football Association meant they had to start at the very bottom of the pile – in the Kent County League Fourth Division playing against village teams.

Many of the players turning out for the Stones at this low level were playing in the Football League side’s youth team only two years previously. Initially Maidstone attracted crowds of more than 300 and, not surprisingly, won successive promotions. Yet as they began the 1995-96 season in the First Division, players and the fans started to drift away, frustrated by the club’s inability to switch to a more senior league.

Three seasons of struggle followed until November 1998 when Jason Lillis, the only player to appear in Maidstone’s first and last games in the Football League, came to watch a match and was convinced to take over as manager. In his first full season in charge, the club have won the Kent County League First Division at a canter.

Promotion to the league’s Premier Division for next season means Maidstone can apply for senior status which will enable them to join the Kent League or the Ryman League in 2000-01. Entry into the Ryman League Third Division would mean it had taken Maidstone eight years to reach the same level from where the new Aldershot began their comeback.

The club’s progress is still restricted by the lack of facilities at their home ground and the struggle goes on to find a new site. The borough council are assisting the club and a major announcement is expected some time next year. The first game at the new stadium may be a friendly with Scunthorpe United, to complete some unfinished business.

From WSC 148 June 1999. What was happening this month