In the first of a new mini-series where we look at English clubs that spent the least amount of years in the Football League, MATTHEW CRIST examines the three-year stay by Maidstone United.
The demise of Maidstone United is one of the saddest sporting stories of recent times as, after a meteoric rise through the lower leagues, the club played only three seasons in the Football League before disappearing once again into the footballing wilderness following financial difficulties.
The original club was formed in 1890 as Maidstone Invicta, playing at first at Penenden Heath, then Solomon’s Field, before moving to Postley Field. In 1897 they took the name Maidstone United and a year later they moved again, this time to the Athletic Ground.
The “Stones” had drifted around the non-league scene until the 1970s when the involvement of local newspaper company director, Jim Thompson, saw the club adopt a more professional outlook as they swapped the Isthmian for the Southern League, the major semi-professional league in southern England, in 1971/1972.
In their first campaign as a semi-professional outfit they almost tasted instant success as the team finished third in the Southern League Division 1, just missing out on promotion as they fell short of both Waterlooville and Ramsgate.
Undeterred they continued to progress and during their six-year spell in the league they finished in the top five on four occasions. In 1979 they finally became founder members of the Alliance Premier League (now the National League), meaning they were now just one promotion away from league football.
Winning the title in 1984 didn’t ensure a place in the big leagues however, thanks to the re-election process that the Football League employed at the time; a grossly unfair system which flew in the face of the principle of meritocracy that football thrives on.
The bizarre and very dubious practice saw the worst placed clubs of the league have to re-apply for their place in the league while non-league clubs circled like vultures ready to take their vacant place in the league.
The clubs awaiting election at the end of a season then had to face their Football League peers at the Annual General Meeting of the league and plead their case with members who had the choice to either vote to retain the current league members or allow entry for applying non-league clubs in process that resembled something you’d see on a Saturday night talent show.
Maidstone’s case for league status was deemed not strong enough at that time, mostly due to the fact that they played at a stadium that was in desperate need of repair. Unfortunately this was the only way for a non-league side to enter the Football League until direct promotion and relegation was introduced in 1986 but for Maidstone their chance had come and gone, for now at least.
By the time Maidstone United won the Conference again in 1989, automatic promotion and relegation had rightfully been adopted, meaning nobody could deny the club their place in the Fourth Division this time around. Sadly for the club and its supporters, though, just a year previously the Stones left their ground in the town, having sold the land on which it stood to flat-pack furniture retailer MFI.
As their stadium wasn’t deemed suitable for league football they had made the difficult decision to ground-share with nearby Dartford; a choice which ultimately robbed local fans of seeing their side play league football and caused average attendances to fall significantly.
The move was supposed to only be only a temporary measure, but the cost of bringing their new home up to Football League standard, plus the price of renting the stadium, and the millions invested in failed planning applications to find a site for a new ground in Maidstone would eventually prove too much.
On the pitch things still looked pretty rosy and in 1990 United even reached the play-offs where they drew at Cambridge, only to lose the second leg at home thanks to two Dion Dublin goals deep into extra-time. The following seasons they finished in 19th and 18th place respectively; thus maintaining their league status.
As recently as 1991 Maidstone were still planning for the future. Announcing ambitious plans to build a modern multi-sports complex, including a 10,000-seater football stadium on the outskirts of the town; but the idea proved to be nothing but a pipe dream, put simply the money had run out and there was no way back.
There were several attempts to save the club, including one ambitious effort by a Newcastle businessman to rename them the Newcastle Browns and play home games some 300 miles away at St James’ Park. Nothing materialised though and the writing was on the wall; Maidstone United’s last match in the Football League was a 3-0 defeat away at Doncaster Rovers on May 2nd.
On August 17th 1992, Maidstone announced they were resigning from the Football League, heavily in debt and unable to guarantee fixtures, the opening day game at Scunthorpe having been postponed. The dream was over, the Stones were no more and to add insult to injury the club would never play in their own town during their time in English football’s fourth tier.
In the years that have followed the club has once again been revived, initially using the original name of Maidstone Invicta before changing to United in 1995. They inherited the nickname “Stones,” not to mention the traditional colours of gold and black; and in an ironic twist even used the club’s old training ground behind the furniture store they sold their former home to back in 1988.
Today the club finds itself playing at the Gallagher Stadium, a newly constructed ground near the town centre as they once again look to climb the ladder and secure their place in the Football League.