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Maidstone United’s long journey from the abyss to the FA Cup fourth round

Maidstone United will look to create even more history as they take on Ipswich Town in the FA Cup this weekend. (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

Bill Williams, 81, has seen it all at Maidstone United across his 50-year association with the club. "I was first a player here back in 1972," he tells ESPN. "I've been here a long time, but I've been a player and a manager since we made it to the Football League in 1989. I've been general manager, chairman, the chief executive and now I'm director of football."

Back during his playing days as a combative centre half, Williams played for Portsmouth, QPR, West Brom, and eventually Maidstone as he remembers facing George Best and Jimmy Greaves. "They ran rings around me," he chuckles. As he celebrated his 80th birthday in August 2022, he was handed a record of his entire playing career and was reminded that a young Brian Clough once scored a hat-trick against him. "I must have had a dreadful day."

"We call Bill 'Mr. Maidstone,'" says Craig Fagan, the club's assistant manager.

Williams' coaching career took him from Durban in South Africa, to managing the Atlanta Chiefs in the North American Soccer League with Pele and Franz Beckenbauer. After that, it was back to Maidstone. Wherever he's been in the world, that town in the southeast of England is where the heart lies. It's a life well lived, but after nearly seven decades worth of football seeing his Maidstone United team at Portman Road on Saturday facing Ipswich in the fourth round of the FA Cup will top the lot.

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Maidstone United are the lowest-ranked team remaining in the FA Cup, sitting fifth in the National League South, six divisions below the Premier League. Managed by ex-Wolves midfielder George Elokobi, this is the first time in the club's history they've reached this stage of the competition. So either way on Saturday, unlikely win or hammering: it's history. They've sold in the region of 4,500 tickets for Saturday and they'll be praying for a miracle against Championship high-flyers Ipswich. But this club has already come back from the dead once, and it's in the fabric of the place to find a way to make things work when odds are stacked against them.

When Bury went bust in 2019, you'd have heard the name Maidstone. They were the last league club before Bury to go to the wall back in 1992. Back then, while the top clubs were toasting the influx of cash from the newly-created Premier League, down in the old Fourth Division, (now League 2) Maidstone were reluctantly resigning from the Football League with just two players left in their squad.

To understand the significance of the Maidstone United side you'll see on Saturday, in their amber and black kit, you need to head back to this point in their history.

Maidstone is 38 miles southeast of London, the administrative capital of Kent. The club found a home at the Athletic Ground in 1898 and was there for 90 years until 1988, when the club's board -- headed up by chairman Jim Thompson -- sold it to property developers intending to build a new, state-of-the-art ground in the town. They had league aspirations, but the Athletic Ground didn't meet the required standards, so they moved to a temporary home in Watling Street in Dartford.

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In 1989, they got promotion to the Football League and reached the play-off semifinals in 1990, one win away from Wembley and a spot in the Third Division (League 1). But they were knocked out by Cambridge United and by the time the 1992-93 season ticked along, the money had run out. Owner Jim Thompson had spent in the region of £400,000 on land in Maidstone to build the new ground, but the local county council blocked 47 separate attempts for planning permission.

With the club losing money playing in Dartford, things reached a head in the summer of 1992. There was a mass exodus of Maidstone's best talent, including future Newcastle star Warren Barton, who was moved on for £300,000 in transfer fees. With debts totalling £650,000 by the time their opening match of the new season ticked around, they had two players left and couldn't fulfill their opener against Scunthorpe United.

"What happened in 1992?" Williams says rhetorically; it's followed by a mischievous laugh and a sigh. "Yeah, it was a very, very grim time because I was involved trying to save us and making sure we still had a football club here in the town. We kept getting knocked back after knock back and when they eventually said, that's it, well, it was a terrible day, terrible day."

Maidstone United's sporting director Bill Williams has been associated with the club for 50 years which has seen the highest of highs and lowest of lows during that time. (Maidstone United)

The club issued a statement that concluded with four brutal words: "Time has run out."

"I mean there were thousands of people who fell into a football depression," Williams says. "So yeah, that was the worst time ever that I experienced in the football club."

Sitting in the stands this Saturday in Portman Road will be John Bunyard, who has supported the club for almost all of his seven decades, since his first match in a 2-1 defeat to Wycombe Wanderers back in April 1962. He was the curator of Maidstone: United in Football -- an exhibition which told the social and footballing history of the town and was displayed in the Maidstone Museum across four months from 2019 to 2020. He later published a book by the same name, and in that exhibition, amid the stack of memorabilia, the focal point of it all was the kit worn by ex-Maidstone striker David Sadler in the 1968 European Cup final where he helped Manchester United beat Eusebio's Benfica 4-2.

For Bunyard, his standout memories of the club are a tapestry of big cup wins, key league moments, and the joy of watching the team with his pals. But the memories at the forefront of his mind are inexorably intertwined with the FA Cup.

He remembers watching Charlton Athletic player Mike Flanagan trading punches in a third-round tie at the Valley in 1979. In the replay at the Athletic Ground, the floodlights failed in the latter stages of the match so they had to use their goalkeeper Dickie Guy's hairdryer to warm the cables and get the generator running again. Then there was the 1987 third-round FA Cup match against Graham Taylor's Watford, a team owned by Elton John and featuring the great Liverpool and England forward, John Barnes.

"When I put together the exhibition, I interviewed dozens of fans and used their memories on a sound loop, and that Watford game was right up there," Bunyard says. "Whatever happened to the club, the fans have always remained unbelievably loyal and committed."

Despite all that history, in 1992 the club temporarily ceased to exist. With new owners, they took over local youth side Maidstone Invicta and Maidstone United was reborn seven levels below where they were in 1992, 10 leagues down at the foot of the pyramid, in the Kent County League Fourth Division. They were playing on a training pitch next to their old ground -- now a furniture salesroom.

"We were a pub team again, basically," Bunyard says. "It was all a little bit eccentric. We were an ex-football league club playing teams like Sporting Bengal, teams most people haven't heard of. But we'd still get hundreds of fans wherever we went. There'd be singing and some joshing between the fans but wherever you went there'd be black and amber scarves."

Williams has less fond memories of that time, nostalgia not blunting the pain of seeing his club at that level. "I loathed it. I detested it all," Williams says. "I played at a good level, I'd managed at a good level and I was in these little tiny -- you had these little tiny dressing rooms you couldn't swing a cat in. There was an outside toilet. People would still say it was wonderful, but they were awful times. I didn't like it until we got back into the National League South and the National League and that's where I felt at home."

Maidstone United clawed their way back up the tree, regaining senior status in 2001 when they were promoted to the Kent League. They teetered close to the financial abyss in 2008, only to find last-minute funds to survive. It was around this time Maidstone supporters saw a young centre back called Chris Smalling progress from the youth academy to the first team.

"I remember watching him, and you just knew wherever he went after us, he was going to be okay," Williams says of the 31-cap England international, who had a decade at Manchester United and is now at Roma.

By 2010, Maidstone had new owners at the helm, Oliver Ash and Terry Casey. "I remember the first time I met Oliver," Bunyard says. "At this level, there are a few dodgy people around, but Oliver walked in and he's a very articulate, well-dressed man, and I remember thinking, "Crikey, what's he up to?" But he's as honest as the day is long and cares so much about the club. And then he brought in Terry Casey to co-own the club. He's got a huge heart and stuck by the club.And you know what they've brought? Stability."

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In 2012, after 23 years of wandering, Maidstone made it their home again. Following a land purchase from the Ministry of Defence, the Gallagher Stadium opened its doors in the east of the town on the banks of the River Medway. Four years later they were back in the National League -- the fifth tier of English football -- and after yo-yoing back to the league in 2022, fans were optimistic they'd continue their upward trajectory. But the 2022-23 season proved to be a tough one, and they were relegated back to the sixth tier where they are now.

Ex-Maidstone centre back Elokobi was appointed manager midway through that relegation season, a well-known figure in football circles who was a formidable defender, playing in the Premier League with Wolves from 2009 to 2012. He finished his career at Maidstone, scoring a wonder-goal on his final appearance in May 2022. He was appointed caretaker manager in January 2023 and then took the job full time in March of that year, turning to his friend and ex-teammate Craig Fagan as assistant, who brought top-flight playing experience from Birmingham, Derby, and Hull City.

Fagan had followed the club's story closely and knew he was going to a place that knew what it was like to scrap for their existence. "George is full-hearted in everything that he does," Fagan says. "He wants to improve, he wants the best for the players, obviously the best for the staff and everybody else at the football club. And we, we give everything full 100% in the terms of the way we prep."

If Maidstone doesn't have a midweek match, the players train on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday between Saturday games. If they have a Tuesday match, it's training on Monday and Thursday. "They're semi-full-time players," Fagan says. "We try and do things in the way we liked to do as a player and not do what we didn't like having done. We try and educate the players on and off the pitch. George sets a great example with the way he's with everybody in terms of his presence around the place. He's friendly, he's a leader and he has that aura."

After a summer of consolidation and rebuilding, they came into this season targeting promotion back to the fifth tier but instead, it's been their Cup run that has caught local and national headlines. In the FA Cup, the Premier League and Championship teams enter the draw in the third round, but Maidstone's journey started away at ninth-tier Steyning Town in September in the second qualifying round. "I remember seeing the highlights on the telly of the Steyning match and my wife was watching with me and said, "Hey, that's our old school playing field there." It was that ridiculous," Bunyard says. "But each round, you saw your team have one victory and then you thought "oh that'll be it in the next round". But we kept on winning."

After wins over Steyning, Winchester City, Torquay United, Chesham United, and Barrow, the club were drawn against Stevenage in the FA Cup third round. At their now-beloved Gallagher Stadium, Sam Conrne scored their winner from the penalty in first-half injury time. At full-time, fans poured onto the pitch. Elokobi stood still while there was pandemonium around him.

The win elevated Elokobi's status within the club's folklore. "He's been a God send for this situation," Bunyard says. "He's such a lovely bloke and has such infectious enthusiasm. He's got everyone excited and he's become the face of this Cup run. I have to admit when we appointed George, I'd have liked our old manager Jay Saunders back, but after our terrible 2022-23 year, George has won everyone's heart, including mine."

The money from the FA Cup run has already covered the cost of a new 3G pitch at the end of the season. Though these pitches aren't allowed in the Football League, the decision to install it while Maidstone are non-league has paid dividends, with the club able to lease it to local businesses while the first team and academy aren't training on it. The money has also gone to building a new gantry at the stadium and Williams and the board have earmarked other priorities.

Maidstone United manager George Elokobi has been a crucial point to the recent FA Cup success of his team. (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

"We have to have a new toilet block down the south end of the ground," Williams says. "We put new ones in the north and the east section. We need new toilets on this end. I know that's not very exciting, but it's what we have to do. Also, the Internet's not very good, so we're going to put in new hardwired cabling all the way around to make sure that we've got good Wi-Fi. And we've got to look at our Tannoy system so the money will be spent on our stadium and our supporters.

"It would be nice to go out and buy three or four players, but I think we have to get our priorities right and make sure that we have a safe, hospitable, and nice-looking stadium here to entertain." Whoever you talk to around the club, there is one buzzword that they keep on coming back to.

After years of unpredictability and not knowing whether there'd be a club the following season, all they've wanted is stability.

"They don't run this club at a loss," Fagan says of the owners. "They're very strict on how they run the football club, which is good. They pay people and players on time and it's how a football club should be run."

"It's not a sham. The success is not being bought," Bunyard adds. "It should warm the cockles of any football heart. You don't want any more of this Don Quixote stuff."

By their admission, Maidstone are overwhelming underdogs on Saturday. Their league form has tapered off recently, with two defeats in three league games since that Stevenage win, but Fagan is understanding.

"Anything could happen," Fagan says. "It could get to the last minute of the game, it could be 0-0 and it goes off someone's backside in the back of the net. There have been teams that have gone out, like Arsenal and West Ham. No disrespect to those teams but I think at the start of the season they'd be thinking that they would be going past Maidstone. It's just massive for us."

As for Williams, the whole "Mr. Maidstone" thing sometimes sits uneasily. "Well, it's a grand title and I appreciate it all. Yeah, I've been here a long time and I've done a lot of things. I've been around a long time. But in saying that, many, many hundreds of others have assisted in a big way. I don't want to take all that sort of praise at all. But yeah, I've been around a long time so I understand why they refer to me as that."

There will also be three generations of the Williams family there.

"Saturday is for the club, for the supporters, it's for my family. I've got a grandson who has come late in life, but he's going to be running out as the mascot. Look, it'll be a day for the individuals who have given so much to the club. They'll all have a little something they'll take out of it. "I hope that we go out and give a good of ourselves. These are the best days for the players. I really do think it's a wonderful occasion for them, as no matter what happens, the worst thing that happens is they get beaten. It's going to be a joyous occasion."

Williams breaks off laughing, voices from the nearby offices echoing down the line. "Look the whole journey has been overpowering at times, but it's wonderful to have days like Saturday. It will be a wonderful occasion for Maidstone United."

    

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