As you learnt a couple of blogs ago, my non-league footballing education started with Maidstone United and this memorable season was not far short of ending in perfection. Here’s the story from my eyes…..
Cast your minds back to the late 1980’s, a time when automatic promotion from non-league’s top tier into the Football League became a reality. Today, there are two promotion places with increased clamour for a third place in line with the full EFL.
Maidstone Utd were the second club to benefit from that automatic promotion, a year after Scarborough became the first side to escape their non-league roots by this method, winning the division by eight points. Just twelve months earlier the Stones had sold their London Road ground and upped sticks to Dartford’s Watling Street abode. A title winning season was secured by manager John Still having spent a few quid and Maidstone were heading onwards and upwards as club.
This was to be the first time I would encounter what can be classed as non-league ‘royalty’ in Still and a man who cropped up time and time throughout my football watching life.
Division Four as it was known then, League Two it is now, promotion didn’t come easy though as Football League clubs weren’t convinced their temporary home in Dartford wouldn’t be suitable and up to standard for league football, but chairman Jim Thompson ensured Watling Street was going to be compliant. That was then rubber-stamped, and all systems go for what was to be a memorable first campaign.
A majority of the squad who were part time in the Conference stepped up to be full time professionals, added to with the likes of Karl Elsey, Steve Galliers, Graham Pearce, Paul Rumble, Warren Barton and later Nicky Johns. Already at the club and making their mark in the short lived years to come were the likes of Mark Beeney, Steve Butler, Mark Gall and Ken Charlery.
A new entity in the league meant they arrived very much under the radar as Scarborough did the year before, but it took them a while to get going under new manager Keith Peacock, Still having decided to remain in non-league football with a full time job outside of the game. Only two wins from their first ten games had most thinking the Stones would be making a quick return to where they came from, but all of sudden in October things clicked and a run of just two defeats from then to the end of the year, which included a 2-1 win at neighbours Gillingham in the first ever Kent league derby, had Maidstone pushing at the right end of the table.
Of course there are casualties of a bad run, title wining skipper Tony Pamphlett lost his place after a nightmare performance at the end of September against Cambridge Utd, one of six games against the U’s that season but more about that later! Keeper Mark Beeney was also on that list, but after injury to loan signing Johns after only two games, Beeney was restored to the starting XI, Charlery often finding himself the odd one out until later in the season when Peacock opted almost for a front four of with Jason Lillis in favour alongside the aforementioned Charlery, Gall and Butler.
By the time Carlisle Utd visited Dartford on a baking hot afternoon in early May for the final game of the league season, the Stones were still in with a shout automatic promotion if results went their way coupled with a win for themselves, their visitors also in the play-off places. As it was Maidstone thumped their northern counterparts 5-2 and, in the process ended Carlisle’s play-off hopes as Cambridge Utd sneaked in over the course of the final week of the season.
And it was the U’s paired with the Stones, a team heavily criticised for their style of play under manager John Beck as being very ‘long ball’, others would call it playing to the strengths of the players available to him, Beck fashioned a team with methods on and off the pitch which in some quarters were considered to be unorthodox but took the club to an FA Cup quarter final in March.
A strong keeper in John Vaughan, tough no nonsense centre halves in Liam Daish and Phil Chapell, two quality midfielders in Mike Cheetham and Chris Leadbitter and striking prowess in John Taylor, Steve Claridge and of course Dion Dublin, supplied by winger Lee Phillpot.
The Stones struggled to contain Cambridge in the first leg of the play-offs but escaped with a late Gall equaliser to leave the tie all square going into the second leg three days later back in Dartford. Ninety minutes of end to end football couldn’t separate the two sides, and when thrust into extra time, Cambridge took the honours with Dublin opening the scoring and with Maidstone pushing forward in search of a goal the same player netted coolly to take his side to Wembley and play-off final glory and onwards to a fine career with the likes of Manchester Utd, Coventry and Aston Villa to name a few.
That was as good as it got for the Stones in the Football League and their stay was over inside four seasons, obviously, some great memories for me as a kid growing up watching a team win promotion and have almost no fear stepping up one division and switching from part time to full time almost with ease.
The demise of Maidstone Utd will be looked at in depth in another upcoming blog
A twenty year dream for then chairman Jim Thompson had been realised but away from the town of Maidstone and the break-up of that team and demise of the club will be looked at in another blog at a later date.