About the Gallagher Stadium
After an absence of 24 years, Maidstone United finally returned home in July 2012 to the brand new 2,226 capacity Gallagher Stadium. It is a fantastic new build, located close to the town centre and with excellent transport links.
The ground is set in a valley, with the steep main stand spanning 1/3 of the length of the pitch but offering excellent views. Behind each goal is a small covered terrace whilst the rest of the ground is concrete pathways. The Spitfire Lounge in the corner of the ground is the main clubhouse and has plenty of room.
How to get to the Gallagher Stadium
It is a rarity that new stadiums are built close enough to town centres to make them easily accessible, but the Gallagher is an exception. Maidstone East and Maidstone Barracks train stations are within a 5 and 10 minute walk from the ground and are well served from London, Dartford and Ashford.
From Maidstone East come out of station and turn left on main road. At the end of this road you will see the ground to your left – just cross dual carriageway by pedestrian crossing.
From Maidstone Barracks come out of station and cross the bridge across the Medway and then follow the ring road northwards. You will see the floodlights after a few minutes ahead.
If you are driving then exit M20 at junction 6 and follow signs for Maidstone Town Centre on the A 229. The ground is on your right hand side as you reach first major roundabout. Parking at ground is for pass holders only. There is ample room at Pay and Display opposite Maidstone East station.
Admission to the Gallagher Stadium
Admission is £10 for Adults, £7 Concessions, 11-16 year olds £4 and free under 11. There is a £1 charge to sit in the stand. Programmes are available inside the ground for £2.
Our last visit – March 2015
This week I’m on the road with The Rooks, making the relatively short journey to the fantastic Gallagher Stadium, home of Maidstone United. Turn right out of TBIR Towers, left onto the A20 and 25 mins later I’m pulling up outside The Flower Pot, one of the best little real ale pubs in Kent for a quick pre-match strategy session with the Lewes Lunatic Fringe before I head into the boardroom at The Gallagher Stadium.
You may be disappointed to know that I’m not “suited and booted”. As I approached the gate I was looked up and down and expected to be ushered towards the turnstiles due to my dress code. The world has moved on in most places, and the sight of directors in jackets and ties is relatively rare these days, something that has mirrored real life and especially at The Dripping Pan. I’ve worn a tie once in just over a year for work purposes and on that occasion it lasted about an hour. Most companies now have a more relaxed dress code, with ties today becoming a more fashionable item to wear around the wrist than the neck, thanks to the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. I fail to see why wearing a tie makes me more acceptable as a club official, a sentiment shared by everyone else on the Lewes board. One club in our league insist on the stuffy dress code to enter their boardroom. One or two give you a funny look when you wander in in jeans but don’t say anything but most give you a warm, hospitable welcome irrespective of what you are wearing. Not that we are a scruffy bunch, mind. So once you have passed the dress code test, what actually happens in the inner sanctum at other clubs?
Some clubs put on hot food pre-match, others offer a decent fayre post match (nods to East Thurrock United, Billericay Town and Leiston in that area). Pre-match talk will be centred on recent form, perhaps a brief fact-finding interrogation about budgets (as ours are published on our website we don’t have to resist for long) or the good-old British conversation staple of the weather. Half-time is a time for inflection, a cup of tea and shaking you head at the latest scores. Nobody wants to be too cocky at this stage, irrespective of the score “just in case”. Full-time is about putting on your noncommittal, neutral game face irrespective of the result. A win and you need to hide the smug grin. A defeat and you need to hide your disappointment, blaming it on the ref. I’ve yet to be offered a cigar and only once been given a brandy.
You don’t get a guidebook on how to be a chairman. I’m lucky that I have chairman mentors in two generations of Parris’s and Peter Hiscox who have coached me in what to say and when. There is a whole lexicon of boardroom speak. When asked if I’d like a beer before the game, you should say “No thank you. I want to stay sharp just in case I need to come on!” (then laugh out loud). You need to remember to shake everyone’s hand when you arrive, and when you leave, not forgetting to wish them well for the rest of the season. If you are visiting a club where you have had problems in the past then you should talk about the weather, how bad the England cricket team is and whether Man Utd are a spent force (unless of course you are in the boardroom at Old Trafford).
Few would have thought a few weeks ago that The Rooks would be travelling to The Gallagher Stadium with a better current form record than The Stones. In the last four Ryman Premier League games, the Rooks can boast two wins and a draw, whilst Maidstone United, like the other teams at the top of the league are on a bit of a wobble. Draws against Leiston and Harrow Borough, a defeat against Hampton & Richmond Borough with just a single win against Billericay Town. Is there a better time to visit the league leaders?
Despite their current form, the league title appears to be theirs to lose. Who can really deny them their success after over twenty years of struggle. Eight points clear of Margate and due to play their nearest rivals in an already sold-out game at The Gallagher in two weeks time, many will feel a win in that game will be one hand on the trophy.
Where there’s time, there’s hope, and with 90 minutes ahead of us that’s the best we can wish for. The Stones have only lost once at home this season, a 3-0 reverse to Enfield Town who ironically recorded the same result last week at Margate. That has been the only home game so far this season where they’ve failed to score in and they have the best home record in the Ryman Premier League. They average 2.17 goals per game at home, conceding less than 1. The Rooks on the other hand have struggled away from home this season, taking just 11 points on the road, the second worse record in the Ryman Premier League. Our 11 away goals is the lowest total out of all 24 clubs. It’s not hard to draw a depressing conclusion from these stats, but football is a beautifully unpredictable game.
Maidstone United 2 Lewes 1 – The Gallagher Stadium – Saturday 14th March 2015
In the end, Lewes left the pitch pointless. Up until the 75th minute this result was never in doubt, despite the home side rarely getting into third gear. Two May goals, both tapped home from a few yards were early Christmas presents for the home side but then a late rally, thanks to a superb free-kick from James Fraser made the last fifteen minutes interesting for the away fans and very nervous for the 1,950 home fans.
The afternoon started very well – a visit to the Flower Pot was, as expected, superb. They only had 10 guest beers on tap. As we left we expressed our regret at this being our last visit for a few years due to Maidstone’s pending promotion. “Don’t worry lads – we’ve got a beer festival with even more guest beers on in late July”. As chairman, I have now arranged a friendly here for that date.
The welcome in the boardroom was warm. The lovely ladies who were looking after us, once I had managed to convince them I was chairman, quipped I must be the money man as I didn’t look like a former player. We were wined (well tea’d) and dined (biscuited) and then it was kick off time. You cannot fail to be impressed by the Gallagher and the passionate fans inside. This isn’t a Ryman Premier set up – in fact it is hard to imagine it in the Conference South. There are League One and Two clubs that would die for the facilities (obviously, less the pitch) and passion the Maidstone fans show.
Despite injuries,suspensions and absences, Lewes battled well in the first twenty-five minutes, adapting to the pitch well and playing a passing game. Heck, we should have even taken the lead when Matt Crabb’s shot almost saw the Lewes faithful drop their pints of Whitstable Bay Oyster Stouts (another tick in the box). Then a dangerous free-kick flew into the Lewes box, keeper Rikki Banks came flying out and was a second too late getting in front of a Maidstone player who headed on and May had the easiest job of tapping into an empty net. It was disappointing that the Maidstone player didn’t get down on all fours and head it home, just like you used to in the playground before you got a kicking for being so cheeky.
Lewes went two down in the 52nd minute when May once again tapped home from three yards out after a great cross from Collin had eluded the Lewes defence. Time to tighten things up? Not really. Faint heart won no fair maiden so they went onto the offensive. With fifteen minutes to go James Fraser stuck a beautiful free kick into the top corner and all of a sudden Maidstone started to wobble. Worgan was the busier of the two keepers and made a couple of good stops. However, the home side hung on for all three points. There was no shame in losing this one, and the Rooks showed some real fight.
We headed back to the boardroom, shook hands with our victors, craning our heads to look at the results flowing through on Sky Sports. “How about Dulwich Hamlet, eh?” was the standard line as everyone came into the room. Homemade pea and mint soup, a bottle of Spitfire and a trip down memory lane to the dark days at Watling Street were the order of the day before it was time to depart.
Obviously we wish Maidstone every success in the future. Their fans have been through the mill, sticking by them and now reaping the reward. But we will miss this away day – it never fails to deliver on every level (apart from the result of course).
Our last visit – February 2014
It’s the second weekend of February. I’ve just returned from a business trip in Copenhagen where the snow lays fresh on the ground and the temperatures barely broke freezing point. Whilst people’s perception of Denmark is that at this time of the year it is a frozen wasteland, the snow has arrived nearly two months later than normal – hardly ideal when their football league is coming towards the end of their winter break. A few inches of snow doesn’t stop sport in these parts. A few years ago I experienced the lowest temperature I had ever experienced at a football match in Randers, in the north of Denmark when the FC Copenhagen were the visitors in a game played among piles of snow and temperatures as low as minus 15. It was November. Today it is February and we are still yet to see any of the white stuff. We know though that when it arrives it will be the worst winter ever .
Because we need more issues with the weather right? I can’t remember a day when it hasn’t rained this year. On Friday I was supposed to be heading for the bright lights of Newport County but their game against Fleetwood Town fell victim to the rain. To add insult to injury (as well as the reported £180,000 the club has lost since late December) the Football League had written to the club to “express concern” at the fact their last four (now five) games had fallen victim to the weather. Really? As if the club needed any reminding! They even approached AFC Wimbledon, opponents for their next home game on Tuesday night to see if the game can be played in Kingsmeadow, but I am sure there is a rule somewhere the footballing authorities have saying they can’t.
But what about further down the leagues? Some County League clubs haven’t seen any action since mid-December. In the Ryman League once again over 80% of the games this Saturday were cancelled. Of course the league authorities are all over the situation, giving help and support to the clubs who are suffering. Yeah, right. Not a word apart from a reminder that when a game is cancelled, we need to re-arrange it as soon as possible. Our postponement count so far has now reached eight games. Eight games that we now have to fit in somehow, somewhere. And that is before any of the potential white stuff arrives causing more chaos. Our game today away at Enfield Town was called off DESPITE the pitch being playable when the pitch inspection was carried out. The referee decided, without any consultation with Lewes, that conditions would get worse and it would be an issue for us to travel at 9.15am. Thanks for that. If he would have bothered to ask he would have found out we were willing to travel.
With clubs up and down the country in a similar position surely the leagues need to start taking action now? We already have nine games scheduled for March. Who benefits from that? Certainly not our attendances as fewer away fans are able to travel during mid-week, certainly not our finances as non-season ticket holders can’t afford to attend all the games (we currently have 4 homes games in 11 days), certainly not our pitch which is already suffering from constant pools of water sitting on the surface for weeks on end and certainly not for the players who face a strain on their normal working lives in playing all of those games. But there is a proven answer. Two letters – 3G.
Anyone who watches games in the Non-Leagues in the south of England knows about the success of Maidstone United and their Gallagher Stadium. They took a risk in building a 3G pitch and it has paid off. Regular crowds of over 2,000 at Step 7 of English football, higher than many teams in the Football League have supplemented the income generated by having an asset that can be used for 10 hours a day, seven days a week. Whilst other fans are forced to head to Ikea on a Saturday afternoon at the moment, Stones fans cram into the Spitfire Lounge, spending their cash over the bar before watching their team lead the Ryman Premier League. Life is good in Kent. Or so it should be.
Alas, Maidstone’s charge up the leagues ends here. Two weeks ago the Conference sides met to discuss the prospect of allowing 3G pitches in their structure. They voted against allowing them, thus denying Maidstone any chance of promotion. However, Maidstone aren’t taking this laying down, and quite rightly so. The voting process was not representative of all of the clubs. Whilst the Conference Premier clubs each got a vote, those in the North and more importantly, the South where Maidstone would be promoted to, had just four votes for the whole league. Second class citizens? Absolutely. The vote was in favour of not-allowing 3G by 21 votes to 11. Conference South clubs like Sutton United are championing the cause as they are very keen on installing one themselves. Their manager, Paul Doswell, summed up the situation clearly:-
“It is all about promotion to the Football League, where 3G pitches are not permitted. Most Premier clubs have ambitions of promotion so they are not going to vote in favour because it does not suit them.
“They are not going to consider the clubs further down the pyramid and do us a favour – this is just them looking after number one.”
With no sense of irony today, 9 of the 11 games in the Conference South (and 7 out of 11 in the Premier) were postponed whilst the Stones welcomed Canvey Island and 1,794. spectators, a bigger attendance than at every game in the league above bar one.
Maidstone United 1 Canvey Island 1 – The Gallagher Stadium – Saturday 8th February 2014
With Lewes’s game being cancelled I took the opportunity to slip on my scout’s coat and head down the M20 to take a look at The Stones. We are due to play them in 4 weeks (another re-arranged game) so you can never watched enough of an opposition – well that’s what I told The Current Mrs Fuller anyway. This was my third visit to the Gallagher and on the previous two occasions (in July and August), the torrential rain had put the completion of the games in doubt. Third time unlucky? It certainly appeared that way as I headed down the motorway.
The ground was buzzing when I arrived at 2.15pm. The bar was rammed with people enjoying the Arsenal thrashing on the TV and the number of fans with various other club’s coats, hats and scarves suggested that once again this was the last cab on the Non-League rank. Whilst our cupboards have been bare for weeks, Maidstone have been dining on fillet steak – and they deserve a bit pat on the back for that (and Harlow Town in the Ryman North who also have a 3G).
As if my divine request the rain held off for nearly two hours whilst the game was played. Dare I say it that the sun even made a rare appearance. Your remember the Sun? Big yellow ball of fire in the sky? That’s the fellow. Well, he seemed to enjoy his afternoon out even if the Stones fans didn’t.
The club had recently brought in Luke Rooney, the ex-Gillingham wide midfielder. Playing week in, week out in front of four figure crowds means that they can afford to bring in players of his calibre and manager Jay Saunders changed his formation to accommodate Rooney. The Stones got out of jail late in the game when Collin converted a penalty after Attwood was brought down by the Canvey keeper in a game that they were second best in most areas.
Canvey had begun with John Sands in their starting XI, the man who scored a 20 minute hatrick against Lewes just a few weeks ago and the striker was a constant thorn in the side of the Maidstone back-line. The home crowd groaned in frustration as the away side’s sturdy defence held firm on the perfect surface. Half-time, with the game scoreless, the crowd headed for the bars and catering facilities to boost the finances even further.
The visitors took the lead early in the second half when Curran’s near post run wasn’t picked up and he had the easiest job to head home. Maidstone huffed and puffed but simply couldn’t break down a determined Canvey side who looked rejuvenated since Sands joined them at Christmas. But they couldn’t hold out. With their goal under siege, Attwood burst into the area and was brought down by keeper Chalmers-Stevens who could be thankful he only got a yellow and Collin smashed home the spot kick.
The rain started falling again just as the final whistle blew. Over 1,700 fans may not have seen the best game of the season but it was a game and in the current scheme of things that is as rare as our footballing authorities doing something to help clubs at this level. The Conference may think they have won the 3G battle but I think the war hasn’t yet started.
Our last visit – August 2013
At a recent Lewes FC board meeting one of the items on the agenda was the forthcoming Ground Grading inspection. This joy of joys takes place every three years and determines whether, if results dictate, we can be promoted. In recent years, some of the results of these grading inspections around the Non Leagues have been “interesting” to say the least. But just because a club can prove it can host big games, it doesn’t mean it is allowed to.
I’m sure many people’s favourites for promotion from the Ryman Premier League this season is Maidstone United. Last season they gained promotion via the play-offs from the Ryman South, being able to bolster their squad with players like ex-Chelsea and West Ham full back Jon Harley. The reason why they could afford to invest in their squad was in part thanks to the installation of their 3G pitch at the Gallagher Stadium that opened a year ago. Last season, when every other Non League club saw game after game postponed, the Stones were not only able to play their games, but also hire the pitch during the rest of the week. The irony here was that during the poor weather, attendances were higher than normal as football-starved fans flocked to Maidstone for their Saturday football fix, thus adding further to the pot they can use to lure good players. Don’t misunderstand me Stones fans. I applaud your resolve during the dark days and would only wish our footballing authorities would see common sense.
But what many people don’t realise is that the current grading rules mean that The Stones will not be able to take their place in the Conference, should they win promotion, because of the pitch. The FA’s rules state that the pitch cannot be used in competitions featuring Premier League, Football League or Conference teams. Not only does this preclude Maidstone from promotion, but as the rules stand, they are not able to play any home FA Cup past the Fourth Qualifying Round at home. So Maidstone could host a sell-out game versus Lincoln City, Stockport County or FC United of Manchester but not against Accrington Stanley or Morecambe. It is also possible (possible not probable note) that Maidstone could win the FA Cup and qualify for the Europa League where they could then host any European site on the artificial turf.
Yet the FA still promote the use of 3G pitches, even going as far as producing a booklet extolling their virtues. The introduction seems to contradict their stance with regard to professional football:-
“The Football Association is fully supportive of the use of the Football Turf (3G) artificial pitches in the National Game. The FA recognises the value and benefit Football Turf facilities to all involved in the game and the positive impact these facilities have had and will have in the future.”
Compare Maidstone’s situation with their neighbours up the A249, Sittingbourne. At the end of last season, Sittingbourne took the decision to move out of their Bourne Park which was in desperate need of modernisation. They agreed a ground-share with Southern Counties East League side Woodstock Sports a few miles away. Alas, the ground-grading gremlins have already had their say, ruling that Woodstock’s Broadoak Road ground was not quite fit for Ryman League football in its current state, forcing them to the seaside for the opening few games to share with Whitstable Town. The irony here is that the ground was able to host FA Cup and Vase competitions, meaning that in theory Broadoak Road wasn’t allowed to host Crawley Down Gatwick but it could welcome Manchester United.
Ground grading is obviously necessary to ensure that clubs moving up the leagues are able to provide a safe, secure and pleasant environment for fans, players and employees alike. But sometimes, you do wonder whether the pages relating to common sense have been torn out of the inspection manual.
But back to today and a mouth-watering top of the table, local derby. Well, sort of local. With the promotion of Whitehawk and the relegation of Hastings United, Lewes sit all alone in East Sussex. The nearest teams are Bognor Regis Town to the west and Maidstone United to the North East, both approximately 38 miles away. Add in a few old Lewes players at Maidstone such as Paul Booth, and the return of feelgood football and this was the game of the day in the Non Leagues, heck, even in English football. Everyone who was anyone would surely be descending on the Gallagher Stadium, via a few local ales in the Flowerpot, on Saturday afternoon.
With the rain falling all morning in biblical proportions in South East England I drive down the M20, passing coach after coach heading in the other direction heading to Charlton Athletic’s game against Doncaster Rovers. How many of those fans could say they had supported their local team in their hour of need? The last laugh certainly wouldn’t be on those football fans they left behind.
Maidstone United 0 Lewes 0 – The Gallagher Stadium – Saturday 24th August 2013
At full time, a huge cheer went up from the 70 or so Lewes fans congregated behind the goal. The torrential rain had left us soaked but our spirit wasn’t dampened. This was an excellent rear-guard performance from a team that is building in confidence in every game they play. Five games in and just one goal conceded (and that had a hint of handball about it). I’m sure many Stones fans will feel that Lewes came for a point, and in some ways they are right. The surface, the heavy rain and the lack of three first team regulars were hardly ideal factors and the mark of a good side is how they adapt to the conditions thrown at them.
The 3G pitch certainly saved this game in the first instance. Two other games in the Ryman Premier fell by the wayside prior to kick off, and another couple in the league below wouldn’t see 90 minutes. In the longest ever Ryman season it is worrying that the fixture backlog has already begun. However, even the best 3G surface in the world can only cope with heavy rain so towards the end of the game the pitch was becoming unplayable in places. The style of play switched from short passing across the surface to the long-ball game as the rain was having unpredictable effects, meaning the best form of attack was defence.
Maidstone had the better chances in a close game with Rikki Banks being the busier keeper, although twice the Stones had to clear the ball from their own goal line and having the final chance of the game in the last minute that would have really gone down a treat in these parts.
You can’t help but admire the set up at the Gallagher. Warm welcome from all ground staff (apart from the very officious Stadium Manager who seemed to berate everyone, including his own staff), plenty of food outlets, three bars around the edge of the pitch, stewards who were helpful, cleaners picking up litter and above all fans who made themselves known. You just get the feeling the club is bound for better things, and that is why the point was greeted with such relief at the final whistle.
Ah yes, the last laugh…as I headed back up the M20 to TBIR Towers I passed those very wet and sad looking Charlton fans on their coaches. Why the long faces? Well, Charlton’s game was abandoned due to an unplayable surface – a surface fit for Premier League football.
Our last visit – July 2012
One of my ancestors, Thomas Fuller, was the first person recorded as saying “It is always darkest before the dawn” in his legendary book A Pisgah-sight of Palestine and the confines thereof”, published in 1650, the 50 Shades of Grey of its time. Fuller was known to speak sense when he wasn’t in a drunken stupor with his brother, the Great Grandfather of John Bird Fuller who would go on to form the Griffin Brewery (and hence why Brentford play at a ground called Griffin Park). Us Fullers have a pedigree you know.
Anyway, the relevance of my trip down History Lane was to put in focus the trials and tribulations of those less fortunate than us. In footballing terms it is the clubs who through no fault of their own find themselves wandering nomads, as Paul Young once probably meant to say “Wherever I lay my net, that’s my home”. Clubs such as Fisher FC, Cray Wanderers and Hendon still dream of a return home to their own ground, whilst for the likes of FC United of Manchester and Grays Athletic are on a path already to realise their dream.
But one club who have fallen more than most is Maidstone United. Twenty two years ago they were in the old Fourth Division end of season play offs, having had a dream debut season in the Football League. They came within a few minutes of a Play Off final spot, and who knows what might have been. However, the club had over-extended themselves in trying to become Kent’s Premier club. They sold their old ground in their home town back in 1988 to MFI and moved in with Southern League Dartford, some twenty-five miles away. Alas, despite league football on offer, the crowds simply didn’t materialise.
They had a plan to move back home once Football League football was established. The club bought some land for nearly £400,000 in the town centre but planning permission was declined, leaving them with land they couldn’t use and a very expensive weekly grass cutting bill.
Off field financial problems started to impact the on field performance. During the 1991/92 season the club sacked manager Graham Carr who today is not only Newcastle United’s chief scout and the man behind finding the likes of Ben Arfa but is also the father of unfunny man Alan Carr – bittersweet times indeed.
Two years later the club were basically dead. They had withdrawn from the Football League in August 1992 and no longer existed a few months later. However, a group of fans simply wouldn’t let them die and so started the long road back into the light. The club reformed as Maidstone Invicta and were accepted into the Kent League and they started their tour of various grounds in Kent, dreaming all the while of a day when they could come “home”. Two years ago I visited them when they were in tenancy at the Homelands Stadium in Ashford and I met with Jamie Barber who had come up with the idea of selling seats in Maidstone’s new virtual stadium as a way of raising funds for their homecoming.
Since then, land was found in the town, deals were done and finally a stadium was built. The club were about to wake up from their darkness and see the dawn breaking over Maidstone East train station. The dream of a stadium back in Maidstone was real and opening on the 17th July.
As soon as the date was arranged, tickets sold like hotcakes. In some ways it was irrespective who the opponents were, although there was some poignancy that it is Championship side Brighton & Hove Albion, a club themselves who know that same darkness before the dawn as my ancestor would have said and now show what a new owner and a stadium can do for a club.
The big news was that the new stadium was be the first in the Non League pyramid at this step or above to have a 3G pitch. We all know of the sense of such a move. Winter’s in the past few season have been harsh for football clubs, and add in the high levels of rain (all year round so it seems), the situation has led to abnormally high levels of cancellations. With the leagues being unwavering in the end dates of seasons, clubs are being penalised financially by having to cram in games to comply with an arbitrary cut off date. So having a pitch that would be playable throughout the seasons is a good move, no? FIFA agree, UEFA agree but the FA still said no, which meant that Maidstone having to play FA Cup and Trophy games up the road in Chatham (although FA Youth Cup games can be played at home).
Obviously the FA had been reading The Real FA Cup’s blog on this issue because a few days before the game they announced a massive u-turn on 3G pitches. Maidstone (and others) would be allowed to host FA Cup games up until the 1st round proper. Hedging their bets that they would be knocked out by that stage, it was a no brainer really, and one that we can and will take direct credit for.
Now we had the small matter of getting tickets for this. Fortunately, Danny Last was on the ball for this one and managed to pick up some tickets that were as rare as John Terry apology. The morning of the game dawned (somewhere behind the storm clouds anyway) and Danny sent me a text that summed up the day perfectly…”Better than Christmas Day”.
To us, a visit to a new ground is almost as exciting as a new pair of trousers. It would also be an opportunity for a few beers in Maidstone – something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager and we used to head off to Amadeus and Strawberry Moons on a Friday night, necking a bottle of cheap vodka before heading inside. Times change and no longer do I need scantily clad teenagers rubbing themselves up against me to the voice of Rick Astley (well, perhaps elements of that). Instead I crave a pint of Donk, or Wellies Bellies. Fortunately, Maidstone is blessed with a couple of good ale pubs, and within a 5 minute walk of the ground was the real ale nirvana of The Flower Pot.
In truth we expected chaos. It was the opening game and Maidstone had made a big gambit by opening the ground with such a big local-ish team as opponents. Two thousands fans crammed into a new ground with the rain pouring down wasn’t going to be an experience for the faint hearts.
Maidstone United 0 Brighton & Hove Albion 5 – The Gallagher Stadium – Saturday 14th July 2012
Sometimes you can simply be very wrong. The club coped brilliantly. The Spitfire lounge was busy pre-match and at half time, but you would expect that with crowds 4 or 5 times bigger than they would normally get. The ridiculous licencing laws do not help though, and rather than helping clubs manage demand, they exasperate the issue.
The ground looked fantastic. There was plenty of room to move around the ground and nobody went short of a decent view of the game. Pre-kick off the presentations were carried out to those few who really made this day happen through financial support, but it was the hardcore of the few hundred Maidstone fans who deserve the credit for never giving up. A few fans were seen sporting the original shirts worn in that first season in the Football League, which still has pride of place in my museum (alas the day when I could comfortably fit into it passed many seasons ago – I blame modern washing powder for shrinking it).
Gus Poyet was given the honour of kicking the game off, accompanied by the flash bulbs of such luminaries as David Bauckham and Andy Nunn who I am sure will have served up a photographic feast of memories for the game.
Like many spectators I was caught up in the event rather than watching the first half. Whilst the rain continued to fall heavily, nobody’s mood was dampened. I took the opportunity to chat to Paul Booth, last season a Lewes player and now at the Stones whilst he was warming up. It appears that during our conversation Brighton actually scored. I cannot tell you anything about the goal, and if it wasn’t for the fact it was verified by an independent witness at half time (Mr Bauckham) I would still believe that it was a big conspiracy theory instigated by Mr Last. But 1-0 it was at the break thanks to Mackail-Smith’s effort that I didn’t see.
Unsurprisingly, Brighton took the opportunity to make a number of changes. Ten in fact. Poyet had already decided to give each of his three keepers 30 minutes each, but it was a surprise that Wayne Bridge was kept on the bench – obviously keeping him fresh for the game against Lewes on Tuesday night.
The second half was only five minutes old when Will Hoskins slid the ball home, and a few minutes later Ashley Barnes shot skims across the surface of the 3G and hits the post and goes in. All of a sudden Brighton had turned up the gas and shown the difference in league position. Barnes then converted a penalty after Agdeisten was tripped and completed a nine minute hatrick with a sublime chip over the Maidstone keeper. Ruthless execution.
For once it wasn’t about the result or the performance for Maidstone today – it was about enjoying the day. 2,226 fans went home happy from the Gallagher Stadium. For those supporting Brighton it was good to see the full squad kick off their pre-season with a comfortable win, and the circumstance of the occasion was probably lost on them. But for the Maidstone fans it was finally seeing their own team play in their own stadium in their own home town. Twenty four years of hurt, dreams and disappointments were now quickly fading.
As the game ended, the fans flowed out of the stadium without any problems you see at other new build stadiums. Within three minutes we were in the White Rabbit pub, literally a stones throw from the ground enjoying a Doom Bar. It is fair to say that the day had been a triumph for the Stones and one they can look back on with real pride. Visiting fans will certainly enjoy coming to Maidstone United thanks to very good transport links, a well designed new ground and some decent pubs on the doorstep.