James Whatman Way is the third in the series “Grounds for Optimism”, which will be discussing Hit it to Les' favourite football stadiums over the coming weeks. Guest submissions are welcome, and should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the regular patrons of Hit It To Les, and in particular the “Grounds for Optimism” series, you may have noticed an emerging pattern. The “old grounds good, new grounds bad.” mantra has remained through this misty-eyed, nostalgia filled, magical mystery tour. While maintaining something of a soft sport for Orwellian paraphrasing, this can not always be the case. Today's article is about a brand new ground, part of the rebuilding of one of football's forgotten clubs and how their new home is just the first green shoot of recovery, here in the Garden of England.
Of course, if HITL hadn't conveniently hinted in the title of this article, many of you would have struggled to name the last football club to go under while still in the top four leagues of English Football. Many would even struggle to remember that Maidstone United were even a league team, so long is it ago (twenty years) since they were liquidated, homeless and potless, into the depths of footballing obscurity.
However, the town of Maidstone has been without a football stadium for longer than it has been without a team. They were evicted from their London Road home in 1988 and farmed off to Dartford, which as anyone who has ever been to Dartford will tell you is far from an ideal scenario. More recently they have played in the soulless, deserted greyhound stadium that is Sittingbourne's Bourne Park. Understandably, with its run down exterior, restricted view and awkward location, this was far from popular and attendances have plummeted as the Kent football public slowly forgot about Maidstone to concentrate on Charlton Athletic, whose “Valley Express” buses take people from Maidstone to The Valley with remarkable early success, which has only been eroded through the team's fall through the divisions.
24 years later however, and The Stones are ready to move back into its rightful home, which can only be a positive situation for its residents. Playing in the Ryman leagues has never had enormous success in terms of attracting spectators, but a glorious fanfare homecoming could be an effective way of getting fans interested in their local club. One must look no further than the rise of AFC Wimbledon to see the power of fans in the lower reaches of football's pyramid; attracting regular attendances of 3-4000 long before their re-entry into the Football League last season.
In this instance it is of little importance that, architecturally, the new stadium is something of a non-event. The typical array of concrete breeze blocks, plastic seats and poor quality refreshments has been planned for opening next year. Even the pitch is made of plastic – while an economically viable situation in these formative years, it could prove something of a hindrance if Maidstone progress through the divisions, for 3G surfaces are not permitted in the Conference North/South, Conference or Football League, although this could be changed with discussions ongoing. The stadium will initially be able to hold 3000 spectators but will have plenty of room for improvement, should the club make it back to the football league. A capacity of 7000 has been provisioned for this distant, yet not inconceivable, eventuality.
However, the real importance is that Maidstone United is back in Maidstone and finally has the platform to provide football for a region where it is in notoriously short supply. Mismanagement and poor decision making at boardroom level has deprived an entire generation of Maidstone-born youths of the opportunity to see their home-town club in action. Now, football is coming home. The stadium at James Whatman Way is about righting wrongs, and in an era where so many clubs are moved from their traditional homes, it is a delight to see The Stones return to theirs.