Relegation but The Stones will be hoping to bounce back – by Glenn Moore
Even fairytales can have unwanted plot twists as Maidstone United have discovered. Saturday’s 2-0 home to defeat to Salford put an abrupt halt to a quarter-century of progress for the Stones, condemning them to relegation from the Vanarama National League after three years in the non-League elite.
Not many clubs survive having three managerial regimes in the course of one season and Maidstone rarely looked like being the exception being consigned to the drop with five games to play. They won eight of those opening 41 matches, and only two in 20 at the Gallagher Stadium – so much for the presumed home advantage of a 3G pitch.
Jay Saunders, the former player who had overseen three promotions, began the season in charge, but a moderate start following on from a poor end to the previous campaign meant he departed in August with the club 19th. Harry Wheeler, available after leaving Billericay, took over but lasted less than four months, by which time the Stones were 23rd. He subsequently went back to the Blues. In came veteran John Still, who guided the original Maidstone United into the Football League in 1989, and Hakan Hayrettin, but the duo were unable to reverse the slide.
One man who was able to put relegation into perspective was general manager Bill Williams. The 76-year-old played for and managed the original Stones and was at the club in 1992, the year it went bust. “I can remember vividly the heartache of us losing our team in this town,” he said. “It was a shocking day. I can’t emphasise how disappointing it is [but] we’re in a good place. We’re not going out of business or anything – we’ve been relegated.”
Co-owner Oliver Ash concurred. “Relegation is not something we would have wanted but the bigger picture is that the club is in a sound financial position and will be able to bounce back and learn from this season. We have made mistakes this year. There have been too many upheavals.”
Ash said Stones, as a community club with a self-sustaining financial model based around a 3G pitch, had found a big jump from Vanarama National League South to Vanarama National League with its much better-resourced clubs. While eager to return there was no presumption, he added, that the top flight was our ‘rightful place”. The current business model suggested they were between the divisions and he and partner Terry Casey, who bought the club nine years ago, when it had large debts and no ground, would have to look at the model.
For now the club can regroup amid the significantly lower costs of Vanarama National League South. Since reforming barely above parks level the club has climbed eight leagues, moved back to Kent’s county town having played in exile for 11 years, and built a neat stadium which holds 4,200 and even this benighted season averages 2,200.
This is actually the phoenix club’s second relegation. The first was from the Isthmian League Premier in 2011. The Stones rolled back from that, winning three subsequent promotions. They hope this one is also a temporary blip.
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