Glenn Moore looks at Kent’s place in the Vanarama National League
Kent, the home of hops, apples, and the Channel Tunnel, has never been regarded as a hotbed of football. The Royal Engineers, the first FA Cup runners-up, came from the Chatham Dockyard; Chris Smalling, Tony Cascarino and Jon Harley grew up in the Garden of England; but in sporting terms the white horse county is best known for cricket. Excluding Charlton Athletic, never officially part of Kent since the club’s formation, Gillingham are the county’s only representatives in the Football League. They always have been, aside from three seasons a quarter-century ago when Maidstone United joined them before going bankrupt.
In non-League football, however, it is a different story. Kent has long had a busy non-League scene, perhaps because of the lack of Football League clubs. In 1979 the original Alliance Premier League, the forerunner of today’s Vanamara National League, included Maidstone United and Gravesend & Northfleet, and within two seasons they were joined by Dartford.
These days the Vanarama National League has a strong Kentish flavour. Dover Athletic, thriving since the return of Chris Kinnear despite a huge turnover of players, are the surprise leaders. A trio of local rivals are in close pursuit. Re-formed Maidstone United are fifth, two places ahead of Bromley (now a London borough, but part of Kent until 1965). Ebbsfleet, as Gravesend & Northfleet are now known, are three points further back. Hoping to join them are Dartford and Welling United, respectively first and third in Vanarama National League South.
What is notable about these clubs is the sense of progress and ambition with most playing at new, or refurbished stadia in front of rising crowds. Dover last year opened a new £1.3m stand at their historic Crabble home. Ebbsfleet’s own £5m stand at Stonebridge Road is nearing conclusion. Bromley, prospering in only their third season at this level, put down a 3G pitch in the summer and a new stand is to be erected next year.
Dartford, meanwhile, have one of the most ecologically-advanced grounds in the country at 12-year-old Princes’ Park, with features including a sedum roof, floodlights powered by solar panels and water recycling. Welling are the smallest of the sextet, but with Mark Goldberg, once Crystal Palace owner, more recently Bromley manager, chairman, do not lack for ambition.
The most extraordinary tale is that of Maidstone. The Stones had to start again in the Kent County League’s fourth division, step 12 of the pyramid, after going bust in 1992. Playing on their former reserve team pitch they climbed into the Kent League (step 5) by 2001, but then had to ground-share in Sittingbourne and Ashford before returning to the county town, at a new ground, in 2012. At this stage they were in the Isthmian League (South) but inspired by having their own home, one which has become a community hub built around the 3G pitch, they won three further promotions in four seasons. Their 4-2 FA Cup win at League Two Cheltenham on Saturday confirmed the Stones are rolling again, as are their rivals in Kent’s fertile non-League garden. The Gills’ proud boast of being ‘Kent’s only Football League club’ is at risk again.
For more on the Vanarama National League visit: http://www.thenationalleague.org.uk/
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