Saturday January 12th 2013, KO 15:00 at the ‘Gallagher Stadium’.
Isthmian (Ryman) League Division One South.
Maidstone United (Amber/Black) 2-2 Crawley Down Gatwick (Red/Red).
Admission 10 pounds, Programme 2 pounds.
This was a homecoming of sorts. I’d lived in the town from 2000-2006, having taken a job there in late 1999, and then having purchased a new build home in the summer of 2000.
It was a strange feeling getting a train from Victoria to see the Stones, rather than leaving to watch my football elsewhere.
I’d pencilled in a visit during the mid winter, because of their artificial pitch it seemed logical to schedule it perhaps when other games would be dropping elsewhere due to rain and ice. I’d also been aware of the outstanding attendances they had been attracting to their matches since their move back in to the town last Summer. After a successful season so far, it already looks highly likely they will be a Isthmian Premier team next season, and no doubts crowds will continue to be very healthy indeed.
All the reports I’d heard so far say that it is a lovely new ground, but not enough seats, and restricted views from the flat standing and shallow terracing behind the goals, this proved to be spot on. As by 14:15 all seats had sold, and I had to make do with a dry spot under cover at the North end behind the goal. From memory the Gallagher would be the fifth venue I’d seen a Stones home game, the third in the town itself, also at Dartford (when in the league) and at Sittingbourne, I hadn’t seem them ground share at Ashford.
What hadn’t changed since I last saw them at Sittingbourne was a reticence to divulge the team lineups. So it was, between 2.30 and 3pm, you got the sponsors name and personal details, various pieces of music, a promise at 14:40 “I’ll give you the teams shortly”, more club news, music, ten to three still nothing, then as had been the case previously at Sittingbourne, as the teams ran out, nothing, ‘come on mate’ I thought, surely now? Then about 45 seconds before they kicked off, we finally got them at one hundred miles an hour, impossible to write down unless you had mastered the art of short hand! Now I appreciate that the vast majority of the crowd are really only interested in their 1-11, but they should remember, actually it’s probably ‘the’ most important piece of info that the average fans wants before the game. Anyway I was mumbling and moaning away about how nothing had changed, and fell into conversation with a slightly older gent beside me, who was also trying to write them down. As a consequence we managed to work out 21 of the names, with some reference to the programme. And as happens regularly on my travels we stuck up a friendship for the ninety minutes.
The game started at a frantic pace, and it was clear immediately these were two very good step four sides. Play went back and forth, and already CD keeper Di Bernardo was earning his corn with a string of fantastic saves. But CD were giving as good as they got, and it was not really a surprise when they opened the scoring in the 21st minute, as a cross from the left was neatly converted by No 9 Cade, 0-1, silence in the stadium, as the majority of the 1700 were stunned. The silence was even more audible (if this is possible), two minutes later, as Stones keeper Ibrahim flapped at a long distance free kick, and Fraser Logan ‘appeared’ to flick the ball over him with his head, and the ball dropped in the back of the net, 0-2. For the remainder of the half Maidstone played poorly, whereas the opposite could be said of CD who were most impressive. The 3G pitch had played brilliantly and was a great advert for any cause to have football sanctioned on this type of surface higher up the pyramid.
The second half became much more of an end to end spectacle, with Stones clearly having received a half time talking to. But, CD had two good opportunities to go three up in front of us, both spurned. One did feel at the time maybe it would come back to bite them on the bum. And so it proved, as second half substitute Ade Olorunda struck twice in the 67th and 72nd minute. The game now became like a cup tie, and was probably the most compelling twenty-five minutes of football I’ve seen for a while as both teams went for the sucker punch. My Chesham United and Leicester City supporting new groundhopping friend and I, who’d up to this point constantly chatted about all things footy like long-lost cousins were now silenced by the entertainment in front of us on the pitch. But, there was no more score, which was fair, CD had offered so much and played extremely well. One day, once the Stones have increased the capacity of the stadium I shall return again, and as Peter Kay once said of garlic bread, that we can also used for artificial grass pitches, ‘It’s the future my friend’ ! It was just left for me to meet up with friends and then down a few ales and wander the streets of a town that had been my home so recently.