Maidstone United

Tuesday 10th December 2019, 1945 Kick Off

Maidstone United FC vs Chippenham Town FC

The Build Up

Annoyingly, considering it’s actually my favourite league to watch, I haven’t managed to get to a Vanarama National League South fixture since April – and with Christmas rapidly approaching, I couldn’t let that continue in the New Year.  So, thankfully, with a Tuesday evening going spare, there was a mini-round of Step Two fixtures, including this one in Kent’s county town.

With Maidstone’s league form steady, they are well positioned in 8th going into the Christmas rush, only two points outside the Play Off positions.  A 4-1 victory over Oxford City meaning they’ve lost only two of their last ten, and are breathing down Hemel Hempstead Town’s necks.  After a disastrous relegation season last time out – second worst defence, worst attack, and dead last – the Stones have taken some time to rebuild the confidence under John Still and Hakan Hayrettin.

Formed in 1992, when the old Maidstone United folded, the club were initially named Maidstone Invicta, and despite their predecessor’s Football League status, were forced to start out in the Kent County League’s bottom division – Step Ten of the nonleague system.  Eventually gaining their senior status in 2001, Maidstone moved to the Isthmian system, where they eventually won promotion to the National Leagues in 2015.  The Kent side then spent one season at Step Two, before a Play Off victory took them up to the top flight of National League football – a place they remained until this summer.

Their visitors today are a spritely 119 years older than the hosts, with the Bluebirds having been formed in 1873.  After a history spent in various county, Western, and Southern Leagues, the Wiltshire side eventually reached the National League South in in 2017/18, after securing a record 103 points to take the 2017 Southern League title.  A subsequent 13th place finish represented Chippenham’s highest ever league position, and was repeated in the last campaign.  Currently sitting 19th in the division, Chippenham are struggling for goals – with no player having bagged more than two in the league so far.  In a move to try and generate some additional creativity, Mark Collier brought in Tom Owen-Evans on loan from Hereford on the morning of the match.

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The Ground

Unfortunately, this match did necessitate a gruelling (and I mean that in the truest, 1960s Vietnam sense of the word) rush hour drive around the M25 from Surrey.  After battling against London’s traffic effluent for the best part of two hours, I eventually pulled into the paid Maidstone East car park, which is the nearest source of parking to the Gallagher Stadium on a weekday  – a 4,200 capacity venue, built in 2012.

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The opening of the Gallagher Stadium finally gave Maidstone a true home, after having previously played at five separate grounds, in Sittingbourne, Ashford and Maidstone.  With an average attendance of 1,885, the Stones have the second highest average in the division – behind only Dulwich Hamlet.  At £15 for an adult ticket, prices are comparable with other sides in the division.

At £7 all in, my chicken and bacon pie, chips with gravy, and Diet Coke were a welcome relief, but as I huddled under the terracing trying to avoid getting my programme (£3) soaked with rain, no sooner had I opened the Styrofoam container, than the wind had ensured I was eating it almost refrigerated.  Still – a good pie, and the chips are top half in the stadium rankings.

Faced with a mammoth evening journey from north Wiltshire, Chippenham were followed by six hardy souls, and another two Kent-based supporters with a fortunately shorter trip in the rain.  Maidstone, on the other hand, boasted a healthy 1,330 home supporters, on an astonishingly foul night.  A note, too, for the Stones’ faithful’s tribute to young Alfie Weedon – a loyal fan who sadly passed away last week at 16 years of age – with the whole stadium giving a minute’s applause in the 16th minute, and another memorial at half time.

The Match

It took five minutes to get the first attempt at goal, and it fell to Chippenham, with the hosts also having the best of the opening exchanges.  On this occasion it was a header from Will Richards from a deep free kick which was easily collected by Jake Cole between the sticks for Maidstone.  To be honest, I’m astonished Chippenham’s players could see each other – grey really doesn’t work as a kit colour in the dark.

Maidstone then managed their first almost chance on twelve minutes, when Justin Amaluzor, a summer signing from Braintree Town, picked the ball up in midfield and drove around the outside of Chippenham’s defence, before driving a cross goalwards, which Matt McClure wasn’t quite able to reach.  Four minutes later, the Bluebird’s threatened again, when Dave Pratt got the ball with his back to goal just inside the area, and turned well, but his shot was deflected wide.

As the half progressed, Chippenham were narrowly edging possession, but neither side was really able to play anything approaching good football in the biblical weather conditions.  At one point, Jake Cole ran out of his goal and smashed a clearance upfield, only to watch it stop in the air, and start heading back towards him.  Something right back Gavin Hoyte managed to avoid, by simply slicing the ball out of play, having (I can only assume) got some Toblerones as early Christmas presents and decided to wear them on his feet.

With twenty minutes on the clock, the visitors put together the first decent bit of team play of the match, when left back Rhys Tyler sent Tom Owen-Evans clear of the offside trap.  The Bristol-born midfielder raced in towards Cole’s goal, but despite having both Pratt and (Argyle legend!) Chris Zebroski in the middle, elected to shoot at the near post, which Cole deflected wide.

Moving towards the quarter point of the match, possession had reached even-stevens (disclaimer: this may not be mathematically accurate), but both sides were remaining very disciplined without the ball.  It was clear Chippenham had set up narrow to stifle Maidstone after their four-goal display at Oxford, and it certainly worked – but also allowed Maidstone to do the same.

Dave Pratt had a good chance to open the scoring with 28 minutes played, when a player on Maidstone’s left side (I literally couldn’t see him through the rain, it could even have been the linesman for all I know) played an awful crossfield pass straight to the feet of the former Wealdstone man, who set course goalwards.  At the edge of the area, he worked the ball to his right foot to shoot, but his effort was well kept out by the immaculately bearded Cole.

Amaluzor had another chance which curled just wide of the post shortly after the half hour mark, part of a lively performance by him.  I had watched Amaluzor for both Braintree Town and Bognor Regis Town before this, and he always has the ability to scare defenders with his direct running.  Also looking lively for the hosts was Dan Wishart, a former favourite at my local club Sutton United, who shot wide himself on 36 minutes.

The rain – if possible – intensified again shortly before half time, and I was praying for the whistle so I could go and dry my soul out for 15 minutes.  Gavin Hoyte did well to keep a pass that George Elokobi drilled with enough force to legally make it an anti-tank weapon in play, before whipping in a dangerous cross that no one could quite connect with, and that was the final watchable action of the half.  At half time it was fair to say the match was struggling to find its identity.  Specifically, was it actually a football match, or merely the latest episode of Bear Grylls’ Man vs Wild.  The play was patchy an broken, and more typified by defensive solidity and resilience than anything bordering the state of free flowing football – not that the players can be blamed for that.  My highlight of the half though, was definitely watching Chris Zebroski going up for headers against George Elokobi, in a scene vaguely reminiscent of smashing a battering against an old, solid wooden door.

When the second half started, Will Puddy took centre stage in the key moment of the match so far (and indeed, at all), when he made a smart reaction stop from Amaluzor.  Maidstone’s most dangerous attacker was the recipient of a good delivery from Wishart, and turned in the box under no pressure at all, leaving him staring at the whites of Puddy’s eyes from a mere five yards.  Clearly distracted by those dazzling windows to Mr Puddy’s soul, Amaluzor’s shot was too close to the ‘keeper, and he pushed it away, before watching McClure hit the rebound wide.

Puddy was pressed into action again three minutes later, this time by McClure.  He took possession outside the area, and worked the ball onto his left foot, driving a low shot across the goal – but Puddy was again equal, with the summer arrival touching the ball onto the post at full stretch.  Justin Amaluzor then nicely completed the symmetry with the earlier chance, by putting the rebound wide.

By 64 minutes I’d almost completely given up on the camera, as my fingers had frozen pretty much solid, and I’d say the same had also happened to Jake Cole – as he fumbled a Chippenham cross which led to a minor goalmouth scramble before being hacked clear by Elokobi.  Two minutes later, Maidstone had another decent opportunity, when a neat move down the right culminated in Matt McClure teeing up Zihni Temelci who shot wide.  The Turkish-Cypriot youngster is on non-contract terms at Maidstone, trying to win a full deal, and acquitted himself well in conditions about as far from northern Cyprus as one can imagine.

With twenty minutes left, Owen-Evans had Chippenham’s best chance of the match, when (Argyle legend!) Chris Zebroski got up well to head down yet another deep free kick, finding Owen-Evans in acres of space.  The midfielder controlled the ball well initially, but at the crucial moment took Terror Squad’s advice a little too literally, leant back, and fired well over the bar.

Substitute Iffy Allen gave himself a chance to double his league tally for the season on the 88th minute when he worked free on the left, before firing his shot straight into Puddy’s midriff.  Then, in stoppage time, McClure had a final chance of the match, turning to shoot under pressure in the box, but sending his effort over.

The Wash Up

Although I know Chippenham feel they could have won the match, I also think that Puddy was forced into the two most demanding saves (from Amaluzor and McClure), whilst Cole had to make a smart first half stop from Owen-Evans.  With that in mind, I personally think a draw was the fair result, and that given the weather, both sides can feel pleased with the outcome.  For Maidstone, it extends their unbeaten form, whilst for Chippenham, it secures an important point ahead of the weekend off.  It also moves Chippenham above Dulwich Hamlet – getting them another place closer to that apparently pre-destined 13th spot.

In terms of individual performances, it really is difficult to draw them out of this match, as – without getting all 21st century everyone’s a winner – all the players did admirably in the conditions.  I thought that the central midfielders for both sides – Marshall and Temelci for Maidstone and Youssef and Haines for Chippenham – put in solid, disciplined performances, whilst Amaluzor and Owen-Evans probably looked the most dangerous for their respective teams.

In truth, I think the key man today was Mark Collier – he was away to a strong, in-form Maidstone side, with only seven loyal fans in support, and set his team up to grind something out.  In swirling, freezing rain so bad it took me back to shivering in shell scrapes on Dartmoor, he instilled a level of grit and resilience in his players which saw them limit Maidstone to few good chances, and ensured the Bluebird’s took a point back down the M4 to Wiltshire.

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