Despite still suffering the effects of the blasted flu that struck me down at the back-end of 2012, I feel it’s high time that I got back on the trail, especially with a pre-booked National Express ticket to London nestling in my bedroom drawer. The weather forecaster says it’s going to be v. cold with a chance of snow, so I beef up the thermal underwear, pile on socks to the point where I can barely fasten my laces, stock up on Benylin and hankies, and hit the road at 6 in the morning. The missus thinks I’m mad, and there are moments within the next hour or so when I tend to agree with her.
My target today is the Kent town of Maidstone, home of a team that once spent three seasons in the Football League. Sadly games during those years weren’t actually played in the town, and following its collapse and subsequent re-birth via a youth structure, it has taken twenty years for first class football to return to Maidstone. The new Gallagher Stadium sports high class facilities, a 3G pitch (which I hadn’t realised earlier in the day whilst regularly checking for postponement updates online) and best of all, is right on the edge of the town centre. Someone has clearly given this a lot of thought…..
I arrive in London at 9.20 and decide to check out the Willow Walk for a Wetherspoons brekkie. It’s a lot quieter than I remember it used to be, and the veggie breakfast is served in record time. I’ve switched from the Large Veggie Brekkie to the standard veggie one in recent times, on the basis that I’m not too fond of the sausages that have replaced the Linda McCartney variety and you only get one with the standard. If I wanted something that tasted of meat, I’d eat meat! Cardboardy though they were, at least the L.M. bangers had their own character which a spot of mustard always enhanced.
No beer for me so far today as I make the hour-long train journey from Victoria to Maidstone (usual high South Eastern train prices at £19.80 return) and arrive in time to check out a couple of pubs, of which the town has many. First port-of-call is the Rifle Volunteer, a tied house operated by local microbrewers Goachers. This company has been brewing for 30 years, and in my distant past I’m sure I came to this pub in the 1980s with some chums just to drink their brews. But a conversation with the landlord – a Dickensian character with long white hair who smacks of being an Octogenarian – kills that one, as he confirms that Goachers only took the pub on in the 1990s. How memories play tricks on you. The pub is as quiet as a grave, which suits me fine as I savour an excellent pint of Goachers Mild in a hostelry where two of the three draught beers are dark – how enlightened!
My next watering hole is just the opposite. Just a stone’s throw from the Gallagher Stadium, the Flowerpot is a lively free house with a choice of nine beers – some local, some from distant shores – and I plump for the Goachers House Ale, a 3.9% amber bitter. Whereas my last pint was a tranquil one, this one I have to share with a crying baby and a howling dog. In my pub landlord days, either would have been a red card offence on my manor. Even then, it must be obvious to the owners of both child and mutt that they are not happy in this environment. But still they persevere with their drinking session, oblivious to the nuisance being created for other pub users. I don’t stay for a second pint.
The Gallager Stadium is set in a hollow, with the impressive main stand built into the side of a bank, and there is a covered terrace behind each goal, larger at one end than the other. One criticism is that a single stepped terrace around the rest of the ground would help with the view from the side, where it’s difficult to get a pitchside spot. I spent much of the game stood against the back wall, craning over heads to catch a glimpse of the action. Prior to kick-off I check out the spacious bar where the live game is being shown, and two handpumps dispense Spitfire and Masterbrew from Kent brewers, Shepherd Neame. Catering is courtesy of a burger van set up behind the goal, where I spot chips and egg rolls on the menu. Not for me today.
United are at the top of their division, although I’m not sure what their promotion possibilities are, given the 3G artificial pitch. Visitors Crawley Down Gatwick are just a couple of places below them in the table, and although conceding a lot of possession in the first half, play the more meaningful football and surge into a two-goal lead. A stiff half-time talking to and the addition of substitute Ade Olorunda turns things around, and United power back to level. It’s nip and tuck near the end and you fancy a winning goal, but it doesn’t come and the draw is honourable.
Whether United ever get back up to the heights of the Football League I wouldn’t care to guess, but there’s a professionalism about the set-up at the Gallagher Stadium that suggests there is ambition here. Back that up with a crowd of 1,733 for a Step 4 fixture – Chipstead in the same division attracted 77 – and the potential is obvious. Well worth clambering out of your sick bed for, in fact…..
Programme: £2 just inside the turnstiles. Very well designed and presented, although a little heavy on adverts.
Floodlight pylons: 4
Parakeets: Disappointingly none in this part of Kent
Club Shop: A room set aside within the clubhouse bar.
Toilets: In the clubhouse and behind the goal.
Music the players run out to: Nothing as such, but the DJ plays an interesting collection of timeless Indie classics prior to kick-off
Kop choir: Two – one behind each goal.
Away fans: A smattering around the ground and in the stand.
What’s in a name? What’s the chance of Crawley’s defence being caught asleep with Byron Napper on the job?