From bankruptcy to FA Cup glory: Maidstone fairytale powered by octogenarian and his lucky socks

From bankruptcy to FA Cup glory: Maidstone fairytale powered by octogenarian and his lucky socks
Bill Williams, director of football, poses with the FA Cup - Getty Images/Richard Pelham

At Maidstone United’s Gallagher Stadium there is a special guest. Flanked by two security guards, the FA Cup itself is paying a visit, a nod in the direction of United becoming the first team from the sixth tier of English football to reach the fifth round since Blyth Spartans in 1978.

Ahead of their game with Coventry, the players who have battled their way through seven rounds of the competition thus far – beating along the way league sides Barrow, Stevenage and Ipswich Town – are lining up to have their picture taken with their big-eared visitor.

“Don’t touch,” they tell each other, as they pose behind the venerable piece of silverware. “You can’t touch it till you’ve won it.”

After the lads have finished taking their shots, Bill Williams, the club’s chief executive and director of football, decides he too would like a souvenir snap.

“Not going to miss this chance,” he says. And if anyone knows how unexpected it is that the oldest trophy in world football would make a detour down to this part of Kent, it is Williams, a man who has been associated with the club for more than half a century. He has played for them, managed them and supported them. He has been a director, financier, bus driver, probably dishwasher. The fact is, through ups and downs, triumphs and despair, the 81-year-old has devoted most of his life to Maidstone United.

“My wife reckons it’s a love affair,” he says. “As a player I had a good time here, went away for 10 years, came back as manager, won a couple of titles, took the team into the Football League, then watched it sink down and come back up again. Whatever it’s doing, there’s always been a little bit of this place in my nature.”

Jim Thompson & Bill Williams (right)
Jim Thompson & Bill Williams (right) celebrate the promotion-lite Alliance Premier title in 1984

And it is some tale Williams has to tell of his time with the Stones. Not that all of it is good. After all, in the early 90s during his spell as a stand-in manager because no-one else would take the job, the club, obliged to play out of town because its old stadium had been sold, went bust. Evicted from the Football League in 1993, it appeared finished.

“I wasn’t involved in the finances then, but I think the board overspent in an honest way, trying to achieve success,” he says of the bankruptcy. “We didn’t get support because we were out of town. They ran out of money and no-one would take it on because it had no home. Bad times. Bad, bad times. ”

Obliged to restart life as a phoenix operation at the very basement of the football pyramid, after half a dozen promotions, United finally returned to Maidstone and their present home in 2012. Now, under the shrewd stewardship of George Elokobi, a manager Williams was instrumental in employing, they have advanced further than ever before in the cup. And through all the machinations and bumps in the road, their longest serving employee has been there.

“In those bad old days it would never have come into my mind, even as a mad dream, that we’d be in the fifth round of the cup against Coventry City,” Williams says. “Back then we wondered where we’d get the next pound from. I’m not the only one, there’s about 300 of us who experienced those dark times and were part of picking ourselves up again. But the good news is those dark times were in the past. This is the present.”

From bankruptcy to FA Cup glory: Maidstone fairytale powered by octogenarian and his lucky socks
George Elokobi gives a team talk to his Maidstone United players - Getty Images/Richard Pelham

And it is a present of huge potential, he believes. That’s why he stuck with the club all along, believing it could be something, a proper community asset. They are taking 4,500 fans to Coventry on Monday night, which, he reckons, is a sign of the future.

“I think this run has shown this town can sustain a league club,” he says. “Not just the run, over the years the town has come back to the club, the community has supported us, built up more and more support. I admit you have to be careful with these things. I can remember when Ebbsfleet played away at Aston Villa in the cup. Their average crowd was 1,200; 12,000 went to that game. But this is different. Those 4,500 who went to Ipswich and are going to Coventry I think will become supporters. We as a football club are on the international map.”

And the sudden swell of income will help fuel upward momentum. This cup run has already earned £491,375 through prize money and TV cash. Victory over Coventry could potentially double that. For a club used to parsimony, it is an extraordinary change.

“Of course the money is nice,” says Williams. “This run has allowed the owners – who are very good men by the way – to get rid of debt. Now they can use the money for whatever they see fit to project the team forward. But as I’ve always said, the ultimate ambition must be league football.”

Williams: ‘I’ve been wearing yellow socks and I’ll be wearing them again’

Before that, however, there is the small matter of a tie against Mark Robins’s Championship high-fliers.

“One thing doesn’t change over the years,” he says. “You still lie awake ahead of a big game, with all these things going through your head: trepidation, worry, fear, will they turn up on the day?”

Not that such thoughts will stop him being full of confidence when kick-off comes. After all, he will be wearing his lucky socks.

“George and I have a very good relationship,” he says of Elokobi. “But he believes we have got where we are because of faith. I believe in luck. I think we have been lucky. Against Ipswich we were very lucky. And I am a superstitious man so I will keep doing things to encourage that luck. This cup run I’ve been wearing yellow socks. I will be wearing them on Monday.”

Coventry be warned: these are socks that work.