The story of FA Cup ‘miracle’ makers Maidstone – in their own words

<span>Maidstone chief executive and director of football Bill Williams lifts the FA Cup at their stadium this week.</span><span>Photograph: Richard Pelham/The FA/Getty Images</span>
Maidstone chief executive and director of football Bill Williams lifts the FA Cup at their stadium this week.Photograph: Richard Pelham/The FA/Getty Images

George Elokobi’s Maidstone United side are about to make history but he is not a happy man. “We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and, as a manager, I start with myself,” the usually mild-mannered Elokobi says after a costly 2-0 defeat at Aveley on Monday in National League South, English football’s sixth tier. “Did I pick the right team? Did I pick the right personnel? Have I been too loyal? I have to look at that.”

This Monday Maidstone will become the first team from outside the top five divisions since Blyth Spartans in 1978 to play in the FA Cup fifth round. They have never made it this far and a trip to Coventry, who have Championship playoff aspirations, awaits. At Aveley a healthy proportion of the 709 spectators were Maidstone fans but 5,000 of them will be at Coventry. For the club that went bankrupt in 1992 and was forced to start again in the fourth division of the Kent County League, the tie will be another proud moment in a long journey back from oblivion. In the words of some of those who made it possible, here is their remarkable story.

Bill Williams: former player and manager, now chief executive and director of football I’ve been involved with Maidstone since 1972 when I joined at the end of my playing career. I was there at the very first game in the fourth division of the Kent County League in 1992 – we used to play our games on all the local recs in front of one man and his dog. But that was what we had to do after being relegated down 12 leagues. It’s been a hard, hard struggle but the last 12 years have been magnificent. We’ve been back in the town and it’s been a wonderful journey since then. We’ve been getting better every year and this FA Cup run is the icing on the cake.

Everyone is excited. The game itself is a bit daunting – but nobody gave us a chance when we went to Ipswich and the way we played and the amount of energy the players expended was incredible. Now it’s come to the real crunch. We’re so close to being in the quarter-finals, which is only one step from Wembley!

George is not only an exceptional football manager but an exceptional man. I’m just hoping we can give a good account of ourselves. Getting back in the League one day is very much our ambition – we’ve got a very good business model and we are very well supported by a huge community of about 170,000 people. What we need now is a little bit of investment.

Steve Butler: former striker at the original Maidstone and the second incarnation. Also had spell as assistant coach Maidstone has always been very close to my heart. I can walk to the ground in about 15 minutes and I’ve lived in the town since 1986. I’ll always remember the FA Cup runs in 1987 and 1988 when we reached the third round. We played Graham Taylor’s Watford team that had John Barnes and gave a good account of ourselves in a 3-1 defeat in 1987. Then a year later we only lost 1-0 to Sheffield United, who were in the Second Division. But the most important thing for us was trying to get into the League and we eventually made it in 1989.

I moved to Watford about six months before things started to go wrong. I remember coming to watch a game on a day off and it was clear there was something up. I went to the council meeting when they voted not to grant permission for the club to build a new ground – it was a very sad day. I was in my early 40s when I went back to play for the club while they were working their way back up.

In the last round of the FA Cup I thought they were going to lose against Ipswich but my wife told me they were winning 1-0 so I switched on the television and couldn’t believe it when they went 2-1 up. Then the old guts were going as if I was still involved! Coventry aren’t as good as Ipswich but it’s going to be very difficult for them to do it again. The whole experience and attention they are getting is brilliant for the players – they can just go and enjoy it. I’m sure they will do Maidstone proud. I’ll be glued to the telly, that’s for sure.

Ian Tucker: club secretary for 11 years full time after 10 as a volunteer I went to my first Maidstone game when I was four or five in the 1980s and we were in the Conference. I remember going to watch them play Burnley in the old Division Four and it was a very hard time for everyone when the club went out of existence. The club went off my radar for a few years and it was only when I was working for Maidstone hospital radio that I started coming down to cover the matches. That’s how it all started when I was about 17. I volunteered to do the match-day programme and the rest is history.

We lost a generation of supporters but when we came back to the town in 2012 the younger fans really embraced the club. It’s been fairly full on since we beat Barrow [in the FA Cup second round] in December and we are just trying to ride the wave. We could have sold at least another 500 tickets for the Coventry game. We were sold out in a few hours when they went on general sale. I got to the club at 9am and some fans had been queuing since 6am waiting for the ticket office to open. It’s been incredible. We’re taking nine or 10 coaches to Coventry. We don’t expect to achieve another miracle like against Ipswich but you never know.

Tony Gilbert: Maidstone supporter since 1970 I remember in 1979 when we travelled to Charlton in the FA Cup third round and drew 1-1. Mike Flanagan and Derek Hales had a fight on the pitch and were both sent off – they were both playing for Charlton! Then the floodlights failed in the replay and we lost 2-1. The mid-to-late-1980s were the boom years when we had Warren Barton in defence and Steve Butler banging in the goals. We had a very good team. But in 1992, we were supposed to play Scunthorpe away on the first day of the season and the game never happened. We had no players and nowhere to play – it was heartbreaking.

The club became the new Maidstone United in 1995 but I didn’t go and watch for years. Then one of my friends took me to a game in 2005 and I was hooked again. I’ve watched 700 games since then, home and away. I’ve only missed one game all season and that was Slough away because it was my auntie’s 90th birthday.

The noise at Ipswich was immense when we scored. I expect us to lose against Coventry but if we can score and have something to cheer then we would be very happy. The owners have done brilliantly and cut their cloth accordingly rather than spending beyond their means like a lot of teams have at this level.

George Elokobi: manager We’ve performed so well in the FA Cup and attracted so much publicity that we have become a target in the league. Every team raises their game against you and if your mentality isn’t right, results like our defeat [at Aveley] can happen. The secret to our success this season is that we are together.

Coming from a diverse background, it’s important that we have representation in the league and non-league. It’s about making sure that you do your stuff at the training ground and then trying to do well for your club. Stay respectful and humble. I’m very proud if I can inspire the next generation of managers.

Craig Fagan: assistant manager I’ve known George for a very long time. We played together at Colchester when he was only 18 and I was a couple of years older but we’ve always kept in touch. We both had similar careers in terms of we both understand how much hard work it takes to make it at the top. George played here before and was given the manager’s job. He needed someone on the coaching staff and knew I was available. We have disagreements but you have to question each other to get better as a coaching team.

I said in the changing room that the players will have to go and leave it all out there on Monday. They can’t be scared of the occasion – like we showed we weren’t against Ipswich. Basically we have to do the opposite of what we did against Aveley – be calm on the ball and take our chances when they come. We scored two quality goals against Ipswich and we need to show that again against Coventry.