It was, as you will no doubt be aware by now, the twentieth anniversary of the start of the Premier League next month, but what will likely be forgotten in the slew of retrospectives is the fact that just three days after the behemoth which has come to eat English football in that intervening two decades the Football League saw its last – to date – resignation during the season. Furthermore, just a few weeks later, a non-league stalwart club whose fortunes had become irrevocably tied up in that clubs fortunes was also forced to resign from the league in which it was competing. Those two clubs were Maidstone United and Dartford FC, and their decline and fall in the space of such a short period of time were both allied to a man who had otherwise achieved something unique and positive for non-league football as a whole: Jim Thompson.
At the time of the collapse of these two clubs, Thompson was largely considered to be one of The Great & The Good of non-league football. He had served his professional life in advertising before ending up as the managing director of the Kent Messenger Group of newspapers whilst also acting as the chief executive of the Maidstone Chamber of Commerce, but it was in the frequently clandestine world of non-league football that he came to make his name. Maidstone United had joined the Southern League from the Isthmian League in 1971 after several years of struggle – they had finished in the bottom three in the division in four of the previous five seasons – and found in Division One South of their new division a little more to their liking, getting promoted to the Southern League Premier Division in 1973 and then holding their own comfortably in their new division, with regular finishes in the top half of the table.
Thompson, then the chairman of the club, was placed in charge of the committee which founded the Alliance Premier League, which took ten clubs from the Southern Premier League and ten from the Northern Premier League to create, for the first time, a single top division for the non-league game with the aim of increasing in playing standards with a view to gaining automatic promotion and relegation with the Football League. Maidstone won the league, by this time called the Gola League, in 1984, but failed in their application to join the Football League. Success in this respect, however, did finally come in 1987 when the Football League confirmed that they would allow a solitary promotion and relegation place between Division Four the now re-branded GM Vauxhall Conference, and in 1989 Maidstone United followed Scarborough and Lincoln City as the third club to win automatic promotion into the Football League.
By the time that Maidstone United won this promotion, however, the seeds of their eventual destruction had already been sewn. The clubs home, London Road, was a large, bowl-shaped ground in a something of a state of disrepair, and in 1988 Thompson took the decision that, in order for the club to get into the League, it would have to leave it behind. So it was that in April of that year the original incarnation of Maidstone United played its final match in Maidstone and departed twenty miles away to play its home matches at Watling Street, the home of Southern League Premier Division rivals, Dartford. Watling Street, however, was only supposed to be a temporary home for the club. The directors had taken a gamble and spent £400,000 on a piece of land in the Hollingbourne area for a new stadium, but there was one ruinous catch – they didn’t have planning permission for a ground there.
On the 26th August 1989, Maidstone United played their first home Football League match at Watling Street against Scarborough. Jim Thompson wrote in the programme notes that, ‘There are those who saw the traumas that led us to Dartford as the end, but today, standing in the refurbished Watling Street as members of the Football League, I can say to them that their fears have proved groundless.’ It was a prediction that would come true in a more literal sense than anybody at the time could have imagined, but Maidstone Uniteds first season in the Football League was actually reasonably successful – the club finished in fifth place in the table and was beaten in the play-offs by Cambridge United – but off the pitch the club suffered its bitter blow in 1991 when permission to develop the Hollingbourne site with a 10,000 capacity stadium with a multi-sports complex. was denied by the local council.
On top of this, the Watling Street ground at which the club had been playing had also ended up being in dire need to renovation work which was going to prove costly and crowds had plummeted – average gates dropped from 2,427 to 1,429 between 1989 and their last full season in the Football League – which led to a financial uphill battle against which the club couldn’t ultimately compete. On top of this, the installation of seats behind one goal at Watling Street was carried out without planning permission having been granted, leading to more money being spent on an area of the ground that stayed closed and empty – even more money down the drain. Even the sale of players such as Warren Barton (to Wimbledon for £300,000, Mark Gall (to Brighton for £45,000) and Steve Butler (to Watford for £150,000) couldn’t stem the losses and the club struggled in the lower reaches of the division for the next two seasons.
Jim Thompson might have been the chairman of Maidstone United, but he had also joined the board of directors at Dartford, and there were very strong links between Thompson and the property development club that bought the Watling Street site during the summer of 1992. For this was where things ended up for both clubs. The final straw had come for Maidstone United in 1991, with the councils rejection of planning permission. The money from the sale of London Road had run out and the costs of keeping the club in the Football League remained astronomical. The club was put up for sale during the 1991/92 season, but there were no serious takers until it was too late. John Waugh, a Newcastle-based businessman, purchased the club from Thompson shortly after the sale of Watling Street to property developers. Waugh wanted to buy Maidstone United, transplant it to the north-east of England, merge it with non-league club Newcastle Blue Star and call it Newcastle Browns with promising to pay all the club’s creditors in full and bringing outstanding salaries up to date as some sort of sweetener for The Football League.
The League, however, told Waugh in no uncertain terms what they thought of that idea and by this time former Maidstone officials who had resigned on account of the buy-out were already planning to create a new club to play back in the town itself. At the start of the 1992/93 season Maidstone United was due to play Scunthorpe United in their first fixture of the season, but with no home ground and only two registered players, it was postponed. The club was given 48 hours to provide guarantees that it could fulfil its fixtures for the rest of the season and on the following Monday, two days after the start of the season and two days after the first fixtures were played in the FA Premier League, the club admitted defeat and resigned its place in the Football League. Some blamed the League for accepting Maidstone with no ground of its own, and the Leagues spokeman Ian Cotton seemed to admit as much. ‘Since Maidstone, the rules on clubs coming into the League have been tightened up. No club would be allowed to play so far from their natural base.’ In one final irony, Maidstone Uniteds shirt sponsors for their last two seasons was a company called ‘Prosperity.’
Dartford FC lasted four matches into their season in the Southern League before befalling the same fate. “We had reached agreement with Welling, but we found out that their landlords, Bexley council, would not allow them to sub- let the ground”, said Thompson, who was by this time the chairman of the club, at the time. With the cost of the ground improvements to Watling Street pushed onto them by the demise of Maidstone United and no where to play their home matches, they couldn’t continue, although the decision to continue their youth team meant that when the end came for the club the FA allowed it to maintain both its senior status and full membership of the Football Association, and the club started afresh in the Kent League, playing at Erith & Belvedere FC, Thurrock and & Gravesend before moving to its state of the art home at Princes Park in November 2006. Maidstone United, meanwhile, would start against as Maidstone Invicta, changing their name back to Maidstone United four years later. They have played at Ashford, Sittingbourne over the last nineteen years, but this weekend they will return back to Maidstone for the first time since 1988 with their first match at their new home, The Gallagher Stadium, for a friendly match against Brighton & Hove Albion.
Jim Thompson was banned from all football activities in March 1994 for three months after being found guilty of breaching Football Association regulations. The FA disciplinary commission also banned Thompson for a further nine months, suspended for two years, and ordered him to pay £13,000 costs. These charges arose from irregularities in a ground-sharing agreement between Maidstone and Dartford and the distribution of the assets of both clubs after they were wound up. He did, however continue to serve as the President of the Football Conference until 2007. He didn’t return to the running of clubs after his ban, though, and remained largely unrepentant until the end, telling the Kent Messenger in a 2007 interview that, “It’s bad enough to have something crushed after spending 22 years of your life building it, but to have someone turn round and blame you for it, that hurts.” Where, however, should the responsibility for this stop if not with the chairman of the club itself? The Football League accepted a degree of responsibility for allowing Maidstone United in, this much is true, and the council took their fair share of blame, although it can hardly be considered their fault that the club bought a plot of land without planning permission first. It’s not the last time that that mistake has been made.
Thompson died in January 2009 at the age of seventy-five. His achievement in being so prominent in the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation between the fourth and fifth tiers cannot be understated and it possible to look back at his career from the perspective of him being the archetypal one-club non-league man who found himself gambling everything for that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and losing. That he dragged two clubs down with his sinking ship was grounded in enough murk for the FA to see fit to ban him from the game, even if the length of that ban was a comparatively perfunctory one, and his legacy saw Dartford go fourteen years without a home game in their home town and Maidstone United go twenty-four years without the same. Regardless of his bullishness in the final years of his life, there can be little doubting that the effect of his involvement in football in the county of Kent was disastrous for clubs with which he came into contact.
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