There are all sorts of squawkings coming from all over the place at tonight’s Champions League matches – from what I can gather, Manchester United are through, Arsenal (pffft) are out, and Real Madrid are out. Celtic and Milan are, at the time of writing, into extra-time. Ah – Milan have just scored. Anyway, it’s been all about “big” football on here this week so far, so I thought I’d go back to the foot of the ladder again, and take a quick look at what’s going on in Kent at the moment. Yes. Kent. The Garden Of England.
The 1990s weren’t very kind to football in Kent. Maidstone United, promoted into the League in 1989, went bust in 1992. Dartford followed them a year later, and Gillingham, traditionally the only League club in the county, almost went the same way in 1995. I’m delighted to be able to report, however, that things are improving greatly, and that the status of some of the county’s fallen clubs seems set to improve. As one of the biggest counties in the south of England, it has long since been something of an anomaly that it has produced so few senior football clubs. Like Sussex, it only has one established League club (and not a particularly successful one at that). Perhaps it’s the proximity to London, because the same also applies in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. Whatever the causes, the story of how we got to where we are now is a fascinating one.
Gillingham won their place in the Football League in the big expansion of 1920, which saw the League double in size. Their stay was, however, a relatively short one, and they were voted out in favour of Ipswich Town in 1938. However, when four new clubs allowed in when the League expanded again in 1950, Gillingham were back. For the next forty years, they had a pretty uneventful existence, occasionally promoted, occasionally relegated, and never doing much harm to anybody (which the notable exception of Chesterfield, who they beat 10-0 in 1987). In the early 1990s, though, things started to go horribly wrong. As a financial crisis mounted, they had to win on the last day of the 1992/93 season to stay up, relegating Halifax Town instead. By the 1994/95 season, the situation hadn’t improved at all, and they went into administration. It looked as though they’d shut down during the summer of 1995, but they were bought out by Paul Scally, and suddenly their fortunes improved. By 2000, they had been promoted into what is now the Championship. Now, it’s possible to argue that they were punching slightly above their weight in this division, but they managed three mid-table finishes before being relegated again. They currently sit in 16th place in League One.
Gillingham may have had an eventful time of it, but it was nothing compared to the tribulations of Maidstone United and Dartford, whose fortunes collided with disastrous consequences in the early 1990s. Maidstone sold their London Road stadium in 1987 and moved to share with Dartford, twelve miles away. Perhaps surprisingly, they won the Conference in 1989, and this was where their troubles started. Crowds dwindled as the team slumped after a promising first season, and they had been required to pay substantial amounts of money to bring a stadium that wasn’t even theirs up to League standard. In addition to this, they paid a huge amount of money for a plot of land in Maidstone in the expectation of getting planning permission for a new stadium, only to have it rejected. At the start of the 1992/93 season, their first match was cancelled and a few days later they went into liquidation. The club was reformed for the start of the following season, and have been ground-sharing at Sittingbourne for the last few seasons. In 2004, though, they were granted planning permission for a new stadium in Maidstone itself and, although money is tight and work has been delayed, they should be back in their home town for the first time in two decades soon enough.
Dartford resigned from their place in the Southern League four matches into the 1992-93 season, with many people suspecting foul play and the sordid involvement of that number one enemy of the non-league football supporter, the property developer. They bounced around various non-league grounds before pitching up at Gravesend & Northfleet in 2001. Gravesend had arguably been the biggest beneficiaries of the demise of Maidstone and Dartford, sealing their place as Kent’s second club with promotion to the Conference in 2002. Dartford received planning permission for a new stadium in 2004, and moved into Prince’s Park in 2006 – their opening match there against Horsham YMCA in the Ryman League was watched by a capacity crowd of 4,100. Prince’s Park itself is a remarkable structure. Paid for by the local council, the club pay a nominal rent of £1 per year for a ground which incorporates state of the art environmental features. The ground is built into a hole in the ground, so the floodlights cause less light pollution, solar panels allow them to heat their own hot water, and the roof over the terraces and seats is to be fitted with a “living roof” made of sedum – a plant which absorbs light and heat at exceptionally high levels. Crowds there are into four figures, and the top of the Ryman League Division One South table shows Maidstone top and Dartford in fourth place. One place below Dartford are Dover Athletic, another Kent club which had collapsed financially (sadly, I don’t have the time to chronicle their misfortunes here – suffice to say that they are also looking at a brighter future, having completed a Company Voluntary Arrangement in August 2006). The traditional big non-league teams of Kent are finally on the up.
I’m not quite sure exactly why Kent has been hit so much harder than other counties. It’s true to say that, along with the rest of the south-east of England, land values are at a premium (it’s pertinent to point out that Gravesend & Northfleet’s ground is in an area that even the most optimistic of property developers would look twice at) but, looking at the histories of all of these clubs, this isn’t the complete story – there has been more than a smattering of bad luck and good old-fashioned incompetence involved. Still, as with so many of these names that seem to vanish from the radar from time to time, it’s good to see them back.