The death of Jim Thompson last week was a passing that left most people in the non-league game with mixed feelings. On the one hand, Thompson was the chairman of the Steering Committee which led to the formation of the Alliance Premier League in 1979. Within eight years, the closed shop of the Football League would be gone forever, and non-league football would experience a revitalisation that it still reaps the benefits of now. On the other hand, he was reckless in the stewardship of his own club, Maidstone United. Maidstone left their home without planning permission to build a new one, and the events that followed would lead to the near-bankruptcy of another club and leave Thompson banned from football by the FA.
The end of amateurism in non-league football had been a long time coming, but it didn’t automatically solve the problems of the new semi-professional game. Crowds had started to fall at the end of the 1950s, and by the end of the 1970s there were only a handful of clubs that could boast average crowds of over 1,000. Thompson, then the chairman of Southern League side Maidstone United, was placed in charge of the committee which founded the Alliance Premier League, taking ten clubs from the Southern Premier League and ten from the Northern Premier League. The aim was an increase in playing standards, with a view to gaining automatic promotion and relegation with the Football League.
The APL immediately did away with the tortuous process of any non-league club being able to apply to enter the League. Clubs such as Yeovil Town (who applied every year bar one between 1966 and 1976) and Chelmsford City (who applied every year bar two between 1962 and 1976) may have believed that they deserved a place in the Football League, but what actually happened what that the vote was usually split by having so many applicants. This policy wasn’t immediately successful – every year between 1980 and the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation in 1987, non-league applicants were unsuccessful as the League closed ranks – and there were some dubious looking “ground grading rules” which meant that the champions sometimes weren’t allowed to apply. In 1983, Enfield won the APL at the end of only their second season in it, but were passed over to be able to apply for a place in the Football League in favour of… Jim Thompson’s Maidstone United, ostensibly on account of their ground. Visitors to both clubs’ grounds at the time would have been hard pressed to spot much of a difference in quality.
Thompson was unsuccessful with his 1983 application (and he was unsuccessful again the following year, this time after Maidstone was won the APL) but he would get too see through his ultimate aim of seeing Maidstone United into the Football League, albeit it at a terrible cost to two clubs. It was here that the dark side of Thompson’s legacy reveals itself. The club sold London Road and purchased a piece of land on the other side of Maidstone with a view to obtaining a new stadium. However, the local council rejected their application and the club was forced to move away from the town to Dartford to groundshare. They won the (now renamed) Conference in 1989, but had spent lavishly to get promotion and were forced to continue to spend beyond their means as crowds dwindled to below 2,000 in their adopted home. On top of this, Maidstone had to pay a significant amount of money for ground improvements required to bring Dartford’s Watling Street ground up to date, including another expensive mistake – this time, they installed banks of seats behind one goal without planning permission, meaning that the seats couldn’t be used.
Maidstone finished in the play-off places in their first season in the Football League, but were unable to repeat this success. In desperation, they tried to sell whoever would take them (including one consortium of businessmen that wanted to relocate them to Tyneside and call them “Newcastle Browns”), but no-one was interested in a failing Fourth Division club with no assets, no ground and very few supporters. Their landlords, Dartford, had been occasional Conference members in the mid-1980s, and finished in second place twice and then third in the Southern League between 1988 and 1990. However, Dartford had allowed Maidstone to sell them the cost of the ground improvements (a reported £500,000) and were left high and dry when Maidstone folded at the start of the 1992/93 season.
Dartford FC followed Maidstone a few days later. Thompson might have been the chairman of Maidstone United, but he was also on 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. Dartford resigned their place in the Southern League and took up a place at the start of the 1993/94 season in the Kent League, at the bottom of the non-league pyramid. Thompson was banned from all involvement in football by the FA for three months, but never worked in the game. They finally got back to Dartford after fourteen years of sharing at six different grounds at the outstanding Princes Park in 2006, and currently play in the Ryman League Premier Division. Sixteen years on, Maidstone United are still exiles, playing their home matches at nearby Sittingbourne, although they too have risen to the Ryman League Premier Division.
The two clubs play each other at Princes Park this Saturday, in a match which is likely to draw a crowd of over 2,000 – a symbol of how much interest there still is in these two clubs in spite of how much they have been through over the years. Whether they will have a minute’s silence for him is very much open to question. It should certainly be pointed out that Princes Park is nothing to do with his legacy, and that the continued homelessness of Maidstone United has far more to do with what he left behind in Kent. We will never know whether automatic promotion and relegation would have been introduced between the Football League and the non-league game, but there is little doubt that he was enormously influential in making this a reality. And that’s about as much good as you can say about his involvement in football.