MAIDSTONE United, troubled by substantial debts and 20 miles from their natural home, yesterday resigned from the Football League, saying they were unable to fulfil their Third Division fixtures. They had no ground to play on.
Coming two days after the launch of the Premier League's rich new ball game, Maidstone's demise highlights the schism between the elite and the needy. 'Last week we had the Premier League turning down millions in sponsorship money, the sort of money that would keep the whole lower division in business,' Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, said.
Maidstone, a well-run non-League side founded in 1897, lasted only three seasons in the League, an elevated status that they were unable to cope with. 'I feel particularly sad for the hard-core supporters who came into the League on a dream ticket and saw it turn to disaster,' Taylor added.
'The climate at the lower end is such that the League must be wary of who they let in. They must have good financial backing. Not just to pay the players but because of ground improvements. It is very expensive being in the Football League,' Taylor said.
Many were surprised that the League had allowed Maidstone in. Adrift from their original home, which was not considered large enough, the future of the roving Stones was always in doubt. The League admits this. 'Since Maidstone, the rules on clubs coming into the League have been tightened up,' Ian Cotton, the League's spokesman, said. 'No club would be allowed to play so far from their natural base.'
Maidstone will be missed, but not replaced. Cotton said that the lowest division will continue with 22 clubs, down from 24 after the collapse of Aldershot in March and now Maidstone. Wycombe Wanderers, runners-up to Colchester United in the Conference, will not be allowed to step up. 'It would have been impossible as other Leagues have got their seasons sorted out,' Cotton said.
Reading, who were due to meet the Kent club in the Coca-Cola Cup tomorrow night, will receive a bye to the second round.
Maidstone's problems started when they were admitted to the League in 1989. They had moved from their London Road ground in Maidstone to Watling Street in Dartford and saw attendances fall. Their average gates dropped from 2,427 to 1,429 last season. 'The 40 miles of travelling got to them,' Cotton added.
On the field Maidstone prospered briefly reaching the play- offs, before losing to Cambridge United. The two clubs have been going in markedly different dierctions since.
John Waugh, the new chairman from Tyneside who bought the club from Jim Thompson three weeks ago, had tried to arrange a ground- sharing scheme with a North-eastern club after the Watling Street ground they shared with non- League Dartford was sold last month. The League refused to countenance a move north, telling Waugh that Maidstone must remain in Kent.
Despite the selling of players like Warren Barton (to Wimbledon for pounds 300,000, Mark Gall (Brighton, pounds 45,000) and Steve Butler (Watford, pounds 150,000), the debts have continued to mount, reaching a reported pounds 650,000. Club officials tried to find another base in Kent, but without success. With only two registered players, they were unable to play last Saturday's League game at Scunthorpe United. 'Time has run out,' a statement from the club said yesterday.
Waugh added: 'I've spent all weekend exhausting attempts to save the club. It became clear by early this morning that we couldn't do it. Everyone at the club is shattered.'
The registations of the two players - the former Crystal Palace defender, Gary Stebbing, and the forward Glen Donegel - revert to the League. The PFA has been helping the players. 'We are probably pounds 50,000 out of pocket in payment of wages,' Taylor added.
The final irony is Maidstone's inclusion in the current Rothmans Football Yearbook. On the sponsored shirts of the players, who are all now looking for new jobs, is one word. 'Prosperity'.
Club formed: 1897.
Promoted to Football League: 1989.
Previous leagues: East Kent, Thames & Medway Combination, Kent, Corinthian, Athenian, Isthmian, Southern, Alliance Premier, GM Vauxhall Conference.
Record win: 6-1 v Scunthorpe, Fourth Division, 15 September 1990.
Record defeat: 2-6 v Fulham, Autoglass Trophy, 23 October 1991.
Best performances: League: Fifth in Fourth Division 1989-90. FA Cup: Third round. League Cup: First round.
Other clubs to lose League status. 1951 New Brighton (not re-elected). 1960 Gateshead (not re-elected). 1962 Accrington Stanley (resigned). 1970 Bradford Park Avenue (not re-elected). 1972 Barrow (not re-elected). 1977 Workington (not re-elected). 1978 Southport (not re-elected). 1992 Aldershot (resigned).
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